Written by: Dave Cantrell
The phrase, of course, is ‘waiting for one’s ship to come in,’ and for the man at the helm of The Granite Shore, Nick Halliwell, the old chestnut may be rightly applied. For years, while wearing his other captain’s hat as the owner of the Occultation Recordings label, he’s steered a trove of vital releases into being while simultaneously guiding a handful of legends teetering too close the cliff’s edge of obscurity back into the limelight. From original Fall member Martin Bramah’s Factory Star to the Wild Swans to the June Brides to, perhaps most heroically, the Distractions, Halliwell has almost single-handedly been responsible for spiriting their creative resurrections into the public’s consciousness. Add to those the partnered releases with the impeccable New Zealand label Fishrider and it’s a formidable list by anyone’s standards, enough so in fact that the man could understandably accept the collective hosannahs of the pop world and rest. Those are, after all, some envious laurels. Only problem? The entire time these often elaborately-packaged artifacts (for they are that) were dazzling anyone into whose hands they fell, Nick’s own Granite Shore project was hovering above the proceedings, suspended in a blend of anticipation and bottled impatience. At times it must have seemed but a shimmering mirage of a mirage, a hoped-for thing he kept seeing forever on the horizon, falling further away the closer to it he got.
The experience was similar for those of us that knew of its prospect. Having been whetted – or teased, if you like – by the subtly bounteous 10″ and 45, issued way back in 2009 and 2010 respectively, we had some idea of what to expect, sumptuous, graceful pop with a sometimes dolorous undertone, a vocal that is sure and calm no matter the storm, arrangements Roy Wood in his prime wouldn’t have minded laying claim to. Those couple releases, however, could hardly have prepared us. Look, I’m just going to say it: Once More From The Top is among the finest wrought, most fully realized rock LPs I’ve ever heard. I realize hyperbole is easy on sites like this and furthermore acknowledge my frequent flights of enthusiasm – for which, by the way, I apologize not at all; one should never, as a writer, be too cool to effuse when an album merits – but in truth I’ve rarely if ever taken to the outright superlative. OMFTT leaves no choice.
Lush and autumnal, resigned but immortal, buoyed by a dark resilient self-belief even as dusk winches shut the day, Once More From The Top glows with an austere determinism. Though by design and execution a patched-in narrative about the growth and trials of a rock’n’roll band (one assumes begun in the 70’s given the maleness and the career path described) as they bond, rise, then face a decline precipitated by outside forces and internecine pressures that’s as inevitable as atomic decay in the physical world, the album evinces a second, subliminal undertow, painted with a broader stroke. Between the notes and behind the sepia-toned mood lies the starkest, simplest truth of existence itself: the loss of innocence no matter who we are. Born into wonder, the erosion of same as we gain a fuller consciousness has to be life’s cruelest trade-off. Whether it’s ground in rebellion or inherited values, that youthful sense that the world can be changed burns, is real and palpable. But the energy of that idealism ends up getting spent fighting to maintain any shred of itself in the face of ‘how the world really works,’ and the lifelong tussle begins in one’s heart between frazzled hope and dissolute cynicism. As if in microcosmic echo, the sentiment of this record walks that emotional tightrope and the balance with which it does so is unstintingly deft.
Once More From The Top, if it’s not been made clear by now, is an album that requires one understands the wholeness of its cloth. It’s not a record one pieces together thread by thread but instead a work meant to be absorbed in one sitting, preferably on vinyl – five tracks per side, the act of flipping the record the respite underlining the built-in thematic transition – though be most assured that the individual songs stand nobly on their own, telling like inside witnesses scenes from within the larger story. While listening through the first few times via an emailed mp3, I jotted down the line ‘rock’n’roll’s own Canterbury Tale, told by archetypes that are arguably more flesh than the real thing,’ which was typical writerly rubbish, perhaps, but nonetheless I was not surprised to find a Chaucer quote – just above one from Ian Hunter – inside the gatefold CD cover when it arrived a few weeks hence. One more scrawled note applies here before we get to specifics and it’s a word of caution of sorts: in terms of engagement, this album, like a compelling piece of cinema or those epiphanic moments that mark a novel’s quiet crescendo, might at times make your knees buckle, for reasons that hopefully shall become obvious as I write. That said, let’s step inside.
