"With The Headlights connection, it will probably be labelled Folk Pop, but Swallowing The Sun is more Pastoral Pop. It is a beautifully arranged album, gentle, magnificently moody, whilst still being melodic. Plenty of hooks, but far more it is about a vibe." - Don Valentine, I Don't Hear a Single
Really kind words from Mr Valentine, for sure. Don't know if he hears a single or not, but I'll take it anyway...
When I was a kid, religious people were towering figures, rather than cowering ones. Being a good Christian was hard; it was a lofty goal that took a lot of work, commitment and, well…goodness. For starters, you were expected to look after your fellow man without lusting after his wife, tend to the poor and infirm, forgive those who would do you harm, and be able to drop all manner of biblical verses into casual conversation. When asked for your favorite bible quote, answering, “5 Corinthians walked into a bar...” probably means you're not up to the task.
Now, despite my smart-arse attitude and assorted moral failings, I always respected those who called themselves Christians and did their best to live up to the ideals of their faith. I still do, despite the preponderance of loudly hypocritical bible thumpers in the political realm who wield their holy book as weapons of a culture war of their own creation.
Those who attend church and quietly follow the teachings of Jesus Christ with kindness and love in their hearts are inspiring; fetid prosperity-gospel charlatans fleecing the vulnerable, and dog-whistling politicos spouting out random bible verses to justify their hideous deeds and rampant cowardice is just nauseating. It’s so far away from what I was taught about the Christian faith, that I can’t help but think that if Jesus were to return (and assuming he could get through immigration), he would kick their sorry arses.
Wild God (lyrics)
Heading south with butter melting in your mouth
It’s drawn and quartered messenger for tea
Egos grazed and voices raised and there’s no doubt
You exhale and I’ll forget to breathe
Deva fly on broken wing
Church of rage and idiot king
Eat your words and spew your junk
Fill your boots till you’re all sunk
Drunk on wild god
Silk pajama dramas by the kitchen sink
You kill all conversation with your thumbs
There’s no shame, there's no taboo, just doublethink
Another silly one from Swallowing The Sun; one totally deserving of a little silly visual accompaniment.
Emptying your head in order to become fully immersed in the moment sounds simple enough, but it's a royal struggle isn't it? I think it might be a little easier to do in a song than in everyday life. That is, until your dog barges into your studio during a vocal take. As you can hear, I left in Finley's contribution at the close of the song. It seemed like the zen thing to do. Or something.
It's tough to know where to begin when talking about my old Headlights bandmate, Steve Connelly. Over the years, his influence on me has been quite immense.
In the summer of '82, I left the UK armed with a couple of guitars, an armful of XTC, Jam, and Echo & The Bunnymen records, a clean change of underwear, and the vague notion of finding a band who might be in search of a foreign singer with no concrete plans, limited funds and no work permit. Looking back, it was all a bit ridiculous; a venture doomed to failure that would see me scurrying sheepishly back home when the money ran out. But, when you arrive in a strange land and you're in your early twenties, you pay no mind to such trivialities and get straight to the job at hand: you go to the pub.
In this case, it was Clancy's, a local Irish-themed hangout that somehow managed to avoid selling draught Guinness anywhere on their premises, but did serve up live music 6 nights a week. Someone had suggested going there to see a band called The Headlights; one of the area's best they'd told me. So, I went along to have a look. Truth be told, they reeled me in rather quickly.
They were a tight and polished band, to be sure, with a big-voiced female singer fronting the band, a swaggering bassist with quite the gift of on-stage gab, an overly talented singing drummer, and a skinny Les Paul-clad lad who played guitar like he couldn't put a foot wrong if he tried.
During one of their breaks, I approached said guitar player, introduced myself and casually asked if I could give him my number in case he heard of anyone who might be in need of a singer. As it turned out, it was a bit of a life-changing moment, because he chuckled at my suggestion, told me that their singer would soon be leaving the band, and that he'd call me to set up an audition.
I don't remember too much about the audition really, but it must have gone well, because I was playing shows with The Headlights within a few weeks, and would continue to do so for the next dozen or so years. As twee and trite as it may sound, the fact is that over time, the Headlights just became my family. Over the years, we'd come to see each other through assorted bereavements, marriages, divorces, births and even an ill-advised attempt to cover Prince's Purple Rain (don't ask).
