For My Next Trick
NETRHYTHMS, fROOTS, Living Tradition - David Kidman Not a fez in sight, but there are plenty of fluffy rabbits adorning the sleeve of this enterprising new offering from the self-deprecating, self-styled 'fat Greek' who makes himself so many friends 'just like that!' wherever he performs. Album number six sees this big-hearted and enviably prolific (162 and still counting!) songsmith fast developing his craft, both in terms of writing and arranging. (And that's an objective judgement, falling outwith my duty to provide a disclaimer for the abundant generosity of the namecheck credit which George bestows on me within the booklet.) Spurred on no doubt by the folk scene's growing recognition of his talent, George is now audibly taking more chances with his material, embarking (carefully) on ever more ambitious musical settings and structures for his songs while retaining a credible continuity of thematic concept. Even so, each song is still recognisably, intrinsically (and quintessentially) George, with that comfortable sense of conception and residence within recognisable musical traditions (here, those both of folk and pop song - for George has always subscribed to the widest possible definitions of what is 'folk') counterpointed by the desire to challenge our preconceptions and philosophical parameters. George bookends this new CD with examples of social commentary ancient and modern: the traditional A-Begging I Will Go - the album's sole non-original, and in that sense a new departure for George after five albums of entirely self-penned songs - balanced by End Of The Road, which (like the Streets of London of George's hero Ralph McTell) presents through it's contemporary mirror image a modern-day counterpart/depiction of the problem; it's another folk classic in the making!... George revisits his familiar theme of vocational folksong by tackling both historical (Glory Gone) and contemporary (Working Week and Last Train Home), and elsewhere ranges over harrowing family reminiscence (Baba), artistic tribute (Sing To Me Angelo), and several songs on the theme of lasting friendship including at least two profoundly touching tearjerkers (The Biggest Part Of Me and The Silence Of Friends). And though George's geniality and lively sense of humour is compassionate, he's also entirely capable of lashing out with a sensibly barbed commentary; cue Anytown, which is a savage indictment on contemporary living and the erosion, nay destruction of traditional values (to portray which erosion the song comes complete with some 'unpleasant' electric guitar from Robb Johnson!). Landfall is a new departure, a veritable mini-suite in 4½ minutes, one section of which spotlights the lovely voice of Mary Humphreys. Other collaborators deftly weaving intricate strands into George's rich musical tapestry include Anahata, Miranda Sykes, Saskia Tomkins, the wonderful duo Cloudstreet, Vicki Swan & Jonny Dyer, and Chris & Jude from Isambarde. Having mentioned that list, it needs to be emphasised that it's still George's perennially inventive guitar lines (both 6- and 12-string) that are firmly at the heart of the arrangements, any extra colours and other elements remaining at their service rather than the other way round. And the modest musicality (and yes, commendable restraint) of the arrangements ensures that the focus remains on the songs themselves - with George's own personality uppermost, naturally rather than on the personalities of other contributors. George's eclectic musical tastes have ensured his canny absorption of other musical idioms into his songs - Greek island music (There Will Be Dancing), courtly gavotte (Working Week), happy West Indian calypso (Watermelon Seeds), punky 'urban folk' (Last Train Home)... Technically, perhaps some of the vocal harmonies are a tad forwardly balanced in comparison with the lead/melody line (Working Week, The Biggest Part Of Me), but this isn't as serious a criticism as it might appear. And I may have a personal quibble or two with this or that instrumental colour intruding momentarily, but it's a salutary reminder that I've been privileged to be able to follow the progress of many of the songs since initial demo stage, which necessarily gives me a biased perspective on any subsequent recorded version - after all, it's the end-product encapsulated on this on-sale CD that counts, and George and his engineer Martin Atkinson are to be credited heftily with producing a very listenable artefact. And tucked in cheekily at the very end of the CD there's even a neatly whimsical little hidden track too...! The CD's whole presentation is eminently thoughtful in fact, and George's booklet notes are admirably informative in exactly the required manner, although it would have been useful to have identified the various duet vocalists by name on each relevant track since their individual contributions deserve to momentarily bask in the limelight and be properly recognised for their excellence. After the release of his semi-retrospective CD Ordinary Heroes in late 2004, George had quite sensibly (in his own words) 'vowed not to bring another album out unless (he) felt that it would somehow add something that was not just more of the same'; hence 'with innocent courage (he) took some side roads', and the result is For My Next Trick. Although it turns out to be a long CD, it's a tribute to the diversity and consistency of George's writing that it seems not a minute too long. Even if there's often a sense that George's artistic development is proceeding so apace that he's saying that, just in case the muse were to desert him suddenly, you need to 'remember him like this'!