We start with “Artiste & Repertoire” and it must be said there’s no time wasted creating a sense of envelopment. Umbrous and utterly lush in sound – a deep acoustic thrum, the discreet monster that is Arash Torabi’s bass, a small calling of English brass – the vocal so unguardedly intimate you feel you’re eavesdropping on someone singing their memoir into their bedroom mirror, which, as it happens, is not far off as the voice here belongs to the story’s songwriter but not the singer. As such, the track lives as the separated-at-birth twin of the Distractions’ “Wise” (a track also penned by Halliwell) though this take, so close-in and sonorous, somehow gives the impression there’s more at stake, a life’s work, however measured, in the balance. The lyrics’ choice of language – this record is nothing if not carefully written – supports the notion of no regrets regardless, that despite betrayals, neglect, all the many scars of time, the bond between brothers not only trumps but instills a loyalty beyond question, and possibly beyond reason. The music, meanwhile, in all its restrained gorgeousness, sets the template. I can’t stress this enough about OMFTT. There’s something of an almost lachrymose strength to the sound, tensile but vulnerable, capable of exacting a listener’s response that resonates to the marrow. This comes down to the musicians themselves, of course, and how they gel as a unit. Not a surprise given those involved (see the insert below), but we all know bringing together an assemblage of crack players doesn’t guarantee a ‘band feel’ and in fact can often hinder more than help, individuals bridling against the collective. Not so here, and dramatically the opposite. Unfussy, meticulous, cohering with a professionalism that is immodestly modest, this group clearly exudes a devotion to Halliwell and this project. As a result, they deliver a hushed luminescence to the proceedings that can’t help but underscore the soaked-in-amber reminiscence that permeates the tale within. That tale, after all, of lads buying into the mythos, is one familiar to almost all of them to one degree or another, though one imagines that each of them, to a person, would defer to the quality of the material and right they’d be. This is simply, to say again, a magnificently written record.
“Nine Days’ Wonder,” following seamlessly on from “A&R,” has us inside the head of the singer, a hybridized creation with Jaggeresque drive (“I have always had a nose for the money / and I know where to look for the meat”) and a swanning Moz-like hubris (“Once upon a time I could have been a poet / but I was born into this sadly darkened age”) who in any case is in constant and desperate need for fawning adulation and one marvels at how Halliwell can marry pathos with such utter vanity and make us sympathetic. At least slightly fallen, time-neglected rock star as Everyman, now there’s some writer’s legerdemain for you, though, in truth, you best get used to that on this record. Consider track three.
When beginning the process for this review, taking the odd note and absorbing, I was focused on the page or maybe lost in a half-distance trance not looking at anything at all who knows, but, fully aware of the the record’s narrative, when this song began with the line “If you trust in me, I’ll not let you down,” I muttered ‘The manager’ then looked at the title, smiled. “The Management,” with its Epsteinian references (“the leather gear will have to go, forgiving the “jabs and tasteless jokes”), the gently authoritarian tone of the vocal, its pristine, loping and yearningly lovely mid-tempo arrangement suggesting a kind of measured exultation, succinctly captures the chameleonic, detached diplomat nature of the job. The original – by necessity – passive aggressor, being the manager of an even modestly successful rock band is never an easy gig, since what’s actually being managed well beyond the business affairs are the flaws and fragile egos of the musicians themselves, the clash of dynamics, the constant tugs on a shortening leash that’s the only thing keeping the band in enough of a line to succeed. To make it work one needs be an effective blend of strict school marm and self-effacing supplicant, a kind of professional sycophant with a whip, and the portrayal here hits its nuanced target with a gilded touch. And there perhaps lies Once More From The Top‘s most notable achievement.
