It’s here at last! The keenly anticipated new album from The Vagaband, and it’s such a masterpiece. Town and Country is an album I adore, have played countless times and never get tired of. Medicine for the Soul is even better, a real labour of love with much thought, care and attention all the way through, in fact it’s a perfectly cohesive work, almost a concept album in the way the themes work alongside each other and recur throughout, and White Album-esque in how one or two songs run into one another.
It may surprise some people on first listen, and from the word go there are unexpected moments. Opening with the ghostly sounds on the Beatles-like intro, Top of the Morning, which flows into the upbeat Lifted, a song we know from their live sets and a track with all the hallmarks of the band, and memorable lines aplenty (“These dancing days don’t last for long, I don’t know where I’m bound but I know where I belong”), a song I often find in my head as I am out and about with its catchy melody, all played with beautiful restraint before merging gloriously with Black Sheep. A song I know so well from live gigs it’s amazing to hear a recorded version. Another song full of the character of the band, and augmented in the recording with Jew’s harp, and banjo by Gareth from Feral Mouth. John Mudd from the Ferals also guests on a couple of later songs.
The next song is the glorious and mighty Whistling Song, sounding big and full and with amazing, haunting whistling from Ali, the intro always makes me think of spaghetti westerns! Jose’s singing on this one is highly impressive, and floats along with the brilliant playing The chorus is just as I have always imagined it in singalong style. I can’t wait to attend gigs where this one has become familiar with everyone and the audience join in the singing, almost ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in its spirit of acceptance but puts me in mind of Lennon’s “Gather ’round all you clowns, let me hear you sing … ” in You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. Co-written by Jose and Greg, I love it, and it’s one of my favourite pieces of writing. I think it’s the new El Molino.
It is followed by Gabrielle which I think is the song on the album that most resembles the band’s live sound in party mood, I probably could not imagine this crowd favourite sounding any different.
There are little sound samples from the studio and films scattered about the album, one of them being from Heartworn Highways, where some more excellent songwriting is on show, here in a tribute to Townes Van Zandt, a Jose inspiration and influence and someone whose work I love too, on title track Medicine for the Soul, which brings the tempo down and takes us into the over-riding mood and feel of the album, which is more reflective and generally darker than their first. The songwriting throughout is first rate and poetic. Here on Roll the Thunder Jose’s words (You and I ain’t getting any younger, roll the dice come roll the thunder) sum up a general theme of transience, time passing, changes, and getting older.
There’s a lovely, lovely instrumental Ten Bells Waltz after this, a sway-along, fairground-atmosphere piece which conjures up much imagery.
I fell in love with Town With No Name when I first heard it live a few months ago. Again the writing is masterful, and a wonderful work about Jose and Greg’s home town and its sad fall and decline. Co-written with Greg I think they have done an amazing job with the lyrics, the arrangement and playing on the song itself is just perfect and captures the mood spot-on, especially with some of the effects used.
Cisco Wine is a beautiful and melodic piece, with some lovely singing, it’s another moment on the album that reminds me of White Album-era Beatles. Gorgeous.
Things change on the intro to A Different Drum – another Jose and Greg composition – sparse and big, Lynchian in sound, this is one time I have heard some Indian influences with the droning sound which stops on a drumbeat. A beat which then carries on slowly before Jose comes in with “Now the music’s almost over”. This is a band and songwriter full of expression and self-belief, and they know how to bring it down and use subtlety too. Dan, Tris, Joe, Patrick, Hugh, Greg and Ali play beautiful and brilliantly throughout and here Ali’s backing vocals are absolutely gorgeous, lovely harmonies.
It’s a stunning album, I would love this whoever had recorded it, so I can say that without bias, and if any further proof were required of why I love the Vagaband they have provided it in abundance with this album, I feel proud of them and I hope they feel very proud of themselves. There is not a weak moment on the album, the playing by everyone throughout is first class, including the guest musicians, and what I also feel very much is the love, care and thought which has gone into each and every aspect of the album. As well as the songs and the superb production, the cover and layout are beautiful, and I love the inclusion of the lyrics, which I think is an important part. I can’t wait to see the vinyl pressing. I think anyone who hears this as an introduction to the band will be blown aways by it, but so will people who know the band well. Everything comes together and all the members shine throughout. Like a great pint of Guinness, some things are worth waiting for. Wow is this a case in point, the Vagaband are a band on the top of their game!
Medicine for the Soul is currently available from Soundclash Records, on St Benedicts Street in Norwich, as well as at the band’s gigs, online it will be available a little later in the year when it gets its official release.
words and photos, richard shashamane 2014