Ray Wilson? Many of us know the pedigree less so the music: ‘Inside’ was a great post-grunge hit single come cool Levi’s jeans advert and ‘Congo’ a solid return to credibility for a band whose parent album Calling All Stations we never gave a fair crack of the whip. Genesis and Stiltskin are just two words among many that you’ll find listed through Ray Wilson’s back pages though. You don’t get to bring out an eight CD box collection of your solo albums or be touring Europe right now if you’re not making a career of this singing malarkey.
Fact is, he’s rather good this Mr Wilson. Rather, I’ll go as far as to declare his Song For A Friend to be my favourite album so far this year. Further, it is the most complete album I’ve heard in a long time; and its CD packaging consummately well designed. Oh, by the way; you can teach old dog new tricks because I’m one of those who’ve been ignoring what he’s had to say the last 20 years.
Song For A Friend is ostensibly “a collection of musical short stories”, primarily acoustic in nature, with nine of its ten tracks co-written by Stiltskin guitarist Uwe Metzler and the friend in question being one James Lewis who passed away last year, more of which later.
‘Old Book On The Shelf’ serves as introduction to the work as a whole. An acoustic guitar plucks at chords and Wilson’s voice draws you in evocatively to this narrative of a man sitting alone at a bar who decides to browse through a book and finds it to be his own life’s story. Musically it unfolds with an upbeat chorus and a touch of lightly played keyboards where on nearing conclusion where the revelation unfolds that everything might just work out alright in the end. It does so without being twee, and the words sung owe less to poetic license and the short story format. There will be a far crueller twist to other tales in this collection…
Time and again listening to ‘Over My Dead Body’ I find myself contemplating lost lovers whose faces I can barely recall, for such is the bitterness and recriminations that take place as we recast our own past. In actuality Wilson’s song is about a once close friend who let him down. When friends screw you, it often hurts more than those we romance. This features a bright and clear acoustic sound, a resigned sigh of a middle eight vocal line is contrasted by the joyful innocence of youth heard musically in its choruses but the words continue their theme. A piano comes into play from the second verse on and later there’s melodic interplay between it and an electric slide guitar. There’s a certain progressive rock feel to ‘Cold Light of Day’ chiefly for the way the chords seem to echo the theme tune to the Bond movie Goldfinger adding suspense and intrigue, and this continues even as a slide guitar returns to bid us journey along the highways of Americana musically .
Sung in the first person, with a rather Ralph McTell acoustic picking melody underneath we are mislead greatly by the next number. Reminiscing on tall brave war stories of a childhood playing football and loving the “sea air” the song begins to praise a mother who worked morning till night to make ends meet. Then, as bass and drums join rhythmically the pace becomes brisker, beating as if time is running out and then it hits you that Wilson is singing as if he were his friend, the aforementioned Lewis. Paralysed after an accident, this man who was apparently the life and soul of any party returned to his hometown and drove his wheelchair over the harbour into the sea. Even with that spoiler alert, your jaw still might drop upon listening to ‘Song For A Friend’. The following ‘How Long Is Too Long’ sees Wilson takes the guise of Lewis once more, whereas rather than memories it is the emotional despair that his friend might have felt that he portrays with a wonderfully aching delivery, the music itself electric guitar chops and affective melody fills in a true blue-eyed soul vein, while an organ swirls as dark existential questions are voiced, with musical asides that embellish and make the song all the more profound. If, similar to ‘Over My Dead Body’ one mishears this as a song about a lost love, and missing that person so be it; it works just as well, and for me is again one of the album’s highlights.
‘Not Long Till Springtime’ is this time actually about a loved one, Wilson’s girlfriend who he moved to Poland to be with eight years ago. A dancer she had an injury and the song was his way of wanting to make her feel better. It works for me I can tell you. Decades before he sung with them I know, but Wilson fans who came to him through his work with Genesis can look to this track to reflect that band’s long held excursions into pastorally minded acoustic music suitably embellished (Think Trespass-era played with the confident positive vibes of Selling England). Wilson’s voice is warm and caring in the verses and on approaching each chorus he suggests one “Do a little dance” and there’s a great sense of joy felt in the playing of all concerned, with keyboards subtle but moving throughout.
‘Backseat Driving’ sits more directly within the English singer/songwriter modern folk idiom. Herein Wilson wags a finger at gossips, xenophobes and political harridans and ironically by being so vocally critical shows his own less saintly side. For all that proof of his humanity, he follows it with ‘Parallel Souls’ a song intended to reflect spiritual feelings. Me I just love the number, from the cascading chords, ascending organ line, onto a mixture of voices that run from harmony to near-on minor Welsh choir (Yes, I know he’s Scottish) to the glorious spirit of rock and roll coming through, and then when “Parallel lines that never seem to meet” is sung and followed by something as simple as a hand clap and bit of percussion this roots rock number just about makes my day. But I think too much, and so ‘Tired And Failed’ ought more be my anthem, something of a jazz flavoured tune with a guest tenor sax solo by Marcin Kajper. Thereafter a cover of Pink Floyd’s ‘High Hopes’ bookends this whole affair most suitably.
As noted earlier, the CD packaging itself has been crafted with as much care as the music. Beyond the somewhat anxious moody sepia-toned photo of Wilson on the front cover of Song For A Friend we turn the pages of its hardbound booklet to find more browned pages, the lyrics of each song presented in a readable handwritten style (most such fonts aren’t, and more to the point this has been proofread so my teeth don’t have to grind at the glaring typos I see on far too many modern records). Each page also features a photo that on initial viewing may be taken quite literally as a train track vanishing into a distant countryside or a medieval statue but when matched with the page’s lyrics reveal themselves works of art too, contrasting, embellishing and giving added food for thoughr. Stand up and be applauded for both artwork and design Thomas Ewerhard.
You could listen and appreciate each song individually on this album, but for me this is best heard as a complete work. A literate emotional work well articulated by a compelling sandy-toned singer whose band is the dust on an old bookshelf that adds atmospheric character.
Song For A Friend is quality control all the way down the line – The standard by which all those who choose the modern troubadour’s life must now be judged.