Last year Jason McNiff released Rain Dries Your Eyes, a two disc compilation which charted his course over 15 years and six albums of relentless troubadouring and which proved that he is a bit of a gem when it comes to our native singer songwriters. Joy and Independence finds McNiff alone in the studio with just his guitar for company stripping away all the band trappings which have adorned many of his songs. As he says, the album is intended to be, “a homage to a golden era of the coffee house troubadour.” And while we agree with that notion it has to be said that Mr. McNiff could perhaps have added bedsits alongside coffee houses as Joy and Independence could easily sit beside albums by L Cohen, Al Stewart, Nick Drake and Bert Jansch in any self respecting student’s gloomy abode.
As with Dylan, McNiff’s distinctive voice may inhibit the casual listener but as with many of the troubadours he admires his voice is an instrument which floats above his excellent guitar playing sounding at times like an innocent abroad, full of wonder and grace, almost like a male chanteuse. It’s perhaps heard at its best here on the tumble of words and flurries of guitar which is (There are no) Ordinary Days, an extraordinary song which is steeped in the sixties songwriter tradition mixed with the Gallic sensibilities of Momus. The storytelling element of those troubadours is to the fore on the lengthy Amanda, McNiff’s retelling of the trial of Amanda Knox in Italy which bears comparison with several Dylan songs from The Ballad of Hollis Brown to Hurricane and Joey. Midnight Shift meanwhile is a personal reminiscence of McNiff’s days playing the late night slot in the now closed Soho spot, the 12 Bar club while the title song is a picaresque tale of two lovers travelling through Italy in search of their dreams before going their separate ways with the song adorned by some gorgeous guitar playing.
McNiff hits the nail on the head with every song here. There’s a real sense of longing on Wind of Zaragoza and his reworking of Stuck in the Past is plaintive and moving with the sole use of piano here adding to the sense of nostalgia and loss. Been a Bad Day is a perfect down in the dumps song, McNiff the wounded lover stranded with his memories and regrets, but there is joy of sorts in the uplifting Thoughts which has McNiff singing along with Lily Ramona. Finally McNiff offers us the magnificent And the Sun Comes Up on My Dreams which sits beside the aforementioned (There are no) Ordinary Days as the standout songs here. We’d previously reckoned that an earlier McNiff song, I Remember You, totally inhabited the freewheelin’ spirit of sixties Dylan and to our mind that’s also true of And the Sun Comes Up on My Dreams. It’s a joy and a wonder to listen to.
We need to mention the guitar playing here which is excellent and which befits a man who sat for six months watching Bert Jansch play in the 12 Bar club. McNiff in fact offers a fine recollection of his various guitars in the liner notes calling them, “these curvy shaped bits of wood…imbued with romance.” So true as a listen to this album will testify to.