Music scene veteran Michael Blyth issues his first album with help from band-mates the Wild Braid and it introduces his tremendous, rich, chesty, storyteller's voice.
Michael Blyth and the Wild Braid
7 December 2018iTunes
When Dory Previn's first album, On My Way to Where (she had issued an album in the 1950s as Dory Langdon, but On My Way to Where was her first under a new guise, in the singer/songwriter vein, and was promoted as a debut), press and publicity had her age as 40. In fact, she was 45. But even shaving off half a decade still left her ancient in the pop marketplace. Not only ancient but alone. She was pretty much the only one of her peers to launch a 'first' at '40', with Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King all getting there in their 20s, and Laura Nyro and Janis Ian doing it in their teens. But there is more joy and more to celebrate in the event of one artist finding his or her voice in their mid or later years than there is in a million-and-one dew-fresh wunderkinder. Fortunately, the idea, readily accepted in jazz circles, that with age comes improvement not decline, has infiltrated other genres.
And so to Michael Blyth, a bluesy singer/songwriter with charcoal-and-honey pipes who has found not only his voice but his artistic feet in his 60s. Indigo Train shows all his talent over nine near-perfect songs. The album was launched last month at the Troubadour in London (parent venue to its famous Los Angeles namesake). Anyone with even a fleeting interest in John Martyn, Roy Harper, or Michael Chapman would be well advised to give him their ears for half an hour. In an ideal world, we'd be at a place where the circumstance of someone issuing a debut in his 60s wouldn't need to be remarked on. But we're not there yet, so the blow Blyth is striking for his generation (and the 60-somethings which, unless misfortune strikes, we will all someday become) should be celebrated loudly.
Of course, were it not such a strong album, the victory would be hollow. But it's singularly excellent, and it doesn't outstay its welcome. It's credited not just to Blyth but to his band, the Wild Braid, a fine group of musicians comprising producer Mark Neary (bass, pedal steel, double bass, keyboards), backing vocalist, Sarah Ozelle, Pete Wilkinson (guitars/backing vocals), Miles Bould (drums), Ross Stanley (piano, Hammond, Fender Rhodes), Les Davidson (guitars), and Mike Moore (guitars). Since Blyth has explored music scenes in both the US and the UK for several decades, he's been able to assemble a first-rate team and Neary (who also wrote the songs with Blyth and Wilkinson and whose credits include Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds) has recorded him in a crisp, clear, uncluttered manner that lets each song breathe, stretch, expand, and contract. Blyth's touching songs are sometimes world-weary, but never without hope. This album reflects an emerging from hardship into the light of day, something of which Blyth, who's admirably frank about the demons he's wrestled with, including vagrancy and jail time, has first-hand knowledge.
In their music, these aren't songs that seek to reinvent any wheels, turn any songwriting structures on their heads, or fashion new sonic worlds. But what they do, they do to an exceptional standard. There are so many uninspired, Americana-by-numbers albums that it's a relief to report that Indigo Train isn't one of them. Blyth's songs do, to a certain extent, adhere to formulae, but they transcend those formulae at the same time. Part of that is because, as a writer, Blyth understands the power of economy and that what you leave out counts for as much as what you keep in. And part of it is because of his tremendous, rich, chesty, storyteller's voice. Blyth writes in elegant, understated aphorisms, opening the album with the observation: "There's only a moment / Between loving and pain" (from "Short Dog").
"Cecelia", part character study, part reminiscence, surges with passion and wistfulness. To be successful, a song should be a discrete world, something the listener can enter and live inside for those crucial three or four minutes. All of Indigo Train's songs work on that level. Not only that, they beckon the listener in and pretty much lay down a welcome mat. When Blyth sings, "Just being alive is everything I've ever dreamed of", it's easy to believe him where, in another artist's hands, the sentiment might seem false or facile. This is authentic authenticity rather than the studied variety. He's sincere without being earnest, sweet without being twee, and the listener, this listener at least, knows he's been to the darker places in life and come back to tell the tale; none of it's a pose.
Love and the transformative effect of human connection, the laying of one's cards on the table in relationships, the appreciation of the small, split-second moment as well as the bigger picture, these things make up the lyrical substance of Blyth's songs. The music is a country-folk-blues-pop brew that today gets filed under Americana. Blyth's chords don't dart all over the place or enter jazzy territory a la Steely Dan, but they don't need to. His part conversational, part confessional, part storytelling style calls, instead, for artful, well-judged simplicity. Indigo Train is a masterful debut.