The master of excellent symphonic Beatle-esque ballads strikes again, this time with Dave Gregory and Eric Matthews helping the cause.
Thomas Walsh, the creative singer/songwriter force behind Pugwash, remains one of those tremendously talented people who thus far has (quite unjustly) escaped public notice. Still, with the release of Jollity, his third studio album, there is hope this might change.
Walsh has a reputation as a musician's musician, writing rich melodic songs of love and loss that tend to be packed full with effective pop hooks amid layers of meticulously executed musical nuance. Walsh's own Beatlemania often rises to the fore, as does his Jeff Lynne/RoyWood/the Move/Electric Light Orchestra vibe, though there's plenty Beach Boys/High Llamas influence as well. Walsh also claims to be moved by such disparate musical entities as the Bee Gees, the Kinks, and XTC.
The admiration extends both ways, however, with Pugwash garnering praise from the likes of such heralded icons as Brian Wilson and XTC's Andy Partridge (who co-wrote one of the new songs). Pugwash specializes in songs designed for residual pleasure -- the kinds of things that go around your head long after the music has stopped playing.
Yet these superb compositions haven't translated into commercial success, and even though the songs of Jollity continue the string of excellence, it's likely Pugwash shall make do with the comfortable cult status it has achieved in Walsh's native Dublin, America, and Australia (where Pugwash songs get radio play).
In a thankless, mercurial industry driven by formulas based on others' successes, Pugwash is a throwback to simpler times when it was mostly the music that mattered. So Walsh soldiers on, not changing his style to someone else's idea of musical "flavor-of-the-month." He remains driven by a desire for excellence, and always has been, from 1999's debut Almond Teas on through 2002's Almanac. Now, Jollity delivers more of the same, with increased depth and maturity -- eleven home-made songs that arrive fully realized, a collection of small melodic masterpieces.
Primarily, this is a collection of symphonic pop ballads; those looking to rock out can move on. Walsh has surrounded himself with a core of fine musicians: Keith Farrell on bass, Duncan Maitland on various keyboards, a variety of drummers (Graham Hopkins, Aidan O'Grady, John Boyle) and two very special guests in Dave Gregory and Eric Matthews.
Jollity is the musical equivalent of thoughtful repose, a quiet afternoon of careful contemplation couched in warm, well-arranged surroundings. Partially recorded at Abbey Road Studios, there's a suitable feeling of musical reverence in these songs -- every track rewards those who listen closely with headphones.
The album opens with a true bit of jollity, the amiable and bouncy single, "It's Nice to Be Nice." The Brian Wilson influence comes through loud and clear, a bubbly Beach Boys bassline percolating beneath simple lyrics that state the obvious: "It's nice to be nice, as my mama once said / It's good to be good and it's fun to be fun". While it's catchy and fun, the real album begins with the next track.
Thomas Walsh has a knack for wonderfully melodic hook lines that fit their way between steady chord progressions. It's Walsh at his best -- as he holds off with the hook, forcing the listener to hear it even when it's not there. Two of the songs here that follow that winning formula are "Black Dog" and "Even I". "Black Dog" (no relation to the Zeppelin song) builds slowly into something grand, an emotional homage and plea for a life of painless solitude. Walsh's smooth tenor conveys that plea well, a man in a dark cave seeking not to be bothered. Voicing the musical hook (and doing his best Chet Baker stint) is the talented Eric Matthews (Cardinal, solo), whose trumpeting presence here adds so much. Also present here with a lead is one-time XTC member Dave Gregory.
Many contend XTC lost depth and richness after Gregory's departure. His guitar, keyboards, and arrangements added much to the XTC sound -- but since he never shared the songwriting spotlight with Moulding and Partridge, his contributions were downplayed some. In truth, Gregory excels at nuances, finding just the right sounds to fill the void, be it strings or keys. His string arrangements on XTC's Skylarking remain a testament to his talents.