In terms of character, in terms of theme and backdrop, nothing here is really new. In countless films and books, in accounts both fictional and non-, the tale of the aged (or damaged, or…) rock band and its constituent parts has been told from myriad angles in a multitude of voices, often passionate, often dispirited, often both. The broke and the broken-down, the jaded and/or resentful, tetchy artists proud but quite guarded with that pride, nearly all of them wounded in some way, from Performance to Last Days to Kim Gordon’s recent memoir, we’ve heard the many versions of this story before, and to tackle it so boldly here, so straight up, literal and unallusive, can only be considered an act of unalloyed hubris. And yet.
What’s most surprising is oftentimes the most obvious and so it is here. As it happens, looking back, no one’s ever tackled this well-trod story in the form of a song cycle, or if they’ve made the attempt it’s always been hamstrung by a level of ‘artful’ obfuscation that borders on the absurd. As suspected, and borne out via (an upcoming) interview, Nick Halliwell hasn’t much truck with that route. The result is this loosely-sequenced but coherent – and exceedingly thoughtful – narrative serving as thematic anchor while the music’s allowed to brim with its aching clarity, the whole of the record of such a piece that it ends up lived in. The closest comparable account in recent years would be Pete Astor’s lovely Songbox, also valedictory in tone and intent but not nearly as focused as this, nor quite as absorbing in its intimacy. Though the notion of a ‘concept album’ is a bit antiquated and held in some disfavor due the questionable execution of most records claiming that distinction, Halliwell adopts the model wihout blinking, in the process single-handedly restoring the tag’s reputation. Indeed, the experience of listening to Once More From The Top is to fall under a fictive spell over the course of its 45 minutes, losing track of time and literally living as someone else. That a rock record using pop structures can accomplish this, well, what a concept.
Part post-rock’n’roll dream hangover, part resigned career-suicide note, “Fan Club Newsletter #44” is actually quite buoyant for all that, full of an energetic understatedness while Halliwell’s vocal, swathed in a soughing, horn-rich arrangement, essays a level of such weary persuasion you’ll have to resist setting up a Kickstarter campaign to help prop up this imaginary band. Central here is the line “the Charmers took everything,” carrying as it does the double weight of being repeated for emphasis while, with a rather pointed tact, leaving off the word ‘snake.’ That it’s carried with an elegance that converts a sigh of defeat into an undying beat of resilience goes without saying by this point, surely.
“Fan Club” segues almost subliminally into “Backstage at the Ballroom,” a piece of pop-crafted majesty that ends side one. Whereas on a record like this shivers of both recognition and (especially) beauty are plentiful – there are moments of pure pop thrall on every track – “Backstage” may claim the ribbon for ‘most chills per measure.’ With its dual perspective structure – verses to the singer, chorus to the band then audience – Torabi’s swooping yearn of bass, Mike Kellie‘s drums empathic and exact, the propulsive and ever-persistent hope behind the splendidly jaded tone of fatalism that fills the track like soldiers wistfully remembering battle, the track could be its own album, its own Alan Paton short story, its own Jack Clayton movie starring Laurence Harvey, and that’s not even mentioning the chorus. And oh my, that chorus. One can, upon hearing it, understand with an intuitive jolt Halliwell’s fondness for Ian Hunter’s work, another writer with a gift for the exquisite, rousing break that undoes with a show-stopping naturalism. As often in Hunter’s case and certainly here, how it rouses isn’t by virtue of fiery fist-raising passion but rather by evoking, under the notes and behind the voice, the universality of dreams and pain. You see and hear yourself in songs like this even if the subject matter isn’t within a light year of your own existence. Yes, the laments and reflections of a once-famous rock star claim the surface, but just below that thin skin lies mere-mortalness, where fear and doubt and the struggle to retain – freeze, even – the glimpses of joy keep restless counsel with one’s thoughts. An unprotected pathos sits bravely at the heart of the track, drawing in the audience, the band, the entourage, all of them tacitly participating in this moment of reworked glory, all of them having a hand at ‘turning off the lights at the end of the show’ (one of several recurring tropes on OMFTT; this album’s a pleasure for the nuance-spotters). Nostalgia’s the siren, luring them in, spurring them on, but reality’s the drowning, and everyone, behind their happy smiles, understands this. The show goes on, the record turns the page, we move to side two, where the hover of that pathos bears down with a more singular focus on the band members themselves, memory’s fall-out settling rather uneasily about those aging rock star shoulders.