Now, it's quite obvious to anyone who has watched Steve Connelly play, that they're watching a special talent. Calling him a great guitar player is akin to saying that Dylan has a way with words, or that Paul McCartney can carry a tune, and quite honestly, no matter how many years pass, listening to him can often be an eyebrow-raising experience for me. There have been so many times, both on stage and in the studio, where I've even found myself on the verge of laughter at the sheer impudence of some of his musical forays. If the mood struck him, he might lurch from an Albert Lee-like countryish chicken-pickin' solo, into a few windmilled Townshendian power chords before shifting into some sort of Richard Thompson-like workout with scales that sounded like they were coming from Istanbul rather than Nashville. He would pull this sort of stunt off almost nightly, and he made it look effortless.
So, here we are, closing in on 40 years later, and while people still love to see Steve Connelly's on-stage guitar heroics, in my view, Steve has become a more subdued and thoughtful kind of guitar player. Oh, he's still capable of dropping jaws and melting faces and all that, but these days, he seems to have more of an interest in getting to the heart of the musical matter at hand. To my ears, his parts seem more measured and emotionally direct. It's just another layer of the man's talent coming to the fore, I suppose, and it's a beautiful thing to behold.
During the tracking for Swallowing The Sun, my friend and producer, Ed Woltil, had been quite encouraging about the song, Skinful, after I'd expressed doubts about it. It was a bit of a weird one for me, and I wasn't sure about it, but as Ed began to add a few of his own sonic touches, it started sounding pretty good, and I began to feel like it might be a worthwhile addition to the record. I did feel, though, that it was missing a lead instrument of some sort, and so we decided to ask Steve if he might care to add some pedal or lap steel to it.
Steve ended up sending a couple of beautifully restrained, emotive takes for us to listen to, and Ed took both of them, crafting a mix that when I first heard it, gave me a real lump in the old throat. Skinful went from a hesitant contender to my favourite track on the album. Whether the song is really good, poor or somewhere in between, I don't really know. What I do know, is how it makes me feel when I hear it, and I'm just dead chuffed that for some four minutes and thirty-four seconds, I feel in sync once again with a beloved family member.
Needle in The Red had been around, in some form or another, for a couple of decades or so before it finally saw its release on Swallowing The Sun. I'd actually written it during my time with The Headlights; we'd even played it live a couple of times and recorded a demo of it at some point. For some reason, it never became a regular part of our setlist and I suppose I just filed it away for a rainy day.
One day, when Ed and I were assembling songs for our Cycle album, it happened to be pissing it down... so I decided to have another crack at recording the song. After basic tracks and vocals were done, I invited Dave Gregory to play on it to see if he might help breathe new life into it. He did.
Frustratingly, the new recording was beset with all sorts of technical problems (probably all my fault) and a protracted period of trying to work around assorted glitches, time clock issues and other headache-inducing concerns pushed my co-producers, Ed Woltil and Brian Merrill, close to breaking point. So, the song was shelved. Filed away for a different rainy day, you might say.
I hated the fact that a song that we'd worked so hard on might never see the light of day, so when I began work on Swallowing The Sun, I always hoped that Needle in The Red might find a way to poke its head out from between the rain clouds and make a belated appearance. Since Ed was tasked with the bulk of the production duties, it fell on his shoulders to wade through old files, discarding problematic ones and insisting upon the re-recording of others. Despite coming perilously close to donning a straightjacket at one point, he somehow managed to get the song ship-shape, and on to the album it went. Now you know who to blame...
So is it a snarky song about religious beliefs, or is it perhaps my clunky effort at an anti-drug song? Buggered if I know; it's been way too long since it was written for me to recall. It's probably best just to ignore my plaintive bleating and simply languish in the glory that is Dave Gregory's guitar playing.
An English writer living in Sventorp, Sweden, reviewing an album by an English songwriter from Scunthorpe, England, living in Western North Carolina, USA ... for a Scottish-based music site? Sounds like a set up for lame jokes aplenty doesn't it?
Because he's a clever swine who can do just about everything well, my mate Ed Woltil crafted this lovely lyric video for the opening track from my Swallowing The Sun record.
So, is the song an aural love letter to mildly morose Mancunians, Morrissey & Marr? Or is it simply a self-indulgent reflection on a personal musical journey in his adopted homeland? Maybe a bit of both...
Someone mentioned to me that Make You Mine from the new record reminded them of The Hollies. It caught me by surprise, but after thinking about it, I think I hear what they mean, in the melody, if not the instrumentation.
Yes, for those of us of a certain age, it's very dificult to hide from the melodic influence of the bands from that era isn't it? Whether it's The Stones, The Kinks, The Beatles or Bob Dylan, it's just an unavoidable fact of our musical lives.
