Tuesday, July 22, 2008

We could have we should have we didn't

Originally uploaded by Stephen Burch
The Great Park's new album 'we could have we should have we didn't' is a beautiful thing and unique in many ways. In fact given the circumstances around its recording it is a miracle it got made at all; the fact that it is so raw and honest and downright excellent is all the more remarkable.

Having self-produced around half a dozen albums (depending how you count 'em) on the tiny Brighton-based woodland recordings label over the last 18 months, the Great Park has developed a portfolio of intimate morose folk songs, rooted in a strange personal world of fields and birds and love and persecution. This latest album, like so much of the Great Park canon, is in parts autobiographical; beautifully arranged, with a subtle fuller sound than most of the preceding releases. It is also a significant step forward on what has come before, and a magnificent achievement, although it's hard to pin down exactly what it is and why.

Having returned from a tour of Germany, Stephen Burch (the Great Park's main man) has been itinerant and homeless and the new album has had to be constructed piece-by-piece, while moving from place to place around various people's homes in Brighton, Bristol and Ireland. At each stop new tracks would emerge, some written on the spot as the moment allowed, others having matured over time. Contributions from the likes of Kristin McClement, Lawrie 'Birdengine' Tilbury, Sam 'Mid-West Blues' Collins were added. And somehow this album pieced itself together into a meaningful whole.

The music made by The Great Park is not just folk music but has soul (without the traditional rhythm and blues I guess, although it brings its own sense of both). 'We could have...' is raw, open and honest in ways that most folk musicians can rarely sustain. It is in a similar vein to Mary Hampton's excellent new album, but with less theatrics; or like a Bonnie Prince Billy CD, but with more gravitas and humour. And did I mention 'Just Another Diamond Day'? The accompaniments on this set are superb too - a little piano here, some extra guitar there, earie backing vocals or echoing chorus, a little birdsong - all add to the gentle but haunting textures in the music.

Originally uploaded by Stephen Burch

Limited to only 100 copies in its first edition, 'We could have we should have we didn't' comes in a unique hand printed box, with a lyric sheet, a photograph and a feather. There are covers of songs by Liz Green (excellent) and the Sons of Noel and Adrian (a little out of place here), and two short filler tracks which work well in adding to the special atmosphere of the whole.

The individual songs themselves are largely autobiographical, full of a quiet passion, deep emotion and hard life. Recognisable events are relayed and obscure human stories appear for a lyric or two and then are gone.

The album opens with Annabel, a song that has featured in the live set for a while now, introducing Stephen's itinerant nature and wrapping it up in a simple song about love and how we connect through the things we bring to a relationship
"I came to you to be lonely,
I came to you to lay low,
and I'll stay here as long as you'll have me,
and hide the books when I go."
Staying still is never an option on this album. Song 2 is a 'displacement song' written by Liz Green, and then comes 'Home is a Hole' ("the roof is gone, such damage done"). Staying still is never an option. If there is nowhere to remain, it is because every place seems to be haunted by memory, fear and broken relationships.

The title song to the album is a relentless attack of alientation and regret, the chorus "we could have we should have we didn't" breaking up each verse and letting the listener know that there is no simple happy ending in any of the clues left within the verses. Recorded in pieces in six places, most of them make-do home recording in living rooms, it's an 'aweful' song - in the real essence of the word, full of dread and bright-eyed inspiration. Hints of autoiography ("I was born in a small town I haven't grown tall") give it the power of truth. Stephen Burch must have dredged the most intimate and frightening corners of his emotions to come up with lines such as
"...the road got lost and it's all my fault and it's my job to find it again,
help was at hand but the best laid plans have dumped us in no-man's land..."
The epic 'Since he's been gone' ( two chords, eleven minutes ) is ostensibly about Stephen's dead father ("...on my shoulders, it hurts") and the sense of regret for someone who's passing leaves no room to reset the picture that they may (or may not) have had in their mind when they died. When the chorus kicks in
"Since he's been gone, I've been carrying on..."
the listener's first thought is that, well perhaps he hasn't.

That song is an epic in the great folk sense. But the album is not all heavy or doom-laden, and it keeps you enthralled from start to finish. It has beautiful light moments too, such as 'And I don't know why', a simple riff of a song written in a moment inbetween things and recorded that instant. Its words are entrenched in rural thing - digging the earth, watching crows - and the tune takes its peace from the complete absence of any sense of city stress. A gentle, lovely song.

Similarly, the haunting 'Out here' has a simple two chord structure reminiscent of the Velvet Underground at first until the eerie lyrics start to dig under the skin, taking over, and Kristin Mclement's moans and piano riff move the song into a higher place somewhere over and above the day-to-day world. Simply gorgeous.

The final track 'Jesswood' closes the theme of escape and displacement with its chorus of "well, hello, I'm finally home". But there are hints that flight is always a threat, the distance-between always an attraction, and its a feeling that requires constant vigilance to keep from the door:
"if you see me thinking of leaving again
take hold of my feet
and nail them to the floor
of your sweet sad room
and I will leave you no more"
A most original and enthralling album. Well done Stephen.

Here's the opening track

Hear more tracks on myspace including the Great Park's superb cover of Liz Green's Displacement Song and the genre-defining I Do Wrong (which Liz herself has covered as a return compliment).

Download a free 10 track solo set performed live in Switzerland from earlier this year here at the Great Park website

And order your copy of We Could Have We Should Have We Didn't from the same place!

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