Neilson Hubbard. Cumberland Island. Proper Records

We continue the sweep up of albums from last year we unfortunately missed at the time…

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Neilson Hubbard is perhaps best known as an in demand producer with Mary Gauthier’s Rifles And Rosary Beads his most recent triumph. He’s also been involved over the past couple of years in what has been a burgeoning cottage industry, working with Ben Glover and Joshua Britt in The Orphan Brigade and with Britt and Dean Owens in a new venture called Buffalo Blood. Cumberland Island, his first solo album in 12 years, has Glover and Britt again involved along with Will Kimbrough but it’s a rare opportunity to hear Hubbard himself over the course of an album.

As with The Orphan Brigade albums, Hubbard has a hook to hang the album on, in this case, a visit to the titular Cumberland Island, an island off the coast of Georgia. Redolent with American history – native Americans, conquistadors and slavery – and with the ruins of a mock Scottish baronial castle (built by the brother of Andrew Carnegie and called Dungeness), the island is now a national park and the visit by Hubbard with his new (and pregnant wife) inspired this collection of low key and beautifully measured songs.

For the most part it’s a contemplative album with only the brisk rockabilly attack of That Was Then raising the pulse while there’s a grand old time country feel to Old Black River with Eamon McLaughlin’s fiddle sawing away over a tugboat rhythm. Elsewhere some of the songs almost stumble from the speakers. How Much Longer Can We Bend, graced with weeping fiddle and restrained piano, shimmers with a spectral beauty while the title song is a haunting evocation of the natural beauty of the island with its feral horses invoked as free spirits. Love, in its various permutations, features in several numbers as on Save You which slowly builds to a climax from its tentative tiptoeing opening as Hubbard’s finely cracked voice offers salvation to his soul mate. My Heart Belongs To You is a tender love ballad reminiscent of a sweeter Tom Waits while Don’t Make Me Walk Through This World On my Own is a magnificently mournful supplicant’s prayer. The spare, piano led songs, Let It Bleed and Oh My Love, stand out in the sense that Hubbard here is baring his soul. The former aches with loss while the latter finds him seeking and perhaps finding hope. Two sides of the coin perhaps but both songs are delivered with a wonderful sense of vulnerability and the musicians excel in capturing this.

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