Ah, the eponymous debut album marking the emergence of a new talent. Only that’s not quite it this time, Chaim Tannenbaum has been active in music, on and off, for more than forty years. When he hasn’t been distracted by his other love, that temptress the Philosophy of Mathematics, he’s been adding guitar, banjo, a little fiddle and vocals for the likes of the McGarrigle sisters and Loudon Wainwright III as well as contributing the occasional song of his own to their recordings. When Kate McGarrigle left her husband of a few weeks in Copenhagen it was to Tannenbaum’s home in London that she fled – and when Loudon Wainwright turned up a while later looking for her it was with Tannenbaum (and Alan Dunn) that he formed a folk band that toured the British folk club scene. So it is surprising that back in 2015 at The Barbican’s Ewan MacColl celebration Tannenbaum was still being publicly chided to get on and get a record done.
And here it is – and it’s a quiet gem. Mostly made up of traditional – or old enough that they pass as traditional – songs it sounds like a distillation of the best aspects of the first folk boom. So there’s a straight as a die rendition of Farther Along nestling alongside a baroque folk setting of Ain’t No more Cane on the Brazos whilst Blessed are the poor in spirit sounds as if it is spilling out of a travelling revivalist show’s tent – all chirpy accordion, tinny cymbals and pulsing brass. Tannenbaum’s signature sound is mournful, and the drinker’s manifesto Moonshiner is the first showcase of this, as he sings over Dick Connette’s funereal harmonium “I’m a drinking man you see / well contented with a glass or two / at a high street tavern is where I’ll likely be / Ain’t no body’s business what I do”. This is just a curtain raiser for the real highlights of the album, a few of Tannenbaum’s own songs. The ten minute autobiographical epic London, Longing for home contrasts the dream of London – “the fount of all glories, in gracious repose on the banks of the Thames, moored in tradition” – with the reality of the likes of Acton or Southall where it’s far more “acres of nothing but rubble and wretchedness”. It’s a homesick tale of stoic resistance to England’s dirt and gloom and ceaseless rain, revealing Tannenbaum’s poetry in all its truthful nostalgia – no rose tinted spectacles here. Brooklyn, 1955 and Belfast Louis falls in Love are similarly painful reflections on days gone – a childhood reminiscence of a happy, safe Jewish quarter of New York and a tender love song, both of which show Chaim Tannenbaum as a master storyteller, with small flashing phrases, wryly inflected, painting huge pictures.
The Wainwright/McGarrigle connection isn’t neglected – Loudon turns up providing backing vocals for an exquisite take on Kate McGarrigle’s (Talk to me of) Mendocino, and again on the tongue firmly – but affectionately – in cheek rendition of the shanty Paddy Doyle which closes out the album as it must have closed out many a folk club evening. This album has been a long time comin’, but it’s here at last and it stands as a testimony to the usefulness of persistent nagging: Chaim Tannenbaum is a significant and distinctive figure in folk, he deserves to be better known and more widely heard. And now he will be.