Red Button Records [Release date 21.02.20]
‘The Cherryvale’ Files is Jackie McAuley’s first album for about 4 years and though it’s an introspective aggregation of songs rather than a full-blown album, it’s been worth the wait.
The former Them, Belfast Gypsies Trader Horne Poormouth member and solo artist turned author, has too often subsumed his own abilities to other projects in which he was a sideman.
‘The Cherryvale Files’ aims to redress the balance with strong songs and inspired playing. However, a lack of dynamics in the sequencing means that by the time of the soulful blues of ‘Troubles Gone’, the album almost wilts a little as everything is similarly paced.
And that’s a shame, as ‘Troubles Gone’ plays to his strengths as a fine balladeer and intuitive songwriter. The song is also coloured by layered organ and a slide guitar part injects an extra emotional pulse.
It’s good to listen to this track on its own to enjoy the sumptuous arrangement which polishes McAuley’s song craft, whereas when heard in the middle of a similarly paced set of songs it loses something of its impact.
Taken as a whole, The Cherryvale Files’ sounds like a set of very promising demo’s in search of a full-blown arrangement and a fuller production.
Frustratingly you could also say the same thing about some of Jackie’s previous albums, where his songs are consistently good, but weren’t always given the full benefit of a sympathetic production.
As it is, he draws on a rootsy, down-home, blues tradition and is seemingly inspired by songwriters such as Randy Newman, as he weaves stories of the past, present and simply imagined.
The opening ‘Out In The Wild West’ finds him at his very best. He frames his story with an acoustic-into-electric arrangement that enhances an undulating melody and delicate percussion to flow into the catchy chorus.
A mix of Spanish guitar and an overall lightness of touch makes it a great opening track
The following ‘Sailing On The Radio Waves’ drips with nostalgia in a glance back to the days of an evocative love song on the radio. Stylistically it reminds me of the late Leon Redbone.
He’s almost gets sentimental on another album highlight, ‘Men Of Arranmore’. It’s a beautiful acoustic ballad with pipes or flute and a singalong hook. Co-penned with his brother Brendan, it’s so good that it easily stands comparison with several other well-known songs about the Donegal island.
His stripped-down approach embraces a lovely acoustic wash on ‘Long Whistle Blowing’. The nuanced harmonies are given a country feel by Pierre Luigi Cioci’s mid-number fiddle break and another engaging story-telling narrative.
The clean sounding electric guitar tone on the percussive ‘Take You Home’ provides some welcome sonic contrast, as a mix of sonorous harp and his own clarity of diction makes for a resonating love song.
‘The Cherryvale Files’ has an organic feel, born of a busy working musician who makes the best of the potential his band members offer him.
He revels in an inspired streak, but deep into the album a brace of songs about American characters are solid, yet feel slightly out of step with what’s gone before.
‘The Brooklyn Cannonball’ is about ‘20’s World bantamweight champion Eddie Martin and sounds like a distant relative Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ (from his ‘Desire’ album).
The 20-year-old ‘Robert Stroud’s Reprieve’ – a song about the “Birdman of Alcatraz” - features some essential mandolin and another sing-along hook with rich harmonies.
Both songs serve to remind us that ‘The Cherryvale Files’ is a loosely gathered set of songs rather than an album written to order. As such they should be seen as an extension of his song writing versatility rather than primarily tapping into his same creative streak that makes the first half of the album so good.
And there you have it. ‘The Cherryvale Files’ is a welcome addition to McAuley’s sporadic discography. It suggests he’s still a creative force with a crossover style that spans Celtic folk, blues, country and Americana.
The fact that his music is instantly recognizable tells you all you need to know about a singer-songwriter who in the 55th year of his pro career continues to set a standard many would be happy to emulate. ****
Review by Pete Feenstra
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