‘Routes: The Field Sessions' by Stylusboy
Last December, I was able to let you know about the festive version of "Silent Night" which Stylusboy released to aid the Carriers of Hope charity who work with vulnerable families in Coventry.
This year he has again brought out a Christmas record and again it's something which sits adjacent to, rather than squarely within, the main canon of his work.
In fact, if you bought his superb 2019 album ‘Routes', then you may already have played ‘Routes: The Field Sessions' which was bundled with it as a "sister album", but now he has decided to celebrate it entirely on its own merits as a stand alone collection.
The songs are precisely the same as on the parent album, but as he puts it himself: "I sat one evening and recorded all the songs with a portable Tascam recorder, a bit like a gig".
This then is an unusual one for me to review & I've spent the last couple of days mulling over it…. As you'll have seen from recent reviews, when artists such as Monday Nights or Ivy Ash reimagine singles in new acoustic form, there are issues of contrast and complementing to consider in relation to the two versions.
I am also confident with getting my head round live versions (in front of an audience) of songs released in studio form and from time to time artists share demos of tracks they later recorded more formally.
Well ‘Routes: The Field Sessions' certainly has some of the feel of a set of demos, being an informal, solo set of performances by the songs' composer: yet the performances date from after the studio recordings and hence reflect "final" concepts rather than preliminary ones subject to later revision.
Equally, these are not "live" in the conventional sense either since the dynamics of audience interaction are not present.
The other thing which I gave considerable thought to was the nature of the ‘Routes' recordings themselves. The arrangements there are admirably tasteful & restrained with the songs central & production values simple: this is not really a case of taking heavily arranged tracks and stripping them back to something fundamentally simpler. What you get is without simpler, yet subtly rather than obviously so.
Naturally if you release songs featuring the talents of musicians such as Holly Hewitt & John Parker and subsequently other versions without their input it's hard to think of the process as anything other than one of subtraction and I find it hard to describe ‘Routes: The Field Sessions' as "better" than ‘Routes' without their performances: I think I'll go as far as "different" ….. at least to some extent.
So what do you get? Well clearly if you get a solo performance by the composer, you get pretty much to the heart of what he conceived the songs to be, and the extremely intimate nature of the recordings is a delight and revelation going to the essence of the compositions: you certainly feel you are alone with him. On the other hand, I certainly don't want to give the impression that the fuller arrangements on ‘Routes' in any way shirked on telling the tales in an emotionally honest way.
As Stylusboy usually plays solo, you get the versions of the songs which most closely equate to what you hear if you catch him live (though several of the tracks have also already been released in the context of live albums recorded in front of an audience), without the distractions of venues. Ultimately however, as "Stylusboy is something of a musician's musician, a connoisseur's choice if you like" (as I have previously said in a review), the value of ‘Routes: The Field Sessions' is not in the form of offering us devastatingly fresh new insights into these often very personal songs, but in providing detailed & precise new perspectives which really take repeated listens to tease out. As he is an artist whom you should only catch in quiet, intimate venues (I'd hate to see him having to contend with a noisy place), you have here a fresh set of performances of some of his very best songs to enjoy in the setting of your choice, pending your next opportunity for seeing him & hearing him in the flesh.
You can buy ‘Routes: The Field Sessions' via this link: https://ko-fi.com/s/579e10e90b and the good news is that it is on a "Pay As You Want" basis as a Christmas present from Stylusboy.
"Silent Night (2020 Version)" by Stylusboy
I am pleased to be able to announce to you that Stylusboy has just released a seasonal single for us, being a cover of "Silent Night" and that all profits will be donated to Carriers of Hope, who work with vulnerable families across Coventry.
This Christmas, Carriers of Hope are delivering hundreds of shoeboxes full of presents and Christmas dinner bags to children, with the aim of making Christmas a little brighter for those who find themselves in need, so supporting them via this single would make a difference.
It's difficult (as I commented recently on Rob Halligan's release) to make too much of a deep comment on covers of songs so incredibly well known: the issue of the writing is way beyond what I feel I can reasonably discuss & unless the arrangement is drastically radical (which probably wouldn't show much respect) then we are left with such personal issues of my response etc. Fortunately Stylusboy has approached this recording with his customary taste & class (it appears to be solely available as a download so unfortunately we aren't able to experience the artistry he normally brings to his packaging), recording it in his own (home) Truffle Room Studio with the help of Becky Jones on piano, glockenspiel & harmonies while providing vocals, guitar, ukulele, synth & programming himself.
What distinguishes this version of the classic from any I've heard is this innovative soundscape, founded on an unusual Indian sounding drone effect which ushers the track in & then sits deeper within the track. Otherwise the simple ukulele dominated arrangement (with an equally simple & effective electric guitar passage to offer variety part way through) is appropriate, throwing focus definitely upon the vocals which are mixed high & have an earnest feel which serves to refresh the song.
