Some gems, some merely great. A set of reissues that you need to hear from a fine, if slightly overlooked, voice.
Many parts of the UK have distinctive folk styles, the North East being the one that springs to mind immediately. While Somerset may not have a recognisable “sound” it does have a long tradition of social and political commentary in song. None more so than Reg Meuross, based in Crewkerne, (which is pronounced Crook – Ern for the non-locals). This is a collection of six of his albums from the nineties and this century that have been out of print for a while. Meuross’ artwork has tended towards the black and white and gloomy and these reissues all come in new colourful sleeves featuring the main image from the original artwork, the typewriter from ‘All This Longing’ for instance.
‘The Goodbye Hat’ (1996)
The roll call on the earliest album here is impressive and indicates the esteem that Meuross is held in by his peers. Martin Belmont who played in his previous band The Flamingos, Attraction Pete Thomas on both drums and bass guitar, Clive Gregson, Nick Lowe and a cast of thousands. Following on from The Flamingos this has quite a “roots rock” feel with electric guitar being prominent early in the album. Stand out songs include opener ‘One Last Time’ and the Johnny Cash flavoured ‘Ring Around the Roses’. ‘House of Pain’ would have been a hit for Dave Edmunds ten years earlier. Production is a team effort featuring Lowe’s long-time producer Neil Brockbank, Thomas, Meuross and pub rock veteran Paul Riley. The connections between the players and producers and their collective pasts mean that there is a definite feel of bands like Brinsley Schwarz about the album. This is no bad thing but does make ‘The Goodbye Hat’ a bit of an anomaly compared to his later albums. If you enjoy Nick Lowe’s work, you should definitely try this album.
‘Short Stories’ (2004)
The later songs on ‘The Goodbye Hat’ point to where Meuross’ music was going, but it took eight years for another solo album to appear. The cast list is noticeably shorter, and the focus has shifted firmly to Somerset. The only “big names” left from the nineties are Belmont and fellow Somerset resident John ‘Rabbit’ Bundrick, keyboard player to Free and the Who amongst many others. His organ on ‘You Left Me Crying’ sets the relaxed tone of much of this album. There is a touch of John Martyn about Meuross’ voice on this song and also in some of the guitar on the album. The acoustic songs are further up the list here, with the best being ’Jealous’, a simple sounding love song that shows off the quality of his song writing: “I’m jealous of the sun that warms your face, that wraps itself around you in your state of grace” Meuross clearly thinks highly of this album as many of the lyrics are posted on his website. The move to more traditional “folk” based music is signposted by the inclusion of singer and bassist Miranda Sykes and accordion courtesy of Sarah Allen of Celtic band Flook. The album closes with ‘Home’ a gentle tale of finding love later in life, which is the perfect coda to one of Meuross’ best albums.
With a gap of only 2 years, ‘Still’ is where electric guitars are abandoned in favour of a more open acoustic sound. Bundrick is still there, but now the star guests are folk legends Martin Carthy who plays guitar on ‘The Poacher’ and Phil Beer. Allen and Sykes are on board again and the influences this time are more American, particularly on opener ‘My Nirvana’ which has a Dylan feel to it. To emphasise this American-ness there is a cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Morning Glory’. ‘The Man in Edward Hopper’s Bar’ puts the singer in the diner of the painting “Nighthawks”. ‘Don’t Give Up’ is a story of an abusive relationship. The jaunty tune clashes with the powerful words effectively. ‘It’s Me or Elvis’ is a fun closing song, about a partner with a Presley obsession. “I’m gonna tell her I’m gonna tell her everything. It’s me or Elvis Your lover or The King”. Overall ‘Still’ feels like Meuross experimenting with a quieter acoustic sound and looking for what fits best.
Dragonfly is where he found that acoustic voice, it’s home to some of Meuross’ best known, and best songs. Starting with ‘Fool’s Gold’; “she slips the ring upon her finger – thinks: “my hands are starting to look old,” but still there’s something beautiful about the hand that wears the fool’s gold”. ‘Without Love’ features the Dobro of B.J. Cole. Better known as a pedal steel player, he brings a dusty Texan feel to South Somerset. Some of Meuross most powerful lyrics are featured here. ‘And Jesus Wept’, the story of Harry Farr, shot for Cowardice in 1916 and only pardoned a hundred years later. ‘Lizzie Loved A Highwayman’ retells the story of Dick Turpin from the point of view of his wife Elizabeth Millington and ‘William Brewster Dreams of America’ is about one of the leaders of the Mayflower voyage. The music is stronger than ‘Still’ and is the last of these albums to feature John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboards. This is the place to hear Meuross’ historical tales taking shape.
‘All This Longing’ (2010)
They continue into this album, ‘The Heart of Ann Lee’ is almost a companion piece to ‘William Brewster Dreams of America’, being about the leader of The Shaker movement who emigrated to New England in the 18th century. The keyboards of previous albums are replaced by strings on this album. Arranged by Jackie Oates, with ex Fairground Attraction rhythm section Roy Dodds and Simon Edwards this is a much smaller group of musicians. ‘The Bitter Wind’ delves back into the history of Dartmoor village Peter Tavy and the Tavistock Murders. ‘Victor Jara’, about the Chilean activist and ‘The Redcliffe Boy’, a reflection on St Mary Redcliffe Church in Bristol, the poet Thomas Chatterton who lived close by, and the church’s survival of the Blitz which levelled much of the city are among Meuross’ finest songs. The considered words, which are never at the expense of the quality of the music, and the feel for history make this another fine album. ‘Looking for Johnnie Ray’ takes the opposite view of relationships to ‘It’s Me or Elvis’. “She says “I’m tired of hard men with walls all around them. And I’m looking for Johnnie Ray”.
‘Leaves & Feathers’ (2013)
The reissues skip over 2011’s ‘The Dreamed and the Drowned’ and finishes with this 2013 album. ‘Leaves & Feathers‘ features twelve songs recorded at Abbey Road studios. His most “solo” record of this selection. The album features only Reg’s daughter Lily and Jess Vincent on vocals and Bethany Porter’s Cello. Roy Dodds is in the producer’s chair this time along with Abbey Road engineer Seb Truman. ‘My Name Is London Town’ is the best song here, and I’m sure I’m not the first to spot the similarities with Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘The Boxer’, in a good way. “My name is London Town. I’m your vision going up I’m your nightmare coming down”. The lyrics feel more personal here. ‘All I Really Want’, ‘I Need You’ and ‘One Cold April Morning’ being the standout songs. The journey to quiet, acoustic music is complete here, but the songs remain of a high quality across this album.
Having seen him live a couple of years ago, the standard set by these albums has been maintained on his more recent work. The press release tells us that this reissue set “catalogues Meuross’ development over 25 years into one of England’s finest and most respected contemporary folk-singers.” And indeed, it does, the styles vary, the politics and social commentary come and go, but these are albums that are more than worthy of rediscovery. The clear recommendation is buy them all, but if that’s a stretch then start with ‘Short Stories’ and ‘Dragonfly’. You will end up with the rest once those have got under your skin anyway. Keeping the quality this high over six albums and twenty-five years is astonishing. If you don’t know the music of Reg Meuross, you should. Start here.