On their two albums as My Darling Clementine Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish have celebrated the country tradition of singing songs about ordinary people and their day-to-day trials and tribulations, wrecked romances, succour in a glass of booze, trying to retain a dignity in the face of ongoing emotional blows. Their template has been George Jones and Tammy Wynette who, despite their successes, had their own troubles to deal with which were played out in the glare of publicity. My Darling Clementine’s triumph is their ability to inhabit the same world as George and Tammy in song with How Do You Plead and The Reconciliation almost mini soap operas peopled by life’s losers.
The Other Half takes this approach a tad further as My Darling Clementine offer a soundtrack to crime writer (and country music fan) Mark Billingham’s series of vignettes of life in a Memphis bar. The main protagonist, Marcia, is an ex Vegas showgirl, her beauty now fading and her circumstances reduced as she caters to the regulars who all have their own back stories. Billingham tells their tales as extracted by Marcia in her chats with the drinkers along with her imagined embellishments as she attempts to fill in the blanks the customers are unwilling or unable to complete. They all share a loss, a partner gone, in jail, with someone else perhaps; they all share a solitary existence stuck with their memories. Marcia is no different, she struggles to pay for her elderly mother’s care, her daughter has run off with a musician and she daily awaits a phone call from her own missing partner. Billingham weaves these tales together in a deadpan style that readers of Willy Vlautin will recognise.
While the stories are printed in the CD booklet allowing one to read The Other Half in the traditional style the disc consists of Billingham reading each short story with a song from My Darling Clementine at the end of each one. The songs, the majority of which are reworkings from the two previous albums, cleverly reflect the preceding story in Marcia’s imagination; No Matter What Tammy Said (I Won’t Stand By Him) follows on from Donna’s admission that her husband is on Death Row while Going Back To Memphis is a rare ray of light as Marcia’s partner eventually gets back in touch. The narration by Billingham is punctuated by the characters’ voices played by King and Dalgleish along with David Morrisey, Graham Parker and Florence King. As always, King and Dalgleish sing wonderfully together with the pared back acoustic setting giving songs like No Heart In This Heartache and The Other Half a new lease of life. The backing by the Brodsky Quartet on No Matter What Tammy Said adds piquancy to this tale of domestic abuse. There are two new songs. Friday Night At The Tulip Hotel describes the secret love trysts of a couple which end when the married male doesn’t turn up one week leaving the guilt-ridden woman to believe “she got what she deserved.” As Precious As The Flame, co-written by Billingham and My Darling Clementine, ends the album on an upbeat note recognising that while the fires of young love might not burn forever it’s possible to retain a passion albeit tempered by reality as King and Dalgliesh sing, “It’s slowing up, it’s messing up, it’s cleaning up and saving up. Remembered thrills, It’s tales all told, it’s paying bills and growing old.” By allowing for the hope of a happy ending the song mirrors Marcia’s journey as she moves on. The result is an engaging listen, perfect for a car journey or to savour at home and whets the appetite for the next full album from our very own first couple of country music.
My darling Clementine and Mark Billingham are touring The Other Half around the UK. Dates are here including three appearances at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August.