'The Wife' is the new album from Stephen Burch, a.k.a. the Great Park a favourite of this blog, and one of the best new releases of the year. If only people would hear it, it would be sure to appear in many end-of-the-year 'best of 2009' lists in the blogsphere.
After the excellent Time Zone compilation of last year, drawing on albums such as 'I Do Wrong' (available for a short-time as a free download from the Great Park website) and the excellent 'We could have, we should have, we didn't', the new album 'The Wife' is both a continuation and a departure. Self-produced as ever, and pressed initially in very small quantities it is available only through the Great Park's own Woodland Recordings website in a unique hand-stencilled cover, and a photo and lyric sheet.
The Wife continues with the themes established on previous TGP releases - alientation, fear, flight - but it feels like a more confident album, fleshed out with some excellent instrumentation, in particular the beautiful violin-playing from Martha Rose which gives the whole album a warmth and the songs a sense of inter-connectedness. The lyrics are also strong; and so are all of the songs.
The opening track The Royal Canal plays on a theme later repeated in Suit of Stones, "I went down to the Royal Canal, intent to throw in my towel..." and its beautiful melancholy washed over the listener with its repeated refrain "...and I miss you with all of my heart". You Are Better Than This takes up with a sad story of a man who has left his wife, and in doing so believes rightly or wrongly that he is setting her free. The next song You Belong To Me You Do brings some lighter relief, a serious yet humorous tale of an affair with a married woman "I take off his clothes to get to you underneath", and this is followed by The Woods Were Full of Them, another song of fear and persecution which no-one does better than The Great Park. Then there's Careless Man, a bitter conversational love song with its brilliant terrible accusatory line
"oh careless man, it's a terrible damage you do,there's nothing like a woman to bring out the worst in you".
All of the songs are strong on this album, as are the arrangements with some lovely guitar playing and Martha Rose's sympathetic violin a real treat. However, my two favourites songs are the longest, mini-epics each one.
The Hills Are Alive was recorded in Ireland almost a year ago, and previously released last Xmas on a very limited EP. From the very beginning you know this is one of those great persecution songs, where something unforgiving is after the singer and will not let him alone. From the very first it does not relent, it's refrain of
"Where are you gonna run to? Where you gonna hide this time?"
echoing after each verse. The song's ten minutes are peppered with a mixture of strange characters who drift in and out of the story and poignant images drawn from a semi-urban semi-rural world, both strange and yet strangely familiar. As the tension builds, it is clear the singer is running not from just these strange and frightening shadows, but mostly he is running from the thoughts inside of himself ("the Englishman down in my blood, the shame and the scorn..."). It's a marvellous powerful and frightening song, that for ten whole minutes won't relent. A classic indeed that deserved to be heard again, by more than the lucky few.
And as if one classic wasn't enough, the Wife dredges up another in the almost eight brilliant minutes of Dig A Whole For Everyone. The harsh opening rhythms immediately differentiates this song from the others on the album. The singing is pointed, and accusatory. Resonant bass strumming immediately lines up in time with a heartbeat, the flow of blood, some primeval sense of pace. However, this is not song of running or fear but of hatred and revenge. It sets its sights at the whole world, in inspired lyricism - typified by the final verse:
"The heartless thoughtless cold remorseless mindlessspineless gang of crookswell, I've lost my best friend and they just couldn't care less.What they wanted, they just took...common thieves and hooded crows!We'll dig a hole for every one."
Great essential original stuff. You really won't hear another album like it this year.
Buy 'The Wife' from The Great Park website, and while you're there download some of the free live recordings from the current endless tour of Germany.
And if you're in Berlin, make sure you check Stephen out (he's almost certain to be playing somewhere).
Oh, and say hello.
Stephen Burch, playing with Laurence Collyer of the Diamond Family Archive
- The Great Park - The Royal Canal (from the Wife) mp3