After 30-plus years of ups and downs in the music industry, Stuart Moxham has earned his 'best of' collection.
Having experienced some very impressive artistic highs, but also weathering his fair share of pretty devastating personal and professional lows over the last 30 or so years, Stuart Moxham has deservedly earned a 'best of' collection. Except in Moxham's case, the compilation Personal Best is as much a relaunching of his career as it is a much needed retrospective. Collecting 20 tracks that span Moxham's post-Young Marble Giants work, the album is the inaugural title of his self-run, hABIT label, and is apparently the first of at least a few more recordings planned for release in the near future.
Most projects of this sort provide a sampler of an artist's best or most popular songs, but Personal Best functions better as a time capsule of Moxham's hard-to-find and out-of-print music. While Young Marble Giants were thankfully given the full reissue treatment a few years back by Domino, it's a shame that Moxham's fans have had to wait for the cult hero to take things into his own hands, having to take on the responsibility himself of re-releasing his solo output, which was difficult to find in the first place. For those only familiar with Moxham from Young Marble Giants, the collection shows there is definitely life after becoming a legend of your time.
What Personal Best gets across is how Moxham's own material, like that of Young Marble Giants (YMG), was ahead of the crowd, even if it was only in the most understated of ways. Sure, the influence of YMG on cutting-edge bands from Stereolab to the xx can seem all-too-obvious, but resonances with other hipster acts also come through on Personal Best. Playing laid-back, strummy guitar-pop that borders on African high-life tones, Moxham probably has more than a few things to teach Vampire Weekend on the aptly titled "Baroque Calypso". Sharing a rainy-day sense of humor, Belle and Sebastian are definitely kindred spirits of Moxham's, most evident on "Sunday Afternoon", which comes off like a stripped-down, minimal version of the younger band's symphonic pop.
Personal Best places Moxham in a broader musical lineage, not just identifying which bands he has influenced, but also revealing some ideas of who might've inspired him. When you hear the fragile interplay of acoustic guitar, piano, and a touch of horns on "No More Words", Nick Drake certainly comes to mind, and that's before you even hear the evocative, contemplative vocals. Most striking is the kiss-off ballad "Save It", which wouldn't sound out of place on the classic Richard and Linda Thompson albums, which expressed bitter and hurt feelings through their folk idioms. Indeed, Moxham's devastating lyrics on "Save It" could've come straight out of the Thompsons' song book, as he sneers, "Save it for someone who knows what you need / I'm tired of trying to read in between".
Even though compilations like Personal Best typically act a testament to a solo artist's oeuvre, there's also a collaborative dimension to the effort that shines through -- since Moxham gives his co-conspirators some stand-out roles. In particular, the warm, intuitive give-and-take between Moxham and '90s underground fave Barbara Manning works well for both parties, with his indie orchestral arrangements bringing out some jazzy, sultry notes from her otherwise cutesy voice on "My First Gun" and "Untitled #2". But it's the new number, "Autumn Song", on which Moxham enlists his father Terence and daughter Melody that produces the most unique and heartwarming results. While "Autumn Song", which serves as a taste of the forthcoming Six Winter Mornings, might not have the makings of the artistic ambition that Moxham has strived for, the way that the three generations of Moxhams harmonize on it has a sweet, sentimental quality that doesn't give in to amateur gimmicks. On the track, Moxham shapes the music using the resources he has, which seems to be the modus operandi of his craft.
Towards the end, Personal Best does seem to drag on a bit -- a problem that is partly due to Moxham's very refined and subtle approach, but more with the shortcomings of the compilation genre. While any completist would be pleased with so many tracks, the album lags due to the length, when slower, atmospheric numbers tend to get lost in the mix. Also, the sequencing leaves a little bit to be desired, since songs from various points of Moxham's career are sprinkled about with no apparent rhyme or reason. As a result, there isn't a narrative that traces Moxham's catalog chronologically or thematically.
On the whole, Personal Best is a worthwhile resource that collects quite a few hidden gems in one place. It is a very good reason to celebrate Moxham's idiosyncratic and fruitful career, certainly, Personal Best has been a long time coming. Better late than never.