Blabber’n’Smoke were never too taken by Bellowhead. Too busy, too rabble rousing, perhaps (gulp) too popular. Only kidding there but as evidenced on their final live disc (reviewed here ) they and their audience did like a good old knees up resulting in the band becoming festival favourites, to my mind the music suffering as a result. While it’s not entirely accurate to call Bellowhead Jon Boden’s band as there was a wealth of talent in there it was when Boden announced he was leaving that the band decided to call it a day. Now, their never ending farewell tours actually having ended we await Boden’s next move. In the interim his first solo album, Painted Lady, from 2006, is being reissued with some extra songs tacked on. It’s a welcome return for the album and a fine reminder of the man’s talents.
A truly solo album Painted Lady has Boden playing all instruments including electric guitar, fiddle, banjo, double bass, concertina, Indian harmonium, glockenspiel, piano, drum machine and Moog synthesiser. As you might surmise from that assortment it’s not a traditional folk album. It’s fair to say I think that Boden’s influences here include Tom Waits and Richard Thompson and while he never achieves parity with either he has a brave stab at it. It’s an uneven album and Boden’s voice at times struggles with the rockier songs but when it’s good it is very good. Get A Little Something opens the album in fine style, a Waits like banjo jamboree that woozily waltzes with fairground gaiety and slashes of guitar. The romantic side of Waits looms large on Josephine while his more experimental edge hovers over Pocketful of Mud, a muddy (indeed) mash up of sampled voices, waspish guitar and an electronic beat that forever seems about to burst into Tainted Love with a side dish of dub.
While Pocketful of Mud passes muster as a sonic adventure Drunken Princess comes across as a failed attempt to marry a sensitive ballad with electronics and a mismatched howl of a chorus. The closing song Drinking The Night Away is too stiff for a song that surely calls for a loose-limbed approach, here the one-man band approach does the song no favours while Boden’s voice is too mannered and strained. However he’s on surer ground on several songs that discard much of the exotic instrumentation, the shimmering Blue Dress, the robust Lemany (quite a wonderful love song actually) and the gentle strains of True Love all qualify for repeat listening. On his more familiar folkier ground Win Some Lose Some Sally approaches Fairport Convention territory with its skirled guitar and almost martial beat and the harmonium infused Ophelia and Broken Things are downbeat and evocative although the latter does recall Lionel Bart’s showbiz take on common folks’ music. But then again Boden has a background in music theatre and on the title song here he comes up with a song that could surely grace the West End, his voice, the minimal accompaniment and the images in the lyrics all conspiring towards a career in the limelight.
As for the bonus songs, All Hang Down is a lusty folk rock number while Old Brown’s Daughter finds Boden alone with his guitar and happily burrowing into a quintessential folk idiom as he sings about his unrequited love for the local shopkeeper’s daughter, a song that could easily sit on the soundtrack for the rebooted Poldark. Finally, there’s the bizarre mash up of Morris music and Whitney Houston as Boden tackles I Want to Dance With Somebody. Too weird to describe, you just need to hear it and make up your own mind.