A voice full of character singing some great country-flavoured songs, played by a fine band.
Phil Hooley has one of those voices, as smooth as melted chocolate and able to wrap itself around a lyric and draw you into the song. If the songs are good, then you have a winning formula. The songwriters Hooley looks up to include Guy Clark, John Prine and Nick Lowe. Exalted company, so it’s good news that ‘Songs from the Back Room’ has plenty of songs that deserve the comparisons.
‘Midasville’ is a tale of a down at heel world that Tom Waits would feel right at home in. When AUK previewed the video for ‘Come Home’ we mentioned the players’ “precision performances”. And that goes for much of the rest of the album. Pedal Steel player Scott Poley’s work on ‘Maybe Later’ and ‘Trust Your Heart’ echoes the words and complements the guitar and understated organ playing to perfection. Country rocker ‘Pour Me A Drink’ comes straight out of the seventies. “If you want to know my story from the bottom of a glass. You won’t be the first, and you sure won’t be the last.”
Hooley also appeared in AUK’s Twang Factor series of performances in December 2020 with ‘The Same Old Song’. The band version of that song appears here, with slide and pedal steel guitars turning the bluesy acoustic number we heard last year into a laid-back country shuffle. Elsewhere there’s a notable fiddle performance from Andrea Zonn. There is a more country feel to the sound than some of Hooley’s earlier work, both solo and with The Woolgatherers. This is probably due to the presence of former Nashville resident, drummer and producer Justin Johnson. The touch of North Eastern folk, Hooley is from Scarborough, is mostly absent on this album. Despite the very American feel of much of the music there is still an “Englishness” about the album that he credits to seeing artists like Brinsley Schwarz and Hank Wangford.
Hooley says of his songs, “I would like to think that they are fairly self-explanatory, although I accept, they may mean different things to different people.” This is particularly true on opening song, ‘Learning to Be Still’. There is nothing especially original about it, and the electric guitar adds a definite touch of Dire Straits, but it is a good song well played and just great to listen to. In fact, Mark Knopfler is not a bad comparison for his voice with the relaxed delivery and straightforward words. With the time to let the songs and the performances grow in the recording process, this is another fine entry in a vintage year for Americana albums.