Saturday, 12 July 2008


Album Review of:-
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Robyn Hitchcock dreams of train. Roy Cropper in ‘Coronation Street’ collects vinyl albums of steam-train sounds. Billy Pryce comes over all wistfully melancholy about a signal box and a post-Beeching rail-track. But in truth, Pryce’s concerns are more with the sweet poignancy of passing time, which has always been muse for romantic poets and folkie troubadours. To Billy, the ‘waiting rooms with fading paint’, the disused tunnels and ‘oil-soaked timbers still marking the trail’ of extinct railways is social archaeology that crystallises a lost way of life. An England – or, in Billy’s case, a Scotland that no longer exists, but has left its traces all around us, in ‘the sound of a ghost, a chill drifting down through the years, its echo still whispering here’. He sees that, after ‘all the old inspectors died / some say they lost their lives / in a cost-cutting exercise’, we’re adrift in a more transient world of “Spontaneous Acts Of Sorrow” where flowers mark roadside graves ‘lit by the light of souls’, in temporary ‘rites of sorrow’ that fade, and are gone. Not that the album’s a Luddite tunnel-visioned thing, far from it, within the album’s continuity his songs stray as far back as Australopithecus, our primeval cousins who nature conspired to defeat, to the deceptively cosy domestic vignette of “Cat’s Contentment”, via the medieval minstrelsy story-telling of “Mother Tongue”, and even a thoughtful reading of Dylan’s “I Want You”. ‘Songs From A Box’ was recorded at Inverkip’s Primrose Hill studios, or simply with ‘beer and good companionship’ at home in his front room, and while the production-level of some more high-profile chart records seem to be inversely proportional to the strength of the material, the sound-quality here is never less than equal to the inventive writing. Far from a bare-bones affair, he contrives shimmering atmospherics, cutting electric guitar lines, and uses girl-voice choruses in the way that Leonard Cohen uses them, particularly on “Flies”. Here, the memories are more personal, a ‘look back in laughter’ to when ‘flies sang love-songs with their wings’. Not sure about that image, but then again, as he points out, ‘I won’t have to explain the chemical reactions in my brain’ – and carries the line on a shivering ripple of reverb. True, there’s harmonica on “I Ride The Blues Train” – but it’s more a metaphor than an actual train this time. According to his Bebo page Billy plays clubs with poets and friends, while working as a signalman – maybe that’s a PR scam or maybe it’s true, whatever, it adds another level of meaning to his album title. And – Roy Cropper-wise, “The Old Railway” comes complete with neat flourishes of authentic train noises.

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