Did I Sleep and Miss the Border? – Tom McRae and the Standing Band (part 1)

I’m not 100% sure I’m up to this job, but I’m damn well going to try. This album means so much to me, and continues to sneak up on me with how much I love it. From being a keystone in helping me through the darkest phases of my struggle with depression over the last 4 years or so, to being some of my favourite political call outs, along with being one of the most sonically pleasing albums I’ve had the pleasure of listening to.

I’m going to attempt to go through track by track, pulling out my favourite lyrics, arrangements, moments. There will be uneducated musical musings (I never even took grade one anything, let alone get higher, to paraphrase the also excellent Grace Petrie). This is (hopefully) going to be long, possibly broken into separate posts for each song. We’ll see how I go…

Let’s take a step back to start, with a little info on the artist and album. It’s Tom McRae’s 7th album, although the only one that’s not a solo project so it stands a little to one side to the rest. While his debut album made some waves, with nominations for the Mercury prize and a Brit Award, he has long been something of a cult act, with a very dedicated fan base, but never quite breaking into any mainstream success. His ability to weave abject despair into song form, over a variety of subjects, is consistently excellent – however somewhat limited in terms of mass appeal. I have found over the years – since I first discovered him on the main stage at V festival 2003 – that he’s something of a marmite act. When someone ‘gets’ him, he speaks to them on a level that inspires real obsession and love, but if you don’t click with the sound then the passion he inspires in other people can be confusing, even worrying. Personally he’s seen me through a lot over the years, and I love the live shows, where his bitter humour makes it something of an emotional roller-coaster – laughing between the most satisfying melancholy brought on with the songs.

The Standing Band part of the mix are a group of excellent artists that Tom has worked with (or wanted to) over the years – from the two Ollie’s who have been part of ‘team McRae’ both live and in the studio from the early years, to Brian Wright who Tom got to know through the Hotel Cafe shows.

The sound of the record is beautifully post-apocalyptic – “as we recorded the album, I had the image of our band gathered round a piano in a post-apocalyptic bar, singing our hearts out as the fires rage around us… also handily blocking the exits and stopping the crowd from leaving.” With a strong undercurrent of political anger: “We’re sleep walking into a world ruled by oligarchs, where tech giants monitor and exploit our every thought, where governments and banks collude against us, and hyper-caffeinated teenagers design software to destroy any remaining jobs”, says McRae, expanding on just some of the record’s subject matter. “We’re going to need something to sing along to when the shit finally comes down”.
I would describe the sound as Tom Waits meets Kaizers Orchestra, but more chilled out. Not by much though, especially compared to Tom McRae’s solo work. The post-apocalyptic sing-a-long vibe is not something I would have predicted to work this well, especially from an artist who excels at the more morose end of the spectrum. But he certainly knows how to assemble a decent hook, and as seeing them on the (one and sadly likely only) tour confirmed – can definitely write a sing-a-long song. Even if you are singing along out of some desperate form of ‘you’ve gotta laugh or you’ll cry’. Despite which, I find the record incredibly uplifting, and remarkably hopeful. Which feels very odd to say about a McRae record, especially one so steeped in doom.

On to the songs now, I think… Oh, here’s a link to the album on Spotify, although I’ve included song links for each one as I go.

 

The High Life

Right from the start, the feel of the album is clear – the picked strings, with the underlying accordion build a catchy yet melancholy tune, before Tom’s almost whispered low vocals creep in, full of bitter anger with a very clear target – the wealthy elite. The hatred is barely contained as the chorus line of ‘the high life’ is repeated, and yet the post-chorus interlude has something almost hopeful about it. The strings are allowed to use their bows, and after the second chorus they hit a soaring interlude, before we get the backing chorus of ‘high life’ under the bridge vocals.
The song manages to sound almost sparse instrumentally, while using a wide variety of instruments to build tension constantly as it crescendos with the raucous bridge into an abrupt halt, punctuated with – a clap of thunder? A gunshot? Both feel appropriate.