Although I might be little more flattered at the mention of Andy Partridge or Richard Thompson, personally, I think it might be closer to Peter Noone and Herman's Hermits.
One of my French teachers at school would often get quite exasperated by my total lack of interest in learning the language he so dearly loved. The more he declared that it was a thing of unparalled beauty (often by pounding violently on the desk), and that I should really embrace it, the more my disdain for it grew. He once shook me from a deep classroom slumber to let me know that one day I'd come to deeply regret not learning this beautiful language and have it greatly enrich my life.
That day is now. Maybe if I'd listened and not been such a loathsome little prat, I'd be able to fully appreciate this review written by Matthieu Grunfeld at Section 26:
"Swallowing the Sun just gives me a good good feeling, like a snatch of warm sunshine somehow embedded in song", so says the lovely and talented writer, Dennis Pilon over at PopRock Record.
Dennis is a fine and cultured gentleman from Toronto, Canada, and apparently he wrote that (of his own volition no less!) about this distinctly uncultured layabout from Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, which pleases me to no end. He also had understandably complimentary things to say about my friend and musical partner, Ed Woltil. You can read the article right here: poprockrecord.com
On Cycle, my duo album with Ed Woltil, we'd been fortunate enough to have XTC guitargonaut, Dave Gregory, on board for a trio of songs. On one of them (Elastic Man), Dave had sent over a lovely slide guitar track that made me think of George Harrison.
I've always loved George's slide playing, and I suppose there was something in both Dave's tone and the way he was playing, that to my ears, was reminiscent of the quiet Beatle. So, while working on the song, Quiet One - a fairly obvious nod to George - I knew I had to ask Dave if he might be interested in lending his formidable talents to it.
Thankfully, he was on board, and I have no qualms about admitting that when I first heard his playing on it, I got a little emotional*, choked up, even. I mean, I was chopping onions at the time, so who knows? (Ahem). Either way though, it sounds like he's channeling George to me, and it just makes me so happy.
* Yes, I do understand that admitting to getting emotional is akin to renouncing my British citizenship. So be it.
Well, it may have taken the better part of four years (five), but I’ve finally managed to put the finishing touches to my latest long player.
Swallowing The Sun began its long and torturous life in my old hometown of St Petersburg, FL, was interrupted by an out-of-state family relocation, and finally came to fruition here in my new hometown of Hendersonville, NC, in the Blue Ridge mountains. It wasn’t actually recorded in the mountains, of course; it was recorded in my house. I mean, I’m not John Denver.
Truth be told, I’d still be working on the bloody thing for another couple of excuse-filled years if not for the heroic efforts of my arse-kicking friend and co-producer, Ed Woltil. Aside from producing, mixing and musical hand holding, Ed’s instrumental prowess plays a major part in the proceedings and I'm perpetually indebted to him, both for his friendship, and for the fabulous and tasteful playing he contributed to this project.
So, what does it sound like? Well, it has a dizzy love song (Dizzy Love Song); an earnest love song (Proud of Our Love); a song about being in love with family and treasuring those times when you manage to just catch yourself living in the moment with them (Mr Empty Head); as well as a gentle Beatle-ish ode to quietism (Quiet One) that features a stunning George Harrisonesque slide guitar cameo from XTC's Dave Gregory that would probably elicit a wry smile from the quiet Beatle himself.
So it’s a sappy and contentedly happy album then? Er, not so fast...there are also morose lyrical references to drug addiction (Needle in The Red), a stinging rebuke of religious pretenders and fiery demagogues alike (Wild God) as well as sneering metaphorical allusions to overindulgence and feelings of disillusionment, depression and mental exhaustion (Skinful) just to even things out. Sounds like fun, right?
What? None of the usual sentimental and nostalgic hazy memory lane trips? Don’t be daft; of course there are... fish & chips, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Robertson’s jam jars, and the word, radiogramme are all included in just one song written about growing up in a northern English town in the 1970s (Milk & a Dash).
Parental Advisory: The aforementioned song features the phrase, “the smell of baked beans & spam”. A tough one to explain to the kids. Or anyone, come to that. Gluttons for punishment can listen to, and read more about the new record here at https://steverobinson.bandcamp.com
Note: Swallowing The Sun can also be streamed at Spotify, iTunes, Apple, Amazon, and all of the usual streaming sites that continue to pay a royalty rate that has been known to cause feelings of disillusionment, depression and mental exhaustion. Side effects also include depression, irregular heartbeat, fever, constipation, diarrhea, nausea, fear of heights, fear of plumbing emotional depths, unexplained rashes, the occasional gnashing of teeth, and an irrational fear of releasing records.