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Ben Calvert - Leafy Underground

  by Malcolm Carter

published: 27 / 3 / 2004

Ben Calvert - Leafy Underground
Label: Bearos
Format: CD


"Classy" jazzy/folk rock on first album from Birmingham-based singer-songwriter Ben Calvert, which has songs that prove to be "as strong as those on Nick Drake’s debut"

And I thought that they didn’t make them like this anymore! I’m reluctant to make the obvious comparisons here but I will. The sound of Nick Drake is all over this record. And that’s a good thing. I’ll go against the grain here and state that although I was already smitten by this thing called music when Drake released his first album, ‘Five Leaves Left’, in 1969 I can’t, like so many others claim, admit to being over impressed by it initially. Of course, it was obvious that Drake had something, but at that time he didn’t come across as being that special. And if everyone who now claims that they were huge Drake fans from the very beginning had bought the albums then to back their claims he would have been a much bigger artist. As always, with Drake’s death and the passing of years his music is now regarded as being of classic status. But here’s the strange thing; the songs Ben Calvert has recorded for this album are as strong as those on Nick Drake’s debut. And an even stranger thing; Calvert will not be given half the praise Drake has received down the years. And that is a sin. If this album was released in the late 60's it would have appeared on Drake’s label Island without a doubt. It would have fitted perfectly with the John Martyn albums and folk/ jazz hybrid Island was fond of in that era. It’s obviously not cutting any new ground but what it does do is update Drake’s sound more effectively than Ben Watt attempted to do in the early 80's with his album ‘North Marine Drive’ and the collaboration Watt made with Robert Wyatt on the ‘Summer Into Winter’ EP. Calvert’s work is more readily accessible than Watt’s (and, at times, than Drake’s) purely because Calvert has a winning way with a melody. They are immediate; something which this form of music is sadly lacking in at times. All too often this jazzy/folk fusion lacks a decent melody; it’s like some artists think that it’s degrading the music if it’s not at least a little abstract. I’m all for something new and different and don’t expect to be able to whistle everything I listen to but when the music is as sparse as this is then having a melody to hang it on is no bad thing. Calvert has presented us with 12 originals (two of them co-writes) and for the main part the album was recorded by the unlikely choice of DJ Drive D and Fuzz Townshend (Bentley Rhythm Ace). Although giving off a Sunday morning feeling on some of the songs, the opening ‘Basement Song’ and, surprise, surprise, ‘Sitting Ducks’, in particular it’s not all just Calvert and his acoustic guitar. On around half of these songs Calvert is joined by the band who accompanied him on his live dates from last year. This provides some much appreciated colour to the album. It holds the listeners attention much more by having these different shades in the songs. The title track ‘The Leafy Underground’ is just 1 minute 36 seconds of Calvert strumming a gorgeous melody on his acoustic with flute by Jacqui Hayles. The track does what the title says it will; it evokes walks through leafy woods and despite the fact that it is so short it really is a standout on the album. Try as I might though I can’t hear the vocals on this which the song is credited to have by Calvert on the inlay! The muted trumpet on ‘Counting Carriages’ again adds some texture to the song, Calvert’s vocals here bearing a remarkable resemblance to those of Nick Drake crossed with Robert Wyatt. The track ‘Starlight’ which is also a short 1 minute 42 seconds of perfection is again just Calvert singing backed with his acoustic guitar and the vocals here show that while those Drake/Wyatt comparisons are valid there is also enough originality in Calvert’s vocals to make him more than just a copyist. He seems to come into his own on the closing two tracks ‘No Lullaby’, an outstanding melody with Calvert’s vocals double tracked at times to great effect, and ‘Last Orders’, which is arguably his best vocal on the album. The album was recorded in various locations including St. Mary’s Church in Birmingham, the Smith Institute as well as at The Royal Academy of Music in London and comes in an unusual DVD type package which given it’s beige colour evoking Autumn couldn’t be more appropriate. It’s classy stuff, not for all occasions but has its place in this hectic world we inhabit. Right now I’d rather listen to this on a lazy Sunday or early morning than Nick Drake’s more famous albums. And if only other Drake fanatics would take the blinkers off they might be pleasantly surprised.

Track Listing:-
1 Basement Song
2 Sitting Ducks
3 Hours Fall
4 The Leafy Underground
5 Counting Carriages
6 Safer Than Houses
7 The Drowning
8 Jack Jones
9 Ides Of March
10 Starlight
11 No Lullaby
12 Last Orders

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