Ralph McTell – Hill of Beans
This is Ralph’s first album of original material in almost 10 years, and it’s great to have him back. Not that he has been idle in that time with two collaborative records with his old friend Wizz Jones, instrumental collection, ‘Sofa Noodling’, and a number of compilations.
But this is eleven songs of what Ralph does best.
Reuniting with acclaimed producer Tony Visconti, who was in the chair for some of Bowie’s finest moments, including ‘Heroes’ and ‘Scary Monsters’, the sound is crisp, full, and Ralph’s vocal are as strong as ever.
The album plays to the man’s great strengths; story songs, the lovely ‘Brighton Belle’, ‘Gertrude and Alice’, and the ominous-sounding ‘Gammel Dansk’. His fingerpicking blues as good as ever on ‘Close Shave’, as is his eye for the small details in life, ‘Shed Song’.
‘Sometimes I Wish I Could Pray’, with its backing choir, is an unexpected treat and that strong baritone sounds as warm and welcoming as ever on the enchanting ‘When They Were Young’.
On many albums this would be the absolute highlight, but such is the quality on display it has to compete with several others to achieve that accolade.
The title track is a gorgeous love song that stays the right side of sentimentality and sees Ralph reminisce about his busking days in Paris. Like ‘Naomi’, one of his most beautiful love songs, it is unusually piano-led.
As with all of Ralph’s albums, there is always an optimistic note to hang our hat on, and on this release, it comes in the form of ‘Clear Water’. The song might already be recognisable from its outing on Fairport Convention’s 2015 album, ‘Myths and Heroes’. In McTell’s hands, at a time of confusion throughout the land, it’s a statement of belief in a positive future and better times and couldn’t we all do with such a message in these worrying days?
I want clear water as we sail out to the head. All I want to hear is the ripple from the bow. Let us be at ease now and know our true position. Like a compass to the star, like a team hooked to the plough.”
But the real jewel in this album is a live version of ‘West Street and Jones’ which highlights the 1963 cover picture of ‘The Freewheelin Bob Dylan’ album, which sees Dylan and his then-girlfriend Susie Rotolo, huddling together to shelter from the rain. Like many great songs, it can be viewed on different levels. It talks of Susie’s natural poise against Bob’s studied nonchalance. It talks of promise, betrayed by cynicism. As Ralph explained to Folk and Tumble in an interview last year:
We had to grow up in that year, and now we’re faced with a madman in America, we have to fight the cynicism that we should have at the end of 1963, but we keep going and that says a lot about the human spirit. But you know love will continue, art will continue, and people will continue to strive to make sense through music and art of this crazy world. So that photograph remains eternal and full of promise.
It’s good to have this man back again!
‘Hill of Beans’ is available now on Leola Music