If you’re in a band, and you’ve ever crept your way up to the front row at a show to pass a copy of your band’s demo to a band you admire, hoping they’ll see some promise in you and help you out, John Cunningham’s story is one you’ll want to hear. Cunningham is a UK songwriter who has been quietly making records since 1993. But back in 1999, he met up with Joe Pernice during a short-lived Pernice Brothers European Tour. During the meeting, Cunningham handed Pernice a copy of his then-new album, Homeless House.
Now over a decade later, that chance hand-off is yielding something pretty worthwhile. Pernice, and his label Ashmont Records, are reissuing two of Cunningham’s albums—Homeless House and 2002’s Happy-Go-Unlucky—on one disc titled, simply, 1998-2002. Hopefully, the disc will open up a new audience for Cunningham, whose records are more than worthy of this second look.
Listening to the disc, it’s no real surprise that Pernice took a shine to Cunningham’s work, or that he’s referred to Cunningham as “a musical soulmate”. Like Pernice, Cunningham deals in lush, yet overcast pop songs, filled with lyrics that are both lovelorn and awfully clever. Homeless House, in particular, draws a pretty clear line to early Pernice Brothers records. The eight songs that make up the album stretch out and take their time. The compositions thicken with layers, and though the songs never amp up much in energy, Cunningham’s arresting vocal delivery—somehow both full-throated and weary with emotion—keeps each song afloat. There are also subtle variations in the feel of the songs that keep the album fresh. “Imitation Time” is minor-chord, rainy-day pop at its finest, winning you over quietly with its aching melody, while the title track follows it with a sunburst of Allman-esque guitars, giving the album a moment of brightness in all its affecting gray. And when these songs aren’t surrounding you with their cool textures and earned heartache, Cunningham grabs you with a carefully shaped phrase. The way he can repeat the dread of “nothing will change”, only to shift it into a resolute, if slight hope with “nothing will change my mind” is exactly the kind of unassuming lyrical skill he shows all over this record, and it’s what makes an album so gentle in its delivery sound so strong.
Happy-go-unlucky is the warm, hazy counterpart to the more brooding Homeless House. The compositions are a bit more intricate on this record, as Cunningham brightens his sound, and adds a vital shot of energy to his sound, without losing his knack for heartbreaking pop songs. The bouncing piano-braced opener “Losing Myself Too” immediately announces a shift away from the rainy trudge of Homeless House, and leads us into an album that, with three more songs than its predecessor, has space to stretch out and find new sounds. “Can’t Get Used to This” bursts to life with a brilliant interplay of cutting violins and a towering guitar solo. “Way to Go” warms up with a bed of horns meshing nicely with Cunningham’s blurry-at-the-edges vocals. Meanwhile, songs like “Invisible Lives” and “Take Your Time” remind us of Cunningham’s skill as a ballad singer, while giving us subtle variations on sounds we’ve already heard from him. The group sing-along that finishes the track is particularly excellent, and nicely juxtaposes the more solitary album closer, “It Goes On”.
Taken together, the two albums on 1998-2002 show us a songwriter we should be paying more attention to. These 19 songs show an original voice with a distinct perspective. John Cunningham’s musical world, though it may align with the likes of Pernice, is very much his own. He is also smart enough to play to his strengths without retreading on past successes. And no matter your mood—whether you want the rainy day feel of Homeless House, or the pastoral warmth of Happy-go-unlucky—Cunningham is an artist that can win you over in the best way possible, with well-written and passionately played pop songs. And while these aren’t the only albums Cunningham has to offer, they’re an awfully good starting point as we try—and we really should try—to correct our mistake of not catching on to him sooner.