Imagine you’re a songwriter who’s been doodling around for a while building up a pile of notebooks with lyrics and chords scored out, rewritten and revised, a body of work that you’re dying to unleash on the world but what’s the best way to do that? Well, Steve Gardner, a Hertfordshire based, self professed “amateur” songwriter was pondering on that very question when, on a whim, he contacted one of his favourite musicians, a chap called Chuck Prophet, asking for some advice. As Gardner relates, “It was a speculative shot – scarcely more than fan-mail – and I was a little shocked when he wrote back saying he was “up for anything”. Pretty crazy but true and as things progressed Gardner eventually found himself ensconced in a studio in San Francisco with Prophet and his band The Mission Express with Prophet in the producer’s chair. Bathed In Comfort is an odd album as there’s no disguising Gardner’s DIY background, a kind of post punk C86 era naiveté but producer Prophet, acting like an aural equivalent of those home makeover “experts” on the telly, clothes each of the songs in appropriate trappings. The end result is an album that hovers somewhat in the margins between Robyn Hitchcock, XTC and those C86 heroes, Stump.
There’s dark folk, pastoral whimsy, psychedelia and wigged out space rock crammed into the 12 songs onboard here. At times the guitars are revved up, elsewhere there’s a dreamy swoon like touch. And while Prophet and James Deprato on guitars, Matt Winegar on keyboards along with rhythm section Vicente Rodriguez and Kevin T White give it their all its Stephanie Finch’s vocals which stand out on several songs as she accompanies Gardner’s voice especially in the deadly folk ballad Miller’s Daughter where she inhabits the role of a long dead farmer’s daughter. The signature Mission Express sound itself is best expressed on the glorious Take Me Down with switchblade guitars and a pounding beat (although the song seems to owe something to Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand) and the powerfully mutant Bo Diddley freakbeat of I’m Gone.
What Would I Do and I Forgot, both with sitar like guitar curlicues have an incense and peppermints aroma around them while Peter The Astrophysicist recalls XTC at times and I Can’t Walk Away also shimmers with a psychedelic glean with Finch again adding so much with her vocals. Throughout the album Gardner offers some delightful lyrics as he wanders from genre to genre but his description of a washed out rock star reduced to manning a vinyl market stall on Lance Gardino is spot on. Prophet drapes this sad vignette with an arrangement that rises and falls with Gardino’s career that is almost a mini pop opera in the vein of The Who especially towards the end when the band let rip with a riff that probably only exists in Gardino’s dreams. For those looking for some guitar thrills the opening Rosalie has some wicked slide guitar over a bucking banjo and finally there’s a kind of “novelty song” in the shape of The Day The Aliens Saved The World. It’s delivered twice here. A “country version” that trips along nicely but which pales alongside the “rock version” where Prophet kicks into his recent Suicide influenced speed freak rockabilly bent (as evidenced on In the Mausoleum on his latest record). It’s a total blast.
Having never heard the raw Gardner it’s difficult to say how much he’s been shaped by Prophet but he seems to be happy with the pup they’ve delivered and I’d definitely recommend a listen and even say that for Chuck fans it’s a must buy. Apparently Deprato thinks, “It’s weird”. So, another recommendation then.