Album review: JOHN OTWAY – Montserrat

John Otway - Montserrat

Red Bowler Records [Release date: 01.05.17]

There will surely always be a place for John Otway in the rock & roll firmament, as only an anarchic character such as him could have conceived of an album like this in 2017.

‘Montserrat’ proudly stands outside of any prevailing contemporary musical genre, but has enough cross generational appeal to make a connection with different listeners on different levels.

By turns he’s funny, reflective, poignant, poetic and makes good use of his band,  though with the exception of the splendid psychedelic metal drone of ‘Seagull On Speed’ and the big guitar break of ‘Toronto’  some of the tracks sound too mixed back.

‘Montserrat’ marks the 25th anniversary of The Rolling Stones ‘Steel Wheels’ – the last rock recording on the island – and another clever marketing idea in the Otway cannon.

The fact that his new album was crowd funded says more about Otway’s enduing appeal to his durable fan base than it does about the lack of record companies willing to invest in independent artists.

Then again Otway isn’t just any indie artist, but his recorded output arguably never quite reached the heights of his furtive imagination.

This CD restates his essential and unique style – a perpetual chronicler of an alternative lifestyle, one part folk, one part punk, and one part a performance artist.

Perhaps his role as a performance artist – he mixes physical theatre with cerebral humour and plenty of self deprecation – has never easily translated into a passive audio listening experience. The problem was always that an Otway album without some anarchic humour would be like Zappa without the satire.

Happily ‘Montserrat’ is full of musical diversity and cleverly recycled themes and elements from his past, with plenty of fist pumping hooks, shot through rib tickling humour.

The key to glueing everything together lies in his heartfelt phrasing – be it the spoken word delivery of the Theramin soaked ‘Dancing With Ghosts’, the post punk snarl of ‘I Shouldn’t Be Doing This’, or the wide eyed vulnerability of the steel pan arrangement of ‘Jenny’ – which draws the listener into sometimes touching couplets.

He reserves his most brusque, up tempo punky gusto for the frenetic mid-70’s styled ‘Five Kisses’, which is short, sharp, snappy and to the point and could be Eddie & The Hot Rods.

Then there’s the well crafted, wistful feel of ‘Already Missing You’, given a gentle brush stroke gypsy jazz feel, complete with tinkling ivories and sonorous violin.

He’s smart enough to surround himself with his big band, Canadian producer Chris Birkett and even keyboard veteran Peter Filleul, listed as a recording consultant. Collectively they smooth out the edges to emphasize the sequential diversity, but never quite shake off a retro sounding production.

It all makes for an album with probably more substance than we might have imagined. And just past the half way point as Otway’s oeuvre gains clarity, the band explodes on ‘Toronto’, one of the best tracks on the album. It rocks hard and pokes a gentle finger in the ribs of the city which helped provide both the album’s producer and some of the gear for the makeshift studio in the Caribbean.

This track gives the album a notable lift and suggests that in between the self deprecating humour, there’s a decent songwriter trying to get out.

‘Somewhere Else To Go’ is a return to his folk roots on a heartfelt piece ballad that recalls his early romanticism: “And searching though my lost and found there’s a sunbeam breaking through the cloud, I hear you say, it’s ok.”

He adds a croaky vocal on ‘There’s A War Going On’, which features a nice uplifting guitar line and a vocoder doctored hook that evokes ELO.

He saves his best until last, on the sonorous intro and subsequent poetic orchestral sweep of ‘The Conductive Waltz’. It’s a reflective piece on which he even references his first orchestrated single ‘Geneva’.

The filmic waltz-time arrangement is topped by his best vocal and lyrics in recent years: “A kiss from a princess, the gift of an audience, the stage to build a career, all given swiftly from April to June, the very same year that they walked on the moon.”

Once you play the album back to back the sequential flow reveals itself. Everything leads naturally to a wonderful journey’s end that incorporates all his fragmented past to make up a coherent whole. For somewhere underneath the zany ideas, the anarchic humour and the Obama style ‘Yes we can’ attitude, there is a songwriter of surprising depth still trying to get out.

This album could equally have been called ‘Postcards From Montserrat’ as it is effectively a snapshot of all the good things that continue to give Otway enduring appeal. ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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