After a well regarded although somewhat under the radar career as Quiet Loner, Matt Hill, a Nottingham raised singer songwriter, has decided to ditch his old moniker, transferring the name to his record label, and proudly presents us his first album recorded under his own name. Hill is quite an intriguing character. Hardly a household name, he has been beetling about the UK Americana community for many years (indeed, his 2004 release, Secret Ruler Of The World was voted the best release of that year by Americana UK) while he has been heavily involved in community projects over the years. This has included stints as ‘songwriter-in-residence’ at the People’s History Museum in Manchester along with work in prisons and, somewhat delightfully, “teaching protest songs to toddlers.” His list of achievements is really too long to mention all here but Hill tells all in this short biography here.
An Elvis fan from an early age, Hill drank in American music through radio and TV as he was growing up and feels comfortable playing in an Americana styled idiom although many of his songs are rooted in a defiantly Anglicised tradition. On the album, he imagines the visionary poet, William Blake, rising from his London grave to haunt the merchant bankers who now infest the ancient square mile while there are several songs drawn from Nottingham and Salford histories. D.H. Lawrence and a 19th century bare-knuckled boxer feature but there’s also a song about the infamous Gary Gilmore asking for a telephone call with Johnny Cash as his last request. It’s tempting to mention here, Grassicana, a term coined by Lawrence County, a Nottinghamshire band who also combine Lawrence references and Americana music, but Hill is actually more akin to the likes of Dean Owens, another songwriter who successfully combines his homegrown roots with a love of American music.
Anyhow, Savage Pilgrims, is brimful of excellent songs as Hill takes the listener through a set of songs which draw on folk, country, blues and gospel. Stone & Bone opens the album in fine style as he rattles along in skeletal rockabilly fettle coming across as if he were psychogeographer Iain Sinclair fronting 16 Horsepower. Save Your Eyes has a sweet Leonard Cohen like lilt as Hill inhabits a local hero at the end of his days and he revisits this Cohen like feel, although with more of a tea dance element to it, on his celebration of a Nottingham meeting point on Four Corners. The Exile Of D.H. Lawrence points to the writer’s exile in New Mexico which is emphasised by Morricone like whistling while Chains is an engaging frontier ballad swept along by a mighty wind as Hill delves into the history of slavery.
There are two songs about boxers, both drawn from history. Billy’s Prayer is the folkiest number here as Hill recalls Fairport Convention’s foray into the past on John Babbacome Lee while Bendingo bustles along like a country cousin to Dylan’s Hurricane. However, the most fully realised number here is the excellent Gary Gilmore’s Last Request. With a nod to Cash’s chicka boom rythym, slowed down with trilling banjo and supple twanged guitar, Hill excels with his deadpan vocal delivery. There’s cowboy noire twangings on Stand Before The Wagon and then a final farewell on the closing number, Roll Me Out, a tender and moving campfire song.
A true wordsmith, Hill’s lyrics are acute throughout the album as he brings the songs to life. He’s a singular talent who has a well-developed sense of social justice and a real grasp on the music and places which have shaped him.
Matt Hill · Gary Gilmore’s Last Request