‘Back In The Day' EP by StylusboyReview
In the second of my post-Godiva Festival 2023 reviews, I'm now able to tell you a little more detail about the forthcoming Stylusboy EP ‘Back In The Day' (it comes out on July 28th), tracks from which dominated his set on Sunday afternoon.
As you'll know from my review of the "Fourteen Days" single which was a taster for the EP, the record derives its content from a National Lottery Community Fund supported project which Stylusboy worked on with Good Neighbours, a Coventry-based charity that support lonely and isolated older people by linking them with volunteer befrienders. Meeting with half a dozen of them, he listened to their life stories & crafted these songs afterwards. The titles are "Fourteen Days", "Lift Your Voice", "Morning Light", "Waiting To Say Hello", "Days are Made for Living" and "Take a Little More Time".
As remarked in my review of his live set, despite the reflective nature of the songs and a lack of knowledge of them, they went down well in front of an audience of general visitors rather than hard core Stylusboy fans: I think they responded well to the idea of capturing real lives but also the very respectful way in which he delivered them.
It's there that I'd like to pick up as far as this article goes. I was deeply impressed when I heard of his involvement in such a project, which chimed deeply with many of my own values & interests & as an existing admirer of his work, had certain expectations as to how he'd go about it.
What strikes me first is the complete surrender of ego on his part in dealing with other people's stories. He has used his considerable craft to shape them into songs from the prose narratives they began as, but he has interfered as little as possible: the words appear to remain those of the subjects rather being raised dramatically as songwriters nearly always do: in fact I've never heard lyrics which resemble prose so much: he really has worked wonders to put music to words which often barely meet any of the orthodox songwriting forms.
And yet, he has done all this without resorting to excessive arrangements: you'd have thought that if you are not going to play emotional tricks with the language, you could compensate with the music. Not at all: he has apparently applied as little music as necessary to each song in order to highlight the stories further: instrumentation is sparse to say the least though I applaud the decision to bring in harmonies from American singer songwriter Alva Leigh plus on two tracks ("Morning Light" and "Days are Made for Living") and local folk star Lauren South (who has featured in the magazine in her own right several times) adds violin: this provides the whole EP with an internal variety which prevents it settling into a homogeneity. Otherwise what you hear comes from Stylusboy and he recorded it in his own The Truffle Room Studio.
I think "tasteful" and "subtle" are words Stylusboy is used to reading in his own reviews, but he surpasses himself here. This is a record about six people & paying them respect: it is not a record about furthering Stylusboy's own career, yet ironically I think he deserves applause not just for his selflessness but his skill in honing the songs to remove as many of his own fingerprints from the surface as possible.
Unsurprisingly, it's a very moving record & although moments of joy are there along with fear & sadness, it's a collection about the last lap in life and that rather shapes the overall mood. Apart from the RAF veteran we met in "Fourteen Days", we have stories which have less of the cinematic drama about them & more of the domestic: but none the less compelling for that: families, pets, playing, singing, friendships, relocation, the weather etc: simpler pleasures generally with perhaps a thread running through regarding getting by with less materialism and another regarding the joys of connection (hardly surprising perhaps if the story tellers are currently isolated after a life of not being so). There's ruefulness but I think in their conversations with Stylusboy, both parties were searching for positivities, optimism & trying to see their lives as well spent, despite various tragedies & challenges. Oddly enough, I remarked twice to those I was watching with on Sunday (on separate songs) that I heard echoes of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken": there's that tone in there too.
Many listeners will probably get a damp eye nevertheless.
There are many bad things happening in the world right now, but while organisations like Good Neighbours exist & while they are funded to carry out projects like this & there are songwriter/performers like Stylusboy to make them happen with such empathy & humanity, there is hope yet: and I think despite the EP being about lives towards their ends, hope shines through the songs & the stories in them.