Sunday, 29 April 2012

McRae Weaves His Marvellous Musical Magic: Revisited

Okay, some of the below has already been included in the blog post I wrote in January but there's lots more below. Writing an article for a website I kind of went into a sort of profile of Tom. Below includes some extra bits too. 

Critical Acclaim

Having released five critically acclaimed albums in just over a decade, Tom McRae easily sits near the top end of a list of the most respected singer songwriters on the world music scene today. Following its release, his self-titled debut album was nominated for the Mercury Prize (2001), a Q magazine award and also a Brit. Even with a breakthrough attracting such nominations it’s true he has been unable to garner much in the way since. I’d say this has a lot to do with the sad decline of the music industry as it continues to spiral towards a baseless culture of heavily saturated tatty pop. This often constitutes little more than lazy repeats of the same old drones or the fifteen minutes of fame types with one or two hit (three or four if they’re lucky) wonders on the back of a reality TV juggernaut. As tired and boring as this format is I fail to see the juggernaut causing any kind of significant pile up just yet.

Thankfully Tom has never been in the business for either acceptance from industry bigwigs or for the recognition winning awards brings. He is an accomplished musician with a dedication to making amazing music which turns out to be an exceptionally raw form of artistic expression for his thoughtful yet tortured soul.

With his deeply melancholic yet brutally honest approach it’s easy to understand why Tom is not amongst the more conventional popular artists who manage to get lengthy record deals and plenty of radio play. As far as I’m concerned the radio and record labels can keep those artists, even the good ones. I’d rather spend my hard earned cash on this gifted independent thinker who doesn’t hide behind music or use it to divert attention. Instead, and to me one of the most important qualities, is his ability to hold my attention with his inimitable version of truth and honesty.

On the Outside Looking In

He certainly wears his heart on his sleeve with first album Tom McRae (2000) biting hard into your soul and anchoring itself so deeply it will never leave you. With its echoes of a world and society gone very wrong, it ranges from grimness to yet more grimness. And yet Tom pulls you fully out of this lonely world to sit with him on the outside while he plays you these songs about the calamitous carnage down below. In fact that sums up 2nd Law, third track on the album, quite nicely, ‘..Cause I’m living up here where the air is thin. And where gravity don’t bring you down. Yeah I’m living up here…watching your universe cooling down.’ Sounds like the perfect escape to me. Appreciating the absolute passion with which he delivers his message via this debut somehow manages to lift the grimness so that instead one is left mesmerised and curious for more rather than wanting to dig a hole in which to bury oneself alive. This is, of course, a good thing.
Second album Just Like Blood (2003) was equally well received, particularly in the US where Tom began gathering an extended loyal following. Maintaining the same overall melancholic theme, this record featured a large mix of various other instruments all marrying superbly with Tom’s delicate vocals and adroit guitar. As with its predecessor’s One More Mile, Untitled and I Ain’t Scared of Lightning Tom produced songs with an exquisite delicacy in the form of You Only Disappear, Overthrown and Walking to Hawaii whose calibre managed to surpass those earlier numbers.

Room at the Hotel Café

Moving to LA in 2004 to record third album All Maps Welcome Tom began playing regular slots at The Hotel Cafe where he met a string of other likeminded musicians. It was from here the Hotel Café tour (thanks to Cary Brothers) was born, ‘a travelling revue show featuring dozens of artists’. Touring coast to coast across the US and bought over to the UK and Europe by Tom twice it involves acts interplaying with each other as well as showcasing their own material. Attending a show on the 2008 UK segment I came away with loads more great music to enjoy and follow including Catherine Feeny, Cary Brothers and Brian Wright.

I actually paid the Hotel Café a visit one Saturday night in 2010 while holidaying in LA and it certainly proved to be a big highlight of the stay. I would happily fly back there just to return to this paradise for live music fans. On this night I was entertained by UK act Athlete, US indie-folk collective Or, The Whale who reminded me in many ways of The Band, as well as US indie band, Graydon from San Francisco, who were fulfilling a residency at the venue. All with individual styles to offer up to the audience I’m glad the temperature inside wasn’t as chilled out as the atmosphere because there’d have been frostbite for sure, it was so cool. While there are venues around London with a similar set up we need more of them in other towns and cities throughout the UK. As a champion of good live music there just aren’t enough opportunities for unsigned bands and artists to make much of an impression outside of London.

