Urban Dogs: Bonefield – album review

Urban Dogs – Bonefield (Time and Matter Records)
Available now 

UK Subs side project Urban Dogs release their fourth album of covers of songs by the members other band as well as original material.

Urban Dogs were formed in 1982 by Charlie Harper to play a gig at the 100 Club when the majority of the UK Subs were worried about over saturation in light of their “pop star status”. Charlie roped in the Vibrator’s Knox on guitar, Matthew Best on Drums, and the only other UK Sub, Alvin Gibbs (bass).

‘Bonefield’ is their fourth album in the 30 year lifetime of the illustrious side project, that went beyond the usual remit of such a venture. It’s an ‘acoustic’ album featuring just Charlie and Knox, except for Stan Standen’s additional guitar on a couple of cuts. The album features known tracks from Urban Dogs, UK Subs, the Vibrators and two new songs. It’s an intimate affair with Charlie providing a track by track commentary in the liner notes, and Knox having designed both the front and back cover.

The album took three years. With Knox touring with the Vibrators up until May of last year, and Charlie almost constantly on tour with the UK Subs, trying to pin point time to get things down must have been difficult.

Minus its protruding bass line, and electric guitar riff intro, the UK Subs ‘Warhead’ is easily identified as the opener. It manages to maintain a great deal of its power considering the stripped down “bare-bones” approach. The Dogs originally did a version for the b-side of ‘Limo Life’, and it was a staple of their live shows. It doesn’t just conserve the original, but breathes vitality into the song, and it sounds fresh and new.

‘War Baby’ too preserves much of the dynamism of the original; it sounds powerful with Harper delivering an expressive and aggressive vocal. As with the ‘Warhead’ before, the lyrics are as relevant now as they were on the original release. You can hear where the time was spent on these tracks; it’s not an acoustic album in the sense of capturing a session, or a show. The mix is considered, and Knox’s backing vocal and ruminating guitar give tracks remarkable depth. That measured sound is amplified further on tracks by Harper’s harmonica playing.

Their albums have been littered with covers since their foundation, but Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ isn’t a well judged addition. In the notes Charlie recounts seeing 5,000 punk’s pogoing to it at a festival, but they haven’t managed to recreate that atmosphere here. The voice effect and electric guitar don’t conceal the dullness. It could be any pub rock band hammering out the covered to death standard, although, you’d be hard set to find a pub band with such a competent, incendiary guitar playing. The album isn’t really acoustic in the truest sense; as the album is reliant on Knox’s electric guitar throughout, affirming that there’s plenty of vitality still in the paws.

Better judged is their rendition of Goebel Reeve’s ‘Hobo’s Lullaby’, another well covered track, Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo both did a version, as did Ramblin Jack Elliot, and several others. On ‘Lullaby’ the ‘Dogs’ bring something new to it, Harper’s punkish vocal delivery manages to add edginess, yet remain authentic sounding. That authentic feel is further exemplified with harmonica reminiscent of a train bellowing intertwined with Knox’s country tinged playing.

They also successfully throw their hand to the Hank William’s track ‘Move it over’, a high point of the album. That’s followed by a satisfying rendition of ‘Cocaine’ a song often associated with the Reverend Gary Davis, who learned it from a travelling carnival musician, Porter Irving, in 1905.

It’s been rearranged, rewritten, and rehashed by everyone from Bob Dylan to John Martyn, and the Urban Dog’s version is animated, and Harper’s voice is equal to any that has sung it in the past. Knox provides backing vocals, giving it a sing along quality shared with several of the tracks on the album. Throughout, Harper’s voice, and harmonica testify to the fact that he’s been invested in this country, folk, and blues music for some time, it gives the album an authentic sound that may surprise those just familiar with the duo’s previous outings.

Harper tells us in the liner notes that the UK Subs ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ was written acoustically, and although the Vibrator’s ‘Dragnet’, and the Dogs own ‘New Barbarian’s’ are fine interpretations of earlier classics, ‘Girls’ stands out, and is easily on a par with the original. The pair capture it brilliantly. It’s a perfect example of what the duo achieve on the ‘Bonefield’, bringing an attitude, and energy to an “acoustic” album often omitted. When things are stripped back, they should reveal the quality of the track, not what’s lacking. The spirited ‘Tomorrow’s Girls’ achieves that glowingly.

The older songs are more subdued than their previous incarnations but retain a lot of the power of the originals. Of the new songs ‘Not in My Name’ is the stand out track, its anti-war subject matter perfectly complement classic tracks like ‘Warhead’ and ‘War Baby’. ‘Swamp Dog Blues’ is an autobiographical history of the duo, with spoken word vocals from Knox. It’s fun, but doesn’t stand up to repeat listening. Harper states they wrote a few numbers while putting the album together, and if ‘Not in My Name’ is an indication of that writing, we look forward to hearing more.

Overall it’s a thoroughly enjoyable listen, with just one or two underwhelming tracks. For fans of Urban Dogs, UK Subs and Vibrators this is definitely worth checking out, the kind of album you might throw on in the very early hours, or on a Sunday evening, when the ears are ringing from the weekend.

The nature of acoustic albums is that they are often just curiosities for fans and non essential to others, but ‘Bonefield’ has broader appeal, by stripping down the songs to absolute basics, the focus is often on the song writing, confirming that some of the best lyric writing has been in punk. Knox’s guitar playing is incredible, and the duo have a great musical repoire, established from years of performing together.

It’s a bluesy, stripped down album, that still manages to intertwine the spirit and ethos of punk, and capture the obvious fun the pair had recording it.

All words by Ray Burke. You can read more from Ray on LTW here.

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