I must admit it is very hard to be impartial about this one. First of all David mentioned me (and even published a photo of me and my son) in his book The Fairport Tour. Secondly, he once bought me a beer at his favourite pub, The Queen´s Head in Maldon, UK. Thirdly, the first time I heard this CD was a lovely July evening in a small car outside my favourite London pub. (Thank you Sue.)
But I must also admit that I was not very impressed the first time I saw him live, at the Cropredy Festival in 1996. I remember telling the people on the Fairport list that I wondered what the fuss was about, something David remembers in his book.
This is David Hughes’s fourth CD, not counting the live bonus one you get when you buy his book and an instrumental Christmas CD-EP last year with Fairport’s Chris Leslie. It is also his most successful and most accessible so far, and that is taking into account the fact that his second release Active in the Parish was one of the top albums in 1996 according to Q Magazine.
For those of you who have not already come across David Hughes, he is an ace acoustic guitar player (mostly playing fingerpicking style with the guitar tuned DADGAD), a remarkable lyricist with a great sense of humour. He’s also very, very English. He is something of a cult figure among Fairport Convention fans and has toured with both Fairport and Pentangle. It is therefore not surprising that he is joined on This Other Eden by Dave Mattacks (formerly of Fairport), Gerry Conway (Pentangle and Fairport), Jacqui McShee and Spencer Cozens (Pentangle), Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol and Chris Leslie (Fairport), Danny Thompson (formerly from Pentangle) and Anna Ryder (who toured with Fairport in the spring of 1999), among others. Eddi Reader (formerly from Fairground Attraction and a solo singer in his own right) is there as well.
But these guests are never there at the same time. Although the tracks often only carry three to five performers, Hughes and his friends show that you can build walls of sounds with just an acoustic guitar, some percussion and some discrete keyboards. This instrumentation carries the first song, “Jelly Babe,” about distant admiration of a beautiful woman. The man in the song just sees her across the crowded pub. Although they never meet or speak, he is seduced by her. He is a jelly babe leaving the pub at closing time.
In “Watching Brazil,” the sound is more laid back, with double bass and some background vocals added. It is all about football. Hughes sings that someone listening to football results “is a person who’s at peace with all the world.” In the last verse, watching the eight-year-olds in Maldon Park is just like “Watching Brazil.”
“It’s Hard To Imagine” has a simple melody line, some bowed bass, Anna Ryder on horns and Eddie Reader on background vocals. It is a retrospective love song with lots of sentiments. Ryder returns with trumpet and accordion on “This Is My Life,” the jazziest track on the album.
“Shouting At The Radio” is one of my favourites. Just two instruments – Hughes on guitar and Dave Mattacks on drums – create a very full sound with lots of rhythms. Reader and McShee adds some wonderful wordless vocals on and in between verses. The song deals with driving on M25, the motorway around London, with the car radio on and the DJ playing the wrong kind of music. Hughes dreams back to the days “when there was room to maneuvre” and you did not have a radio. All you did was drive.
“Heart of Stone” is about a murder in Hughes’ home town, Maldon, a murder that put the small town on the TV news. It is another laid back song. Next is “Nobody Smokes In America,” a satirical attack on the people on the other side of the Atlantic. Hughes even puts in a line referring to the popular talk shows like Oprah Winfrey and Ricki Lake when he sings “They never cry unless they are on TV.”
My favourite lyrics on this album come from “Blue Car.” It is a true story about the time when David’s car did not pass its Ministry of Transport inspection, and he had to sell copies of his diary from the tour with Pentangle many years ago to get money to get it repaired. All the proceeds from the book went to his “Blue Car fund.”
He blames himself: “I didn’t treat you right, left you standing out all night.” But he will make it up to the car: “I’ll get insurance I’ll make a start I’ll be back with the spare parts”.
“On The Bus” is clearly about his tour with Fairport in 1998. There is a lot of name dropping going on, and if you are not familiar with the Fairport crew, some of the lyrics will make no sense at all. But the chorus is a treat. Dave Pegg, Simon Nicol, Chris Leslie and Anna Ryder provide some lovely harmonies on it.
The last song is “This Other Eden.” Again McShee and Reader are there with harmonies in between verses. What a duo they could turn out to be! The lyrics, about the British Isles, are spoken almost in rap fashion.
As an introduction, between some songs, and at the end, there are small instrumental pieces. Some of them started life as parts of the backing track to a song, others are more independent. They add to the feeling of the record and reveal the inventiveness of Spencer Cozens and David himself.
All way through, the playing and singing is impeccable. I have mentioned McShee’s and Reader’s vocals more than once. Another star is Gerry Conway on drums and percussion. Conway is more of a percussionist than a drummer, and I mean that as a compliment. He creates new sounds behind his drum kit and gives the songs a steady rythm with lots of decorations.
The production, Mark Tucker and David, is superb as well. You get the feeling that this is an album, not a collection of songs. The sound and the underlying feeling holds it all together. This is surely David Hughes’s best work to date. It may even be the one to bring him to the attention of a wider audience, to take him from being a cult figure for Fairport Convention fans to an internationally respected writer, singer and guitar player. (Oh, and could I have another beer now, David?)
(The Folk Corporation, 1999)