"Live in the Basement" by Stylusboy
It was only last week that I was telling you about the new Stylusboy single "This Is Where I Belong" which was released in advance of its parent EP "Live in the Basement" which in turn came out a few hours ago.
A six track collection which also includes live versions of "Out Upon the Ocean", "Keep You", "Embrace the View" , "Ride This Storm" and the Stylusboy classic "For the Souls of My Brothers" in addition to the aforementioned track, the larger set shares the virtues of the trail blazing song and I'll fairly shamelessly reprint some of my earlier comments since they hold true & I can't improve upon them: ".. there is a haunting element to his live performances which is difficult to capture in words ..... and the underground venue with its ambience serves to amplify this. Stylusboy works superbly with his performance style and the intimate nature of his music: you need to be enclosed with him & in proximity to him to get the most of out the opportunity & moment.". True last week, true today & pretty certain to be true for the rest of what hopefully will be a long career, though as I did say in my review of his last studio album, 'Routes', topping his recent compositions will be a challenge, though one I'm sure he'll rise to.
In fact, if you are new to Stylusboy's music, "Live in the Basement" might be a useful starting point: not only does it contain some of his very finest writing to date but if does really encapsulate his live performance skills & show you in a nutshell precisely why people appreciate his craft. I can only hope that the clinical situation permits live performances in the intimate setting where this works so effectively as soon as is safe. In the meantime Stylusboy has been live streaming quite a lot: please check out the videos on his pages & they should all also be on the "Hot Music Live Presents" Facebook page.
"This Is Where I Belong" by Stylusboy
You'll no doubt have enjoyed that masterpiece of Stylusboy, namely "For the Souls of My Brothers" on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Two' and we have said on numerous occasions how much we like his work.
We also told you last September of his most recent album ‘Routes' that "if an album has been so well & lovingly wrought that it has no flaws, then one might call it "flawless"": a sentiment which Stylusboy has been kind enough to quote on his own webpage. We stand by that assessment too.
Now he is releasing a live version of one of the songs from ‘Routes', namely "This Is Where I Belong" which will in turn appear on his live EP ‘Live in the Basement' which is released on all major digital platforms on 31st July.
"Flawless" as the studio version of this song might be (in the context of where it appeared on ‘Routes', I said last year that it "sets an agenda for the future in the light of the preceding songs' self examination: a coherent end to a very well structured album") then taken by itself without that relationship to preceding tracks, the single does offer new insights.
As often with this artist, there is a haunting element to his live performances which is difficult to capture in words (though the live EP will surely articulate this aspect perfectly) and the underground venue with its ambience serves to amplify this. Stylusboy works superbly with his performance style and the intimate nature of his music: you need to be enclosed with him & in proximity to him to get the most of out the opportunity & moment. I've been fortunate enough to do this & I suspect that a stadium gig might not be his ideal venue.
Hence one greatly appreciates the optimism, the quiet & considered optimism of "This Is Where I Belong" (in light of my above paragraph, you might well apply its sentiments to the space in which it was recorded in this version I suppose): one of those "manifesto" statements of values which the best artists occasionally release. This song of course long predates lockdown, but given Stylusboy's tendency to the reflective, it will be interesting to hear whatever songs he may have written in recent months.
'Routes' by Stylusboy
I've said it before, but reviewing for "Hot Music Live" is a real privilege in so many ways. One of which is getting to hear the finest material, often a little bit before it becomes part of the public playlist. In this instance, I am going to give you my response to one of the most eagerly awaited releases of 2019: Stylusboy's new album ‘Routes' which will be released on September 27th. I'll stick my neck out here & although I don't myself issue an "Album of the Year" list, I can see why those who do may go for the one for 2019....
If you think that this means that I've been listening to loads of his new songs which you haven't had the chance to & thus feel a bit hard done by, I think that this is not necessarily the case as he has been playing much of the album live (no doubt honing it) for some time now, so if you've been seeing him live, you'll have already heard some tracks, if you've not, you've missed some excellent gigs...
I had better declare something of an interest here: I admire & enjoy his work tremendously (I'm far from the only one: Stylusboy is something of a musician's musician, a connoisseur's choice if you like, held in very high esteem in music circles in Coventry & Warwickshire & beyond). If you think that this means I'm going to give ‘Routes' a very favourable review then you're right of course (though I do hope you read on for the details), but that, like it or not, is my reviewing credo if you've not already worked it out from previous ones. I review music I really like & feel I can say something positive about & if I don't care for something or it doesn't ring my own bell, it's best someone else who may appreciate more than I do has their shot: only this morning I demurred on reviewing something for example.
