Repertoire records [Release date 13.12.19]
Gary Fletcher’s ‘River Keeps Flowing’ is all about mood, feel and a musical aesthetic that allows him to subtly explore a mix of relationship songs and beyond.
It’s an album of well crafted songs – where noir genre meets personal lyrics – all glued together by a smooth layered production that always emphasizes a potent sonic quality.
Just like the album title itself, the music draws us into a series of grooves and self revelations on subtle mid-tempo outings that consistently illuminate lyrical meaning.
This album bears the unmistakeable imprint of its author, The Blues Band bass player Gary Fletcher, who successfully makes the transformation from being a dependable anchor man and occasional contributing songwriter, to being an impressive multi instrumentalist singer-songwriter closer to Americana than good-time blues.
The palpable restraint at the heart of this album also means that with the exception of a few slide breaks and guest solo spots, it’s not until the penultimate track ‘You Can. You Can’, that the band stretch out as lead guitarist Nick Ritchie and special guest Paul Jones explore the groove to the limit.
The reason for that is ‘River Keeps Flowing’ is a lyrically led album, built on tight arrangements that are brought to life by a band that always serves the song first.
It’s all topped and tailed by an ethereal opening and crisp Spanish acoustic outro that suggests the beginning and end of a musical journey, in which each song is like a short chapter that gradually reveals more about the songwriter.
The instrumental intro sets the tone for the rest of the album, before a belated portentous piano note ushers in the noirsih ‘No Shadow On The Wall’. The dark theme also permeates the harp-led blues ‘Don’t You Come Creeping’ with further whispered paranoia references over a train-time backbeat, big screen harp and buzz tone slide.
The album title perfectly mirrors the inherent flow of a subtly sequenced album that builds imperceptibly and hits an early peak on the exquisite banjo-led groove of ‘Hearsay’.
The percussive lightness of touch, whispered vocals and nuanced tom-toms provide the perfect foil for Alan Glen’s timeless blues harp. Everything builds imperceptibly like a slow cooker, as Tom Leary’s violin gently hovers above a beautifully sculpted piece that might very well be a career highlight for Fletcher.
And while a succession of mid-tempo arrangements and deep grooves make for a laid back set, there’s plenty of vocal and musical contrast as well as tonal colour. This is most notable on the acoustic clarity, Knopfleresque guitar flourishes and Graham Nash style vocal on the soulful ‘You Just Can’t Know’.
The latter also hints at a spiritual depth, but then holds back from further revelations with the following lines: “I can claim understanding, But wouldn’t that be a lie, It’s no more than presumption, we should both see just why.”
The Graham Nash connection resurfaces deep into the album on ‘It’s Just Feel’. It’s another highlight on which the close to the mic vocal and delicate band interplay beautifully evokes the very subject matter Fletcher sings about.
And while he has that rare ability to dip into a mood and expand on it musically, he’s also a fine songwriter who is unafraid to tap into his own emotions and recollections.
‘Back To Your Heart’ for example, mixes an Americana feel with a soulful vocal and Paul Jones’s short country blues harp on a splendid example of Fletcher’s songcraft. “They say a problem shared is a problem halved, help me to help you, can it be so hard, Find me a way, back to your heart.”
‘I Couldn’t Be Asking’ is equally good. It’s a superbly produced track that blends together an aching harp, violin and perfect vocal on a song about regret, while the bv’s almost give it a gospel feel.
It’s back to the The Blues Band blueprint for the slide injected, stop-time ‘Something’s Got To Change’, while the subtle brush strokes, slide and harp on the slow blues ‘How Do You Live’ builds the perfect platform for some biting lyrics , punctuated by a stinging guitar solo.
And just when you quietly think he’s explored all his musical options, the album slips into the late night groove of ‘Now So Long To Love’. It’s a relationship song with a universal application delivered over a pulsing bass line with poignant lyrics: “It’s like they’re tuned to stations, That only play sad songs, Something here is troubling them, But they don’t know what’s wrong.”
The historic ‘Jacob Burkle’ is a thematic departure and has a Paul Simon feel. It’s a well researched song about on a mid 19th century German immigrant to the Southern States who apparently helped with slave emancipation, though as the song suggests it his role might be uncorroborated.
‘River Keeps Flowing’ is an excellent album that brings fresh reward with repeated listens. The enquiring lyrics drip with life experiences and lingering memories, while the fat grooves and inspired playing draws us into the kind of album Gary Fletcher probably couldn’t have made a few years ago.
It’s also an old school album which takes us on a coherent musical journey that balances lyrical honesty and occasional introspection with his band’s musical ebullience. It’s all shorn of any rough edges by Bill Gautier’s production which always pays attention to the greater whole.
If Nashville is the spiritual home of Americana, this is a splendid European repost. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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