It feels like it’s been a long time coming, but like Xmas, when it finally arrives, it brings lots of lovely special things to nice boys and girls. Not that Muddy Summers and the Dirty Field Whores profess to be Christian celebrants or “nice girls and boys”. No. – they just love creating things to enjoy; and Psychopaths and Other Tails, the fluid project’s (the terms “band” and “group” just don’t fit this ensemble) new album certainly hits that mark.
Psychopaths and Other Tails is the fifth full album to be birthed of the Whores’ music tent, and like all its predecessors, its midwife is a collaboration of artists. The singular consistency to survive, and drive, the quintet of albums is lead vocalist Gail, she of the Something Else renown. While her voice may be central to the Whores’ sound, she is far from musical ring mistress. The Whores as a concept has always been about fluidity, creativity and inclusion. Other band members have come and gone. The swing-laden, folk-infused, calypso-tinted and radical-verse-laden has rode a roller-coaster of its own making; but something new has definitely been thrown into the mix of this cake and it tastes sweet, if not perfectly formed.
It’s 18 months since the Whores released From Seeds, which was the first time Lizzie Morris, a now regular member, recorded with them. Her fiddle playing really lifted the sound on the last album, which was no mean feat given the delight of its predecessor, Seeing Red and Black, a contender for one of the finest, least-known albums of all time in my opinion. Lizzie has grown in stature as bowstress since then, and it’s evidenced here. There’s a strength in her confidence that goes way beyond flirting with and embellishing Aimee Bee’s Cajon and Gail’s stick bass and baritone uke. She’s playing second fiddle to no one with that bow.
The most recent addition to the assemblage comes in the form of one Ren Stedman. Whether he sticks around or not remains to be seen; I for one hope he never leaves. Ren’s almost classical Spanish guitar has opened up the Whores’ sound that seems to have infected the others like some sort of freedom virus. You can feel the way the melodica, percussion, fiddle and a wide variety of other instruments bounce off each other like never before – they are having fun and its shows.
The album kicks off with Not OK, a galloping waft of a summer breeze that has irresistible foot-tappingitis. Here, we get the first evidence of the new sound, with delicate harmonies that make you want to kick back and pass round the cider.
Bank transports you, via Ren’s guitar, to an open-air bar in Grenada where Lizzie’s strings fill the air with laments while Aimee keeps the pony clip-clopping along at a pace just this side of it perspiring.
Here’s a prediction, You Keep Coming is going to be a bit of a singalong anthem this summer. Lyrically it’s not one for the kids, how could it be with Gail advocating mistressbation? It dips in and out of a hill-billy front porch and a seedy Berlin nightclub with its catchy refrains and bluegrass strings. It’s an onanist’s anthem to singalong to and no mess!
I’ve been listening to the Whores for three years or so now and one thing I never expected to hear on one of their tracks was piano, but that’s what opens Call Off The Dogs. Ren tickles those ivories with a gentle deftness that underscores the whole song. Lizzie and Aimee’s harmonies would not be amiss in a gospel choir, lending a softness that balances out the acidity of Gail’s lyrics.
Hi-Viz is a collective up-yours to over-zealous festival stewards. So, it’s hardly any surprise that the core of the throng is joined by Cara Means Friend, along with Ash, Aaron & Brian from Slack Mallard on vocals. There are no prisoners taken here as Gail’s vocals taken centre stage in what is a prime example of what all Whores’ fans have come to expect from the no holds barred response to misused authority of any description.
With Tooth, we are treated to a banjo (Stedman again) infused lullaby. On occasion it feels like it’s a bit too overlaid, but I suspect it will be a grower. It’s here that you get a glimpse of how this album was put together. Recorded separately in four different places by each artist and then brought together in a very DIY manner. It has an honest authenticity that shines through the unpolished veneer, but that is the essence of the Whores’ sound and to have it feel any other way would be simply wrong.
Old Elvis lyrically hints at a slightly melancholic homage to lost childhoods and tortured parenting. Musically it feels like it could do with running off through a wild wood or wind-blown wheat field now and then, but we’ll just have to settle for strolls down country lanes and mischief on waste grounds while our political masters do their best to restrain our children.
It’s perhaps the most ironic feeling to suggest that Gail should be more bitter in tone to make a song work better. Maybe she’s mellowing, who knows, but Glass Houses sounds like a song she would have spat out two albums back. Perhaps this is evidence of a more balanced sound that is coming from the quartet? Either way, the lyrics burn as they usually do with a poetic fire which may yet get stoked a little when played live.
The Whores have consistently recorded albums with one or two really stand out tracks, songs with their own identities outside of the album, Reasons is one of those. The added reverb on vocals and fiddle make this track sound like it’s being sung from some dark place; it has that skin-tingling quality that makes you want and not want to listen to it again.
The banjo returns for Parody, another social critique of our failing political systems. Aimee’s backing vocals sometimes get lost in the mix on this one, which is a shame, as it has all the makings of a stormer. It could be suffering from a lack of attention that the method of recording the album engendered. I would not be surprised if this song is revisited and reproduced in the future.
The penultimate track of the album, Nice Arse, is a clever inversion of misogynistic cat-calling that begs to be played loud, preferably on every pub jukebox. It jingles and jangles along as the banjo and fiddle bump and grind with each other interspersed with the titular catcall. They say humour is the best way to get a hard point across, well the humour is there, the point is strong, the jury is out on whether or not the intended recipients will get the message.
Epilogue ends the album with a Balkan Gypsy sway that 3 Daft Monkeys would be proud to have produced. It then waltzes off into the middle of the dance floor, its skirts swirling and spinning as it goes. The fiddle scampers around like a drunken mouse, taking us left and right, it calls at the end as if refusing to leave – and then the song ends, leaving you craving for more.
The last three Whores’ albums paint a portrait of a project in transition. The origin of the sound is still grounded firmly in a masala of folk, punk and swing but some musical chef has thrown some light jazz seasoning in there along with a hint of classical guitar. The guitar strumming seems to have been replaced by more articulate string play while the percussion indulges itself in some scat beats that are quite delightful. With 12 tracks on the album, it could be argued that the Whores are being over generous and maybe a track could be dropped, but which one is anyone’s choice.
There’s a relaxed, almost at ease feel to Psychopaths and Other Tails that feels a bit all grown up, I suspect this is down to how well the three core members and one new addition feel about expressing themselves together. This is one of those albums you will come to love after several plays, it will grow on you like a comfy pleasant fungus. Yes, it’s a bit warts and all in its production values, but it’s the Whores, what you see is what you get. Buy it, play it, you won’t regret it.
Graham Parker – Macstock