As I said, you probably know some of these songs already, so that's where I'll start if you don't mind. "For The Souls of my Brothers" has for ages been, for me, his signature song & if you look back at my reviews of Stylusboy gigs, I am sure I've always mentioned it as a highlight. An extraordinarily tender piece of songwriting, based on his own family history, it is far the best Coventry Blitz song ever written and probably the best Coventry specific song too (I'm not keen on getting into a "Ghost Town" debate on this assertion: to me that song has a really strong applicability outside Coventry). "Shivers down the spine" time & probably will always be the highlight of his gigs...... So glad it has now appeared on ‘Routes'.
If that track has established an especial place in his repertoire, another song has challenged it in my personal opinion as one I especially like hearing live since first I heard it and as "Out Upon The Ocean" has already been released as the title track of an EP I reviewed on May 10th, I refer you to my comments in that article: pausing only to note that I love it still more with the passing of the intervening months. I also hold my (reviewing) hands up & apologise for my earlier assumption that the subject matter of this song was expressed in purely metaphorical terms.... its creator informs me that it is in fact the narrative you hear & I had read way too much into it... Sorry. This song of course features the prominent vocal harmonies of Holly Hewitt as do many of the other ‘Routes' songs to their great benefit. The two voices mingle effortlessly and melodiously. I was discussing Stylusboy with another fan the other week & I expressed the thought that he "radiated calm" live & on record & I stand by that. The songs are beautifully crafted & their inner serenity helps expose all of their qualities to the listener & repay multiple listens. As I said in my previous review, those who know Holly's magnificent blues & jazz voice with all its power & dynamics will appreciate her demonstrating her vocal range on such utterly different material.
Stylusboy dubs this a "Handmade Indie Folk album" which really effectively captures the traditional songwriting craft which has gone into it: a true artist at work, but also has meaning in terms of the range of album variations & merchandise: check out his website (https://stylusboy.bandcamp.com/) for all the additional goodies which complement the music including Polaroids, hand sewn booklets etc.
So onto the other songs on the record. Opening song "Embrace The View" is very much a scene setter for what follows, both in terms of soundscape (stripped back, haunting harmonies) and philosophy. Oddly enough, when "Out Upon The Ocean" came out a few months ago, Izzie Derry had just released a similarly maritime titled EP (‘Lost At Sea'): at the time I put it down to an odd & unrelated coincidence, but now I notice another point of comparison: both artists are taking time out of life to write songs reflecting on experiences to date: which is very much the theme of "Embrace The View".
"All The Details" is the relative rocker on the album (drums kick in!) and while far from Black Sabbath territory, offers a pleasing new dynamic to the collection and it sets the toes a-tapping.
"Find Your Gold" is another mid-album up tempo number with more drums & electric guitar, an exhortation to its audience which is closer to the "Indie" end of the "Indie Folk" spectrum. If that actually is a thing.....
"Keep You" returns us to Stylusboy's more familiar style of light, picked acoustic guitar (the other end of the above spectrum?) so tranquil that at times the very movement of his fingers on the guitar are part of the arrangement almost, so prominent are they in the mix. Despite all this, the song is a live standout: no doubt because it commands our attention so effectively. Is that a ‘cello I hear in there too?
"Ride This Storm" is another one with more instruments and while few if any of his other songs remind me of any other artist at all, this one brought the words "Paul Simon" into my mind (well passages of it did anyway), which I hope he won't mind my suggesting.
"Open the Door" is another finger-picked piece which like much of his work weaves a delicate balance between melancholia (in sound if not necessarily the lyrics) and its antithesis & this tension is another key aspect & strength of Stylusboy's work.
"Shelter In The Light" recalls "For The Souls of my Brothers" in terms of being a most compelling narrative: how much is as personal as that song isn't necessarily clear, yet it is written with as much sensitivity & compassion for the protagonist.
If the album started with a kind of reflective manifesto, it ends in similar fashion inasmuch as "This Is Where I Belong" sets an agenda for the future in the light of the preceding songs' self examination: a coherent end to a very well structured album.
If an album has been so well & lovingly wrought that it has no flaws, then one might call it "flawless": I think we can safely do so here. My only concern for Stylusboy is how on earth will he follow this?
Stylusboy launches ‘Routes' on Friday 13th September at Backhaus & Co with some very special guests (there is footage on social media of him rehearsing with both Holly & John Parker)
He is playing at All Hallows' in Leeds on October 12th, the Big Comfy Bookshop on 18th October, the 4th November at Stratford Picturehouse & with special guest Mister Keith at Temperance on November 30th.