All Maps Lead to the King

With the traditional heady blend of melancholia All Maps Welcome (2005) was more refined than what came before showing Tom’s development as a highly talented musical artist adding fresh arrangements compared with its predecessor. It proved this was a guy who was going to keep on coming back for more (and thankfully he still is). In addition to what have become his trademarks, Tom offers progression with each successive album by moving in slightly different directions, rather than sticking to the same rigid formula like many artists tend to do. This keeps the output so sharp that if not careful you may rip yourself to shreds and bleed to death. Please mop up the blood as you go. Or as Tom sings in Karaoke Soul, ‘…We’re bleeding into a cup when we’ve got enough, we’ll just paint the walls…’ There you go, you can use your blood to give your lounge a nice makeover saving the pennies on paint during these austere financial times.

He doesn’t just step outside of his comfort zone but rather leaps out following a springy bounce in the style of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. For example, fourth album King of Cards (2007) had so much more of an upbeat sound if it hadn’t been for his distinct vocals piercing through Bright Lights and Sound of the City you’d be completely forgiven for thinking it was someone different entirely.

Of course Tom’s love for delicacy hadn’t been expunged entirely with Deliver Me, Lord How Long and the astounding, goosebump inducing The Ballad of Amelia Earhart ticking all the right boxes. Hanging on to the latter could make you float away up high on an invisible aeroplane to join the lost female pilot.    

Overall, the album may have been a little less well received than those that came before and it is ironic the reasons for this are rumoured to be due to its more upbeat sound. Tom can’t win it seems but my world would’ve been a darker place without it.
Blown Away in an Alphabet of Hurricanes

One Mississippi is a song I wasn’t overly struck on at first, like I tend to be with most of his songs. However, when hearing it live at a show in 2007 I was completely blown away. I mean this quite literally because as Tom sang out the words the serenity of his vocals were swirling round and round me generating a ten ton wind which lifted me over the Atlantic to Mississippi like, as the song goes, the world had spun on its axis. It’s now one of (many, it is almost impossible to pick out just a few favourites as I end up listing most of the songs anyway) my particular favourites.

The last album, Alphabet of Hurricanes (2010) was something new yet again. Largely written while on an extensive tour, Tom and the musicians he collaborated with in its recording adopted some strikingly different sounds which were added to the usual mix of piano/keyboards and strings. This meant while Tom’s true literary soul remains, the album felt very fresh and new. It was something different from a true master of his craft.

Summer of John Wayne, Out of the Walls and Fifteen Miles Down River tick the all important delicacy box and in my opinion, these three tracks showcase some of Tom’s best work to date. Although reverting back to writing more melancholic lyrics, the inclusion of banjo on Won’t Lie together with the overall arrangements of both this song and Please give them a much needed buoyancy that, subject matter aside does get your shoulders moving, even if only a little.

Now Back to the Depressing Songs

While having a propensity for writing the depressing songs, it is a mixture of such eloquently beautiful written words, the unique sound of his voice combined with an immaculate strumming of guitar which makes every show a distinctive and pleasant experience. So, even when singing about the air slipping from his lungs in Walking to Hawaii I can’t help but hang on to every note. If this were to result in me losing all the air in my own lungs and my subsequent death, so be it!

He sings with such gusto there’s something really infectious about it. It’s like the aural art being played before you and subtly fed through your ears is merely the beginning. The vibrations of this journey their way down the auditory canals on their barges of expression to resonate within the brain where they attach themselves to the relevant parts of the mind the lyrics have meaning for. It becomes something deeply personal. A strong connection is established.

Cue the Four String Quartet

The small size of the Junction in Cambridge only served to add to the charming intimacy of my sixth Tom McRae experience. At the end of the night Tom even joked about it being his first and only ever sold out Cambridge show. ‘A room that holds about 75 people,’ he jested.

