‘If you have to kick against the pricks, must you mention them by name?’ asked John Osborne once upon a time.
The answer, in this case, is No. There is not enough time to kick out against a confederacy of dunces and nor is there any point. We already know who they are. They crowd the airwaves and steal oxygen for their own hot air. They corrupt the senses, ruin the present so that the future might be that much more warped and, crucially, they make the big decisions and, in deciding, fill their pockets. They’re the impostors, the movers and the darlings of the mainstream who ought to be shunned because, in shunning them, you’ll refocus and be able to read the sweeter writings while drinking deeper from life’s loving cup.
And, more’s the point, hear the sweeter sounds, like ‘Down The Willows’ by Monks Road Social, an 18-track compilation of new songs crafted by souls old and young, yet fired just the same by a love of and dedication to music in its purer form.
As a curated work of musical talent this record is important as it dares to showcase the craft of songwriting in a form unsullied by the corporate touch. The sound veers between soul, jazz, folk, blues rock, ambient and baroque. And the indefinable, from which something special will always be spun.
As if in affirmation of Mr Strummer’s lines, ‘This is England/Land of a thousand stances…This is England/This is how we feel’, ‘Down The Willows’ arrives undiluted, guided to us by the hand of Dr Robert of The Blow Monkeys.
“I was asked to oversee, to organise and provide songs and a structure,” says Robert, “but with a light touch because there are long-term friends involved who I trust implicitly and who hopefully trust me too. I was more like a shepherd than a producer. A friendly, avuncular shepherd.”
The matter of naming this (recondite, for some) roll call of Monks Road Social artisans might be a small thing, yet it would be unwise to ignore the fact that some musicians will always remain loyal to their muse.
These are players lost in music. They’re the real thing. They won’t give up because they can’t. They live through their craft and, lest we forget, they were the mainstream when the mainstream was a river of gold instead of today’s maundering wadi, strewn as it is with strutting fakers and hawkers of snake oil.
The record’s sound is gilded by Mick Talbot (The Style Council, Dexys, The Who) on harmonium, piano and Hammond; Crispin Taylor (Galliano, Candi Staton, Push) on drums; Ernie McKone (Galliano, Marlena Shaw) on bass; Matt Deighton (Mother Earth, Oasis, The Family Silver) on vocals and guitars; Steve Sidelnyk (Madonna) on percussion; Damon Minchella (Ocean Colour Scene, Richard Ashcroft) on bass; Ben Trigg (Dexys, Richard Ashcroft) and Steve White (The Style Council, Paul Weller) on drums.
The stellar cast is joined by new talent in the form of Samantha Whates and Pat Dam Smyth, as well as Stone Foundation, Angelina, Nev Cottee, Zooey and Shona Carmen and J.O.S.
Monks Road Social is an ever-evolving collaborative outfit and ‘Down The Willows’ is its first album release (the second has recently been completed) comprising writers and musicians who are free to create without the censure of a record label forever with an eye on the bottom line; if the majors won’t take notice, then it’s only right for talent like this to coalesce around a common cause.
“There were artists involved who I’d never met or worked with before, so I was trying to make them feel comfortable while pushing things along at a mad pace,” adds Robert. “But I like to work quickly, before self consciousness kicks in. I never have had the emotional skills to do this in the past, but I don’t need to impose myself anymore. I’ve learned to let go. It was a unique experience. We just let the music lead us and there was no pressure to make ‘ hits’ or try and reinvent the wheel.”
The record kicks off with Dr Robert’s own soulful, sumptuous ‘Lost In Rasa’, and ends with Pat Dam Smyth’s ‘So Long Soho’, which the Laurencetown-born man invests with just enough of the bittersweet to make us realise what we’ve lost culturally over the years and, were it not for those rare souls who keep the flame burning – those poets and musicians for too long overlooked – we’d all be assuredly and unquantifiably worse off.
It’s not nostalgia on show here. It is instead the timelessness of bona fide talents. ‘Down The Willows’ is the product of a brains trust that, after all these years, still demands to be heard above the static of our own badly tuned lives.
‘Down The Willows’ is out on 22 February via Wonderfulsound