An album which fully deserves more than just a few spins of the dial
Let’s be honest here: listening to ‘Night-time Radio’, the second album in three years by Belfast americana band Willow Springs and its leader Mark Crockard, probably won’t leave you feeling seriously emotionally upended. That’s maybe because if you’re after a gut-wrenching dark night of the soul-type album, ‘Night-time Radio’ most definitely is not in that category. But in other ways – like well-constructed, albeit resoundingly middle of the road americana ballads that dip deep into the traditional motherlodes of the genre – ‘Night-time Radio’ is definitely a winner.
Soft-edged and shot through with melancholy undercurrents, but never lacking in human warmth, ‘Night-time Radio’ kicks off with one of the album’s highpoints. ‘Together’ is based on the narrator sitting in the restaurant he runs jointly with his other half and reflecting that even while things have become pretty predictable – “the daily blackboard specials come as no surprise” as Crockard wryly observes – their relationship still plods on reasonably well and “in spite of ourselves”. Then the next, much more powerful ‘Same Old, Same Old Song’ is a far grimmer reflection on how time’s toll has ended with a long-term couple falling apart. Rather than the slightly cheesy duet that ‘Together’ gradually becomes, ‘Same Old, Same Old Song’ is performed mainly by the band’s female singer Lisa Brady. The only occasional background chorus accompaniment by Crockard underlines the idea their relationship is over – “this ship has sailed, I’m moving on” as she puts it – and makes the bleakly contrasting outcomes of the two songs even more convincing.
These twin mid-life reflections and crises, quietly overcome or equally quietly overwhelming, set the stage for the rest of the album. Rather than head-over-heels lovesongs or high drama the lyrics are almost all low-to-very-lowkey: the title track, centred on the singer listening to the radio while driving alone through the empty streets of Belfast in the middle of the night (and a banjo thunkers along pleasurably and deftly in the background) is a case in point.
But despite the oodles of understatement on this album, one of the strongest selling points of ‘Night-time Radio’ is there is no lack of smoothly produced musical versatility to back it all up. It ranges from the T-Rex-like glam rock thumper of ‘It Takes A Little Time’ to some glittering, elegant minor key powerpop on ‘Boulder Rock or Stone’ (a song which seems to improve in quality with each listening) and some faster-paced rock’n’roll, its overly Spartan production considerably boosted by an accordion and regrettably brief trumpet solo, on ‘A Party on Saturday Night’.
It has to be said Crockard’s singing sometimes feels too unadventurous for its own good. Some rockier numbers like ‘It Takes A Little Time’, for example, feel seriously muted, burying any hidden potential it might have had to blow the roof off the recording studio with a raunchier, more experimental vocalist on tap. But maybe that’s the price you pay for Crockard’s sombre voice being so effective on the album’s more mournful or reflective moments – of which, on ‘Night-time Radio’, rest assured there are plenty.
And it’s a sign of the overall solidity and subtlety of ‘Night-time Radio’ that when the album veers out of the band’s apparent comfort zone of middle-aged, mainly masculine mournfulness it continues to work mightily well. That’s certainly the case with Brady’s performances on three tracks, which instantly add several layers’ worth of emotional depth and power. And special mention should go, too, to the two slick country ballads, both written by Crockard but featuring Elvis Presley (and other artists) tribute singer Jim ‘The King’ Brown.
Diehard fans of Elvis might say Brown doesn’t sound enough like the man from Mississippi. But for the majority of occasional listeners, the two could well be uncannily hard to tell apart, and another unexpected bonus on an album that quietly but remorselessly works its way under your skin.