Those talents are very much on display throughout Jollity, particularly in the beautifully lush string arrangements found on "A Rose in a Garden of Weeds". This song of patient waiting tells of love questioned and held off, yet ultimately verified through the tacit virtues of laughter. Walsh's talents extend beyond creating Beatlesque symphonic ballads to crafting lyrics that reflect a poet's succinct expression: "Why won't you let me in? / Feel life through my soul / And then you laugh and then I see / Why you're my rose in a garden of weeds".
The Section Quartet (who have played with the likes of Wilco and Kanye West) provide the breathtaking strings in an arrangement that rises and falls in crescendos of aural pleasure. They are Eric Garfan and Daphne Chen on violins, Leah Katz on viola and Richard Dodd on cello.
The quartet, along with Gregory on grand piano, and Matthews on trumpet, contribute to the lovely ballad "I Want You Back In My Life (for Mam)". This dulcet ballad of longing starts out like a lost John Lennon song. It goes on to present pleading and promising in multiples of seven, but as Walsh reminds us, "it's a simple factor now". There is the ache of wanting more in this plaintive yet heartfelt lament: "'Cause even though I feel you, I'm reaching out / I just can't touch you".
Another soft, winning ballad is "Poles Apart," a thinking man's views on love and relationships. This theory finds polar opposites in attraction, a paradox that comprises this situation: "So my conscience is clear and my mind holds no fear / And we're so far apart we're so near . . . / We're poles together". This waltz is a tour-de-force for Dave Gregory -- he delivers sumptuous guitar and piano work.
Probably my current personal favorite is "This Could Be Good". Here Walsh reflects on the vicissitudes and foibles of life's fickle day-to-day doings. It's an uncommonly optimistic song, and one that grows on you with repeated listens. There are loads of musical nuances here, from fuzz bass and guitar, to hand claps, to Shaun McGee's backing vocals. Musically, Walsh always manages surprising musical changes (going from a major seventh to a major sixth here), and lyrically, he waxes philosophical with a positive spin: "Ever wonder why you're running but you're going nowhere? / It's life's little way of telling you you're already there. / So I won't replicate those mistakes that were made / I simply refuse to believe all of the bad". It's a happy, busy musical jumble, but kudos especially to Keith Farrell, who contributes some superb bass and guitar work.
Gregory adds sitar accents to another wonderfully infectious Pugwash tune, "Even I". You'll be hearing the guitar hooks even when they're not there -- it's a typical Walsh/Pugwash construction -- and "even I can see the irony" in it.
"Something New" is another mid-paced winner that showcases Duncan Maitland on piano (and features everything from Mellotron flutes to a 12-string Rickenbacker). It's a tale of revitalization at the hands of an old love, and is quite charmingly sweet and melodic.
As if further proof was needed that Pugwash operates outside the commercial norm, the CD offers up a waltz followed by a lullaby. "Waltz #714" is a harmony-drenched concoction that explores relationship troubles when a couple is all alone for the first time (with guest banjo by Tosh Flood). "Lullaby #1" is a dear, brief assurance from parent to child at bedtime that all will turn out just fine.
The album closes with the song co-written with Andy Partridge. "Anchor" is a sprawling five-minute plus ballad to love replete with nautical imagery (a common element in many Partridge songs), yet the middle bridge and beyond is pure Eric Matthews (who contributes vocal parts as well as tremendous trumpet and flugelhorn). It's "The Last Balloon" meets "Fanfare", with Thomas Walsh's special creative flair thrown into the mix.
All told, Jollity is a rich compendium of aural excellence that continues the musical legacy being built by Walsh as Pugwash. These eleven compositions are gorgeously arranged and meticulously executed, weaving layers of musical nuance into delicately infectious ballads of love and reflection.
The hope is that this new Pugwash collection will be met with a higher profile -- but quality is never a guarantor of popular success. So, while long-time fans will not be disappointed -- the quest remains to find a mature public eager to enjoy such finely wrought melodic works. For Walsh's sake, it deserves to happen.