“I know now in your veins there will only be blue blood
Come on, cut me now you will find
That I bleed the blackest bile”

 

The Dogs Never Sleep

This song has a lot of mixed emotions for me. It’s definitely one of my favourites, though on an album like this it’s more a matter of which songs I don’t utterly adore. It begins with such a simple overdriven riff, and those drums, sounding almost lazy to the point they could be out of time. It took my little sister to point out that the song is in ¾. It’s all in time, but just played perfectly to feel off-kilter.
While there’s no real tension in this song, it has a fantastic build throughout, to an almost ethereal (feels like both the perfect and worst word) huge finale that never fails to send chills down my spine.
The song is one of despair. Absolute and total despair.

“I’ve outlived
My desire, my teeth
And I give up, I give up,
I give in.”

And the finale, where Tom’s vocals have risen from a morose quiet, to an anguished shout of ‘I am so tired’, is beautiful in it’s morphing from such utter despair through the backing vocals joining in with the mirror of the chorus:

“Don’t give up, don’t give up
Don’t give in”

Until Tom joins in as well and by the end it feels genuinely hopeful, in a cracked and depressing kind of way.

This song has a special place in my heart, as I saw the Standing Band live when I was at the lowest time of my life. Suicidal ideation was pretty much constant, and my partner & best friend was more distant than ever, I so strongly identified with this song I couldn’t not take some heart from the ending. In a way that a more conventionally uplifting song would never have been able to do – I needed the underlying cynicism and doubt of the song to break through the shell. I found myself, struggling to even stay at the gig due to the newly acquired social anxiety, singing along to what is by the end, an anthem to an idea I couldn’t have felt more removed from. The idea that things can and do get better.

Quite how so much emotion can be squeezed into so few lyrics (shy of 150 words, and that’s including the repeats), which can then be dragged out to such a long song (over 5 minutes), that somehow feels too short, I’ll never understand. Witchcraft is the only explanation.

 

Christmas Eve, 1943

From a reasonably hopeful place, if still melancholic, we’re brought back down to earth with force for Christmas Eve, 1943. From the haunting intro of sparse picked guitar, up to the first chorus it’s simple yet full to the brim with sorrow. The addition of the background booms as the drums join in for the chorus helps place you exactly in place – war, death, despair. Genuinely Christmas Eve, 1943.

The second verse clicks into an almost uplifting beauty as more instruments join the lyrics describing a romantic, war-limited wedding.

“A dress made from my parachute
We married for love so true”

Though good things can never last in Tom McRae songs, as in war. He couldn’t even let the verse end before puncturing the happy place, punctuated with haunting backing humming.

The final verse is haunting.

“From her cold lips, I
Stole one last kiss, I
Squeezed one last breath”

I am not a very visual person (I do in fact fall low enough on the ‘fantasy scale’ that I have afantasia, an inability to form mental imagery), but these lines create the most vivid picture I’m capable of. Heart wrenching, but beautiful.

The song builds into heart broken finale as the backing chorus join in with echoed lines and the music builds into what feels like a much bigger finish than the actual instrumentation suggests.

 

Expecting the Rain

Now we encounter a positively upbeat song, at least in comparison to the preceding numbers. A pleasing combination of an oompa rhythm and cynicism. To be honest, I’m not sure what could be more perfectly British, especially in the current Brexit era (how prophetic of this 2015 album) than a cynical version of a European thing? Especially with these lines:

“Everything is harder now,
Every sky grows darker now,
All of me is hoping for sun,
Expecting the rain”

This song is a great example of why I wish I knew more. More about music, more about songwriting, just… more. This is up there with the rest of the songs on the album competing for favourite, but I can’t put my finger on why. My analytical abilities don’t stretch far enough to really ‘get’ the lyrics, and beyond highlighting the fantastic ‘false end’ pause before the crescendo ending, I don’t know what I could pick out. It’s simply a great song.

A special mention for the haunting version with The Cadbury Sisters providing harmonies. Utterly gorgeous.

 

That marks the end of side one of the LP, and I think it might be a good place to end it for now. Hopefully it won’t be too long before I get around to side two – but I think I need a break, and as I was supposed to be cleaning the house ready to sell while I’ve been sat writing this, I really should do some work!

Part 2 here.

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