With a gentle rainfall of acoustic and a vocal so quietly immediate it’s almost unsettling, “Recorded Sound” signals the shift in perspective by pulling the emotion in even tighter, something you’d have scarcely believed possible having just lived through side one. Melody, however, remains sacrosanct, the chorus propelling an already affecting hook into one of expanded grandeur. It’s rare these days, frankly, to find such a glut of melody on a single 10-song rock record. Regarding “Recorded Sound,” imagine you could take the Kinks at their most English, encase them in amber and insert a depth of age-lived perception they were never really allowed to reach, leaving in that gift of imperishable melody but letting the sly impertinence of a Davies lyric be given over to a longer gaze, the ornate brush strokes now much richer on the canvas, more ochres and autumn reds than the Peter Max vibrancy of yore. This is the reflective blush that colors “Recorded Sound,” the vocal a longing that speaks – rather nobly – to a warm, bathing regret, its slow-dance tempo devastating, beautiful, and it must be said that a French horn has never sounded so British.
Riding in on a countrified Avalonian strum and twang, “Keeping Time” is the record’s most clearly double-entendred entry, as well its most elegiac, a notable distinction considering the stuffed-to-the-embarrassment-of-riches gills of such on here. Set at the drummer’s funeral – hence the title, though, well, yeah, there’s more to it than that in the end – the track marks a further pivot in the narrative arc as mortality, like it does, prompts thought of resurrection, of getting the old gang together again before the sands trickle down to their last grain for all of them. Featuring both post-heroics Light Brigade-like language (“as we give a three-guitar salute we hear a distant drum”) and the type lyric that (as throughout) rewards a close listen (“the riser now has fallen”), it of course presents with a spry funereal beat and a stiff upper-lipped emotionalism as it high steps toward the horizon, Martin Bramah’s eternal death knell solo holding high the banner amid a swoon of a stately string and horn coda.
The next two tracks – “Widows and Orphans” and “Now, therefore,…” – come as a kind of two-fer, both examining, if from rather opposing poles of energy and focus, the phase of resignation every once-gloried band now locked inside its own hallowed anachronism must inevitably face. Ferried by a devilishly subtle punch of a bassline and June Bride Phil Wilson’s gorgeous sprawl of a 12-string electric, sporting a pop-up tempo, grown men-as-angels background vox and a singalong, almost anthemic chorus, “Widows and Orphans,” somber and sobering as it, naturally, is, deserves the seven-inch A-side treatment. As close as one can get to the perfect song, even clocking in at just under three minutes, had I heard it on Peel in 1979 you can bet it would have been among the pile of 45’s on my lap on the ride home (as described here), jostling for the top spot with the Distractions’ “Time Goes By So Slow,” which is to say yes, “Widows and Orphans” is almost that good, its hook just as infernally whistleable, and yes, by unwritten law I have to say ‘almost’ when comparing any track to the ‘best single ever.’ This cedes to the gently bracing, slow-motion waltz of “Now, therefore…,” its lyrics presented in the ersatz, bespoke language of a surreal, last act contract, the type never drawn up that should be, the type never signed where signatures could not be more advisably procured. Odd, then, that it’s also the album’s most nakedly emotional track, drifting in on a lilt of melancholy, Halliwell’s vocal so disquietingly quiet as to suggest Scott Walker in a rare moment of straightforward, obliqueness-free vulnerability. The writing, no surprise, is ace, bending the crossed T and dotted I accuracy of contractese to the demands of the sighing heart with what feels like a nonchalant ease. But then again, well, that’s much of what our story is here, isn’t it. The wit within the ache – so British, so moving – is Once More From The Top‘s guiding principle, the lingua franca binding track to track. And certainly it’s wonderful to hear such craft and care with language, it adds the occasional dash of humor (“if you hold my coat I’ll go and drain the fens” in “Nine Days’ Wonder” is a personal favorite) and a semantic playfulness to the undertaking, though indeed whatever’s being played for would seem to be for keeps, it being too late in the oak-aged day to look at it any other way. Fittingly, it’s on the album’s final track that this long-shadowed perspective gets its most salient, unvarnished airing.
