The new album from Martin Stephenson is one of his best reckons Paul Scott-Bates in this review.
Martin Stephenson should be a household name. Fact.
There’s no doubt that he is critically acclaimed as one of this Country’s finest songwriters, and quite rightly so. Over 25 years since the release of the debut album, the mighty Boat To Bolivia, Martin continues to record and tour both as a solo artist and with the Daintees. Generally acknowledged as Mr Nice Guy, after 40 albums how does the new stuff compare?
The answer is pretty simple - easily. California Star is an album of folk. With a little Blues. And Country. And jazz. And reggae. And rock. It rarely gets much better.
From the opening of the sublime The Ship, you know that this album is going places. It’s a lovely calm start to the album. “Brothers and Sisters, do not forsake us, give us a ship, help sail us”. Welcome aboard. Any song that tips a hat to Sham 69 is ok by me as The Ship fades out – “Hurry Up Jimmy Pursey, we’re going down the pub”.
We next dock in the Basque country – the Streets Of San Sebestian to be precise. A song with obvious Spanish overtones, influenced by a visit by Martin and partner, Helen McCookerybook. Martin has, and has always had, the great ability to not only write words, but tell a story. Up there with great musical poets like Ray Davies, he not only makes catchy songs but enthrals you with a tale. Sometimes, bringing tears of sorrow, other times tears of joy.
I challenge you not to tap your feet to Power That Is Greater. Go on, try it. You can’t. Some time after ending, you’re still humming it. The title track is just lovely, nothing more nothing less, just lovely. Martin’s love of his art is clear to see. I really don’t think he could write a poor song if he tried. From the subtle tones of California Star straight into some good old rockin’ blues, Ready To Move On. You really canât go wrong with a harmonica. The song fades out with Kenny Brady, backing vocalist, disappearing into the silence, then suddenly the song comes back with Martin making comment “I knew the wee shite would get the last word”. Genius.
For the uninitiated, you could be forgiven for thinking that this album is a Best Of collection, which bids the question “why has this guy never had a hit single”? It really is a mystery, even back to great songs like Wholly Humble Heart and appearances on The Tube in the late 80s, Martin has always been critically acclaimed, but never commercially accepted. From the label that also brought you Prefab Sprout, Kane Gang and the mighty Hurrah!, Kitchenware had the knack of finding loads of ‘nearly’ acts up until its closure earlier this year.
Boy To Man is classic Stephenson, a prayer willing God that he will never have to go to war. As will many of Martin’s songs, the story unfolds and it will leave you silent with the final verse. An instant pick-you-up with Something Special and Silver Bird. The later of the two would also suit the marvellous Ian McNabb â a song written in his style. Letâs have a collaboration eh lads?!
The production on this album is superb, every instrument sounds fresh and clean and almost as though you’re there with the band. Long Way To Go is another toe-tapper. A Country feel and a great sing-along song. The short but sublime Sweet Cherwine leads onto, for me, the best track of the album. The reggae beat to I’m In Love For The First Time is wonderful. What I wouldn’t give to hear a dub version of this song - a rival to Wholly Humble Heart? Possibly.
Boat To Bolivia may often be the album that is cited as ‘The’ Daintees album, but California Star may well now be challenging that title. A classic.
All words by Paul Scott Bates. More work by Paul on Louder Than War can be found here.Â Paul’s website is Heaven Is A Place On Pendle. Paul has been working hard to save Radio Lancashire’s On The Wire, easily one of the best radio shows on the BBC. Follow him on twitter as @saveonthewire for all On The Wire news or follow his personal twitter, @hiapop.