The snatched press bits and bobs that I’ve read about Stephen Fretwell have included the usual references to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and the rest of the familiar names, as well as some more hushed mentions of rock wimps Keane and James Blunt. Bearing this in mind, and taking into account this record’s semi cryptic Dylan-by-numbers sleeve, you could be forgiven for second-guessing exactly how it sounds without even hearing a fingerpicked note. And you’d be right, but sort of wrong too. Magpie is indeed a stripped down, acoustic affair, packed with lovelorn melodies and bruised lyrics, but there is something else brooding here also. The album is shot through with a world-weariness and scruffy charisma that lends some of the songs a devastatingly understated emotional punch. And if at times, it fizzes more with promise than anything else, Stephen Fretwell is definitely a singer who could easily find his way into a tiny corner of your heart.
And, just to get it out of the way now, he really does sound nothing like bloody James Blunt. The unfortunate comparisons have come about since a polished up version of Fretwell’s song “Emily” became something of a radio hit in Britain last summer. It all got a bit worrying for a while really, because for those in the know, Fretwell was about as far away from the comatose drivel of “Your Beautiful” as it was possible to be in singer-songwriter land. Besides, “Emily” was actually a great, bleak pop song and one of the most beautiful ‘fuck you’s’ I’ve ever heard whispered on daytime radio. There was enough in its tumbling melody and wounded charm to mark Stephen Fretwell out as a talent worth investigating.
Having gathered a considerable buzz in his adopted home of Manchester from a sparse, lo-fi recording (8 Songs) and a couple of EPs, a major label record company saw enough potential to send Fretwell straight into Abbey Road studios to make Magpie; and his debut proper immediately sounds more assured than his 23 years would presume. Unlike the sterile session-musician gloop of Blunt’s trillion selling Back to Bedlam, the band that has been brought in to flesh out the songs on Magpie play with an unfussy musicality. The brushed drums and soft piano touches frequently add colour to Fretwell’s love-weary ballads. These songs have a warm, inviting tone, and in the spirit of northern cliché, they seem to be made for listening to whilst gazing out of the window onto rain-swept city streets.
There are, it has to be said, still moments when it doesn’t quite come off and the young singer sounds a little too in thrall to his lofty influences. Notably, “What’s That You Say Little Girl” is the most Dylan-esque tune here and also the weakest. It’s a song that’s been sung thousands of times before. The bittersweet sneer and falling, picked out chords can, in truth, be heard all over the place, playing from bedrooms, coffee shops and clubs almost every night of the week.
It’s the times when Fretwell taps into the very northern vein of British pop that this album touches on a special kind of quiet beauty. His, gruff delivery, flat northern vowels (he’s from Scunthorpe, which for US readers, is a regulation shithole) and gentle, enthralling melodies recall Liverpool heroes Shack. And though there’s nothing here that can quite match up to Michael Head’s winsome, wasted loveliness, there is an off-kilter pop quality to the music at its best. Songs like “Bad Bad You, Bad Bad Me” and “New York” have an air of menace and a sparkle of humour that should ensure that “Emily” or no “Emily”, Fretwell is a little too far from the middle of the road to be popping up on the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack any time soon.
The first time I heard Stephen Fretwell was when stumbling into some tent at a festival last year. Coming on stage straight after yet another band of skinny boys played, what sounded for all the world like Razorlight b-sides, he was a revelation. He sang a handful of beautiful, heartfelt songs with a charisma and energy that ensured his name was remembered. On record, for the moment at least, there are still a few songs that pass you by somewhat and are lacking the spark of the truly magical tracks here, but Magpie is really a showcase for an artist who promises much. And if there’s a criticism at all, then it’s that you feel with a few more years and a few more break-ups and fuck-ups under his belt, Stephen Fretwell will be capable of something very special indeed. For now though, his aching, unassuming stories of heartbreak and loss, come highly recommended.