Structured more or less as a call-and-response set piece (thereby neatly echoing “Backstage at the Ballroom”) wherein the songwriter finds himself in a studio being somewhat reluctantly swayed by the gently prodding encouragements and get-on-with-its from the band, “Be that as it may” is cloaked in the sound of a fading light that nonetheless illuminates all the undying and in fact imperishable drive still animating every heart in that room as well those hovering the acoustic ether. Spending its first two-thirds in this sumptuous, slightly unorthodox back-and-forth, that same aching-but-buoyed hope in Halliwell’s voice as it parries with its extraordinary chorus (I had a note here about Nick’s voice sometimes sounding like Kevin Ayers in Nick Drake’s clothes and that’s not far off), the conversation shapes itself around the melody in delightful, slyly unexpected ways before the fateful shrug is shrugged (“Just play!”) and the song unspools into a two-minute coda that finds Steve Perrin rolling the tone off his reverb-drenched guitar to produce a sound akin to a fox-hunting French horn mourning over a lost, mist-ridden English countryside that’s flat-out lovely, flat-out lonely and in the end both majestic and so surpassingly human – especially once joined by Probyn Gregory’s actual horns and a hint of vocals whispering through the mix – that if it doesn’t raise a shiver on your arms I fear for your mortal soul.
If, as is said, fiction is the lie that tells the truth truer, Once More From The Top is cinema verité come to vinyl. It brims about its edges with the purest authenticity. If nothing else you’ll believe every note and word on this record, its utter sincerity banishes doubt. In fact, the only disbelief that might need suspending is just, to put it simply, how absorbingly good it is start to finish but I trust you’ve picked up on that by this point.
Now, to be perfectly honest here in the penultimate paragraph, Nick and I have known each other for near on five years as I’ve covered Occultation’s elite slate of releases for SEM. The potential pitfalls were therefore obvious but I was not about to recuse myself, not after waiting this long (nor, frankly, once I heard it). So, it should he said that, for the sake of journalistic probity, I sought with a measure of tenacity some flaw or another, an overplayed trope, a thematic inconsistency, something. Closest I got was the ‘lads only’ aspect of OMFTT‘s tale but it’s so historically on-target that to cite it would be as tokenistic as it would inaccurate. No, I’m sorry, but there is no option but to stand with my statement way up top there. Once More From The Top is without question among the most completely-realized – and deeply satisfying – albums I’ve heard in my many years and serves as a more-than-fitting capper to the plainly stunning run of records this label has issued since its founding.
Waiting for our ship to come in? Nah. All this time, as we’ve been stewing about the state of songwriting, fretting about the state of the LP and any of the many other anxieties that can beset the modern-day rock fan, it’s actually been the other way around. As we’ve been out here floundering amid rock’s many shoals of late, the simple fact is that we’ve simply been waiting to reach The Granite Shore. A remarkable achievement and nothing less, Once More From The Top is also, quite literally, the record of a lifetime.[Once More From The Top can be ordered directly here, and to help persuade you…]