Instead of playing alongside the two Ollys (on piano/keyboard and cello) or the full band as on the 2010 tour promoting the last album, this was an extra special event with a Four String Quartet who added a wonderfully graceful elegance to the night.  Sublime, perfection, wondrous and heavenly are just four words I’d use to describe such a magical musical mix. Tom’s songs and style lend themselves to this kind of arrangement incredibly well and I feel blessed to have had the experience of hearing and seeing this limited edition show. He commented himself during one of his many asides, about this being how the songs sound in his own head but he can only make it sound like it externally with the aid of such a group of instrumentalists.

I beg to differ because every time I listen to one of his albums I hear it in precisely this way. Perhaps these elaborately layered strings aren’t present but there is something in the way the music speaks to me allowing me to hear them nonetheless. And no, these are not auditory hallucinations.

A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Opening the show with For the Restless they went on to perform Karaoke Soul, a song about losing all faith and hope and giving into a fear that’s ever-rising, Walking to Hawaii and a number of others from Tom’s back catalogue.

The rendition of Vampire Heart was so perfect I’m surprised there was a dry eye left in the place. The heavenly strings from the quartet blended in so effortlessly with Tom’s guitar playing and the haunting yet beautiful timbre of his vocals as he sang this sorrowful song about fear of and losing love.

Although as delicately soft as a fluffy lamb washed in Lenor conditioner, these songs have the power to grip on to you with a wolf’s bite sucking you right in to the heart of their evolution. The performance of which never fails to offer a kaleidoscopic explosion of pure heartfelt emotion.

One Man Interlude

The quartet then took a break while Tom sat himself down near the front of the stage to entertain us with an acoustic interlude. He kicked off with Human Remains leading straight into Alphabet of Hurricanes. The former laments on how love on its own just isn’t enough and people are always looking to what’s next without being able to examine what’s left behind. The latter encapsulates how Tom’s extensive touring schedule left him feeling like not even winds in excess of gale force twelve could blow him home as he continued to drift from place/gig to place/gig. Although it’s the title of the album the song didn’t actually feature on it, which is a shame given its quality.
We were also treated to a truly acoustic number when shortly after beginning Bloodless he pulled out the amp lead continuing to play and sing as he walked around the room without even a microphone. Being about how wrong the machinery of the world is and how those in control believe they know precisely what everyone feels and wants, this song resonates strongly with fans of independent music such as this. Tom really gets inside your head and although he’s singing his own words to a song we all know so well by now (this being from his first album) it really feels like they’re your own thoughts. The irony of this given the concept of the track isn’t lost on me. A looping vocal version of Draw Down the Stars followed, further demonstrating his ability to hold the audience all on his lonesome by offering something old dressed up in very interesting new attire.

A Joke On Us

Upon their return Tom introduced what he promised would be a traditional Eastern European folk song he’d picked up on his travels. The anticipation of the crowd was deafening but after an elaborately grand intro from the strings it turned out to be a cover of Duran Duran’s, Hungry Like the Wolf. The audience were in stitches realising we’d all been sucked in and were victims, to Tom’s ever present sense of humour. Yes in spite of the overall dark mood of his writing the guy has a really good one of those.

They finished the show off with ever the crowd pleaser The Boy With the Bubblegun, and finally Language of Fools with strings that pierced my heart. Tom seems to be most happy just getting out on tour and playing to his loyal following backing it up with making new records to then go out and tour with. It’s a cycle that’s kept him coming back again and again. Although this was my sixth show covering many various arrangements and with many of the same songs, each time is so different and personal I leave with a near unquenchable thirst for more. Now, please Tom! Currently recording his sixth album in the surroundings of Snowdonia, he’s due to tour later this year. Needless to say I am already there.

Visit for more information on Tom and his music.

To follow very shortly (a day or two) will be Band of Badgers Presents #2 featuring music from:

I Divide
Sky Burns Red
The Dead Famous
Page 44
First Things First
The Dreaming Spires
Dan Donnelly
Rainy Boy Sleep
Winter Mountain
Howard James Kenny
One Cure For Man
Under a Banner

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