Celtic Connections is coming up and one of the first artists Blabber’n’Smoke is going to see is Findlay Napier who will be performing his latest release, Glasgow. An album that is part tribute to, part dissection, of his adopted hometown, Glasgow is a worthy successor to Napier’s VIP, an album that found him delivering wry biographies of some famous (and some not so) people.
Glasgow’s a notorious city (or so we Glaswegians think). On the one hand it has a reputation for poverty and violence, on the other, it’s the friendly and forward looking metropolis that has been a city of culture and which has its very own “style mile” (in reality just a bunch of the same department stores you can find in any city centre). What Glasgow does have and always had is a ready supply of talent ready to mythologize the grimy tenements, the gangs, the shopping, the culture, the football and the music and perhaps Napier’s greatest achievement here is that he isn’t one of those. Sure, there are moments on Glasgow when he is in thrall to the history and romanticism that does exist in this once called “second city of the empire” but overall here he is an oblique aural flaneur taking the listener throughout various aspects of the city that have influenced him. That he does it with such casual excellence is the icing on the cake.
With Boo Hewerdine supporting on guitar and piano and with occasional field recordings the album is less fleshed out musically than VIP, however this allows Napier’s clear and ringing voice full rein over the simple backings. He opens the album with tolling bells as he sings about the city’s central necropolis, a ghost story one might expect but instead Napier delivers a potted history of Glasgow’s patron saint while describing the Goths who frequented the graveyard when he lived nearby. As on VIP’s Hedy Lamarr, Napier gets a subject and takes it places one would never expect. Glasgow’s history of shipbuilding sails into view on the powerful There’s More To Building Ships with Napier railing against the faceless men who dismantled the industry while detailing the industrial illnesses endured by the workforce, here he reminds one of a powerful songwriter from Leith, Dick Gaughan. Pulling Wires is another social testament inspired by a documentary on Glasgow’s homeless who collect scrap metal and again it’s transformed into a memorable and hefty folk song. The Locarno, Sauchiehall Street 1928 pays tribute to a famous Glasgow dance hall and is imbued with a similar sense of wonderment and memory as VIP’s Valentina but Napier’s other slice of everyday life centres on a chip shop bang in the centre of town as he sings of an unrequited love affair with a girl who wraps the fries. Banality transformed into art it’s supremely underplayed.
As a musician who came to live in the city, Napier acknowledges others who have written and sung about Glasgow with a fine selection of covers. Chief of these is his rendition of Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice, a song popularised by the late Hamish Imlach and a great vehicle for Napier who gives it just the right amount of salaciousness. The Blue Nile’s A Walk Across The Rooftops, a reminder of Napier’s student days is stripped right down and sung as a delicate and tender love song, Napier posing as a Glaswegian Chagall. Michael Marra’s King Kong’s Visit To Glasgow manages to cram several tributes into one as it mentions The People’s Palace, Glasgow bands, footballers, Glasgow’s one time reputation (again) as “cinema city” and , most of all, to the writer, Marra, a Dundonian who wrote about Glasgow better than most Glaswegians. Football, and its unsavoury punch-ups, open Julia Doogan’s Glasgow but the song soon settles into a hymn of sorts to the Dear Green Place. Finally, Napier offers up a gorgeous reading of Emma Pollock’s Marchtown, a glorious song which addresses the history of an area, now called Strathbungo, historically associated with Mary Queen Of Scots, an area which Napier himself now calls home.
Glasgow is an album which any fan of Napier will love and for many Glaswegians it will strike a chord. From the excellent cover artwork with Napier recreating Raymond Depardon’s striking image of Govan kids in the 80’s (including a very sad shot of him standing in the doorway of the derelict Lyceum cinema, a haunt of Blabber’n’Smoke’s childhood) to the many totems mentioned in the songs, it just hums with the vibrancy that many of us believe still surrounds the city.
Findlay Napier performs Glasgow at Celtic Connections on Saturday 20th January while he also hosts the late night sessions at The Drygate and Hazey Recollections and he will be appearing with Shake The Chains on 31st January