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Morton Valence - Black Angel Drifter

  by John Clarkson

published: 22 / 12 / 2020

Morton Valence - Black Angel Drifter
Label: Cow Pie
Format: LP


Unusual and obscure album from London 'urban country' duo Morton Valence, which, originally released under the alias of Black Angel Drifter, is now being reissued on vinyl under their own name

In late 2016 Morton Valence’s Robert ‘Hacker’ Jessett and Anne Gilpin released an eponymous under the alias of Black Angel Drifter. The aim of Black Angel Drifter was to have a “career that was brief but spectacular.” The album was released on limited CD on their own Bastard Records, they did one interview to promote it (with Pennyblackmusic!) and played just one gig at the Servant’s Jazz Quarters in London before automatically self-destructing. Since then ‘Black Angel Drifter’ has become like the Holy Grail amongst Morton Valence fans, many of whom were unable to get a hold of it first time, and now, with the aid of the resurrected Cow Pie label who are releasing it on vinyl, Jessett and Gilpin have been persuaded to give their somewhat darker-torned obscurity a second run, this time as a Morton Valence album. ‘Black Angel Drifter’ opens, as did Morton Valence’s breakthrough second album, ‘Me and Home James’, with the sound of crickets. Yet, while that earlier 2011 album, then lead into the short and elegiac ‘The Death of a Cockney Amorist’, a soft, hymnal country tune about the last moments and thoughts of an elderly Eastender, ‘Skylines Change/Genders Blur’, the opening track of ‘Black Angel Drifter’, then proceeds with a succession of blood-curdling screams, the rush of foreign radio static and what sounds like the sound of someone heavily snoring. This is highly symbolic, as in comparison to Morton Valence’s other more clean-cut albums, ‘Black Angel Drifter’ is a much darker, wilder and untamed animal. Main songwriter Jessett has defined Morton Valence in the past as an ‘urban country’ band, meaning that they were bringing Americana sounds to narratives and lyrics about his native Brixton and South London, but here with ‘Black Angel Drifter he is looking distinctively West. Distortion is a key component, there are moments of psychedelia and Ennio Morricone and Gothic Westerns are prime influences and self-acknowledged touchstones. The overall tone of ‘Black Angel Drifter’ is sinister and bleak. ‘Skylines Change/Genders Blur’ eventually develops with the aid of a doomy, rumbling bass into a drawling, dirge-like tune in which Jessett and Gilpin coo at each other through the aid of voice distorters in the chorus, “Nothing else is worth waiting for.” It is clear, however, that this is the sort of self-annihilating love affair of Sid and Nancy or that of Bonnie and Clyde, the latter of whom a smirking Jessett and Gilpin, carrying raised shotguns, portray on the sleeve of ‘Black Angel Drifter’. Morton Valence have recorded murder ballads before, such as the classic ‘Annie McFall’ on their third album ‘Left’, but while those tunes were often dressed up with an on-the-surface saccharinity, here the tone is much blacker. The eerie ‘Black-Eyed Susan’ tells of a case of filicide and is punctured by the sounds of a crackling bullwhip. On the downbeat ‘If I Could Start Again’, which has a softer country edge, one is meanwhile never sure whether its hapless junkie narrator who tells his tale from a prison cell, having dumped in a river the body of a dead girl he has found beside him in bed, has actually committed murder or been the victim of a bizarre chain of circumstances. There is a cover too of Bob Dylan’s ‘Man in a Long Black Coat’ from his 1989 album ‘Oh Mercy’, but, with its menacing psychedelic dirges, solitary harmonica and Jessett and Gilpin’s melancholic joint vocals, it is more nocturnal in tone than the original. Field recordings have a huge part to play in ‘Black Angel Drifter’. ‘Skylines Change/Genders Blur’ also throws into its last moments what sounds like a recording of a mob riot. Radio static drifts in and out throughout. There is the noise of a brass band and a fun fair on another song, ‘Lead On, Take It Away’. The skewed, disturbing ‘Tired of Tears’, about two desperate alcoholics, meanwhile concludes with the sound of a panting girl, but, set against the backdrop of a funereal drum beat, one becomes increasingly uncertain whether she is in the throws of sex or alternatively in agony. While often surreal and unsettling, ‘Black Angel Drifter’, which is packed with imagination and ideas, is also absolutely riveting. Jessett and Gilpin are clearly having a fantastic time of it toying with our emotions, and the growing thought that at least part of this is tongue-in-cheek is confirmed with the ambient final track, ’24.33’, which in homage to John Cage concludes, rather than in silence, with exactly that minutes and seconds of more crickets. ‘Black Angel Drifter’ is as unusual and distinctive album that very much deserves to be reissued.

Track Listing:-
1 Skylines Change/Genders Blur
2 Black-Eyed Susan
3 Sister Pain
4 The Visit
5 The Man in the Long Black Coat
6 If I Could Start Again
7 Trail of Tears
8 Lead On, Take it Away
9 Hymn Four
10 Crickets

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Morton Valence - Interview
John Clarkson speaks to Rob Jessett from South London formed indie act Morton Valence about their sixth album ‘Bob and Veronica’s Great Escape’, which is about escaping from the world, and their new film documentary.
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Bob and Veronica's Great Escape (2019)
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