When one thinks of Scarborough, it’s end of the pier stuff – amusement arcades, fish and chips and trying not to shiver on the sands. It’s certainly not the place you would anticipate would birth an album chockfull of warm Americana styled songs delivered in a fine relaxed fashion. Songs From The Back Room is the solo debut of veteran songwriter Phil Hooley, front man of The Woolgatherers, a band who have plied their enjoyable mix of country, folk and swing at festivals and pubs the length and breadth of the country. Ensconced in Scarborough in lockdown, Hooley happened upon Nashville drummer and producer Justin Johnson, who, for some reason, was also holed up in the seaside resort, they gelled and, several months later, here’s their baby.
For the most part, Songs From The Back Room is a very laid back affair. Guitars glisten and pedal steel does indeed swoon, but the primary focus is on Hooley’s well-grained voice which is like a finely aged malt whisky. Johnson’s production is sympathetic, allowing Hooley to effortlessly croon his words over the finely crafted arrangements. The opening song, Learning To be Still, sets out their stall as Hooley recalls Mark Knopfler vocally while there’s also a hint of Dire Straits in the guitar parts. That Same Old Song follows with a slight skip in its step due to a jauntier melody and some sly Dobro playing as Hooley displays his affection for writers such as Guy Clark. Midasville then arrives with a fine billow of dusty Western tropes as Hooley duets with Liverpool’s Rob Vincent on a grand tale of a frontier town becoming a ghost of its former self – a story as old as the hills perhaps but oddly topical given the recent MAGA baloney. Anyhow, it’s a brilliant song and the band pull it off with some élan.
Aside from the brash pub rock of Pour Me A Drink, a rollicking number which perhaps betrays Hooley’s early introduction to Brinsley Schwartz, and the finger popping sophistication of Maybe Later, Hooley sticks to his winning ways on the piano and fiddle ballad, River Of Dreams which flows wonderfully and is reminiscent of early Jackson Browne. Trust Your Heart has a warm-hearted chorus which is a balm for these unsettled times. Here, the band perform wonderfully with a fine tapestry of fiddle, guitars, pedal steel and mandolin woven into the song. Closing the album, Hooley harks back again to the likes of Guy Clark on the moving and spare It’s Time We Said Goodbye. It’s a lovely song, suffused with love and regret, and a perfect end to what is a very good album.