A month or two ago José of The Vagaband was kind enough to give me a preview copy of new album Something Wicked This Way Comes. I have been mightily impressed by it and think it features some of his best songwriting to date but have only now been able to find the time to attempt to describe it as best I can as it deserves special and careful attention. We’ll all have our own take on the album and how we feel it. This is just mine…
The album continues the theme from Medicine for the Soul but is even more of a whole. Cohesive and very much about the thoughts, fears, and reflections of the central character. Some wistful moments but kicking off with the uptempo and punchy title track yet the lyrics reveal the deeper concerns and central themes of change, time moving on, and fears for the future, it can be as much to do with the uncertain times we are all living through and the fear of what is to come for us all as much as for the protagonist.
Sorrows get drowned on One for the Road which is bright and spirited though still with an underlying “I’m tired and I wanna go home” mood. There’s a Beatles Glass Onion moment for me with one or two of the lines, such as “I got a monkey on my back and he’s dragging me down” and a later ” … the monkey is me .. ” reminding me of “The walrus was Paul”.
On There’ll Only Be One Elvis the mood is more nostalgic, looking back to the time when “I was listening to Elvis on my Dansette stereo”, that carefree time of youth seen from a position where responsibility, global change and awareness, as well as time have changed perspectives.
Bouncing back with Not My Day to Die and some resolute defiance it marks the core of the album for me, four or so back-to-back songs that are among the greatest Vagaband moments thus far, really strong songwriting and performances. There’s no way the singer is being taken down during this song (“If they lay me in the coffin pull me out before I’m cold ‘cos Heaven knows it’s not my day to die!”). I really love the defiant tone of this one.
Eye for an Eye features guest vocals from Yve Mary Barwood, brilliant Norfolk solo singer and lead vocalist with Morganway. It’s sombre, sober, reflective and wise (“an eye for an eye and all the world is blind”), it has a great clarity set to a background fitting of a spaghetti western saloon in a ghost town.
The mind is now weighed heavy with memories, fears, concerns, uncertainty, regret, and the loss of youthful dreams but Mexican-flavoured Black Eyed Sally is one my favourites of all the album and tells of Sally and her “tongue of the devil and the sting of a bee”.
It’s immediately followed by another of my favourites, the sublime Bright are the Stars. This is simply a very beautiful song and the songwriting is pure Jose “Long is the road that winds for you”. It’s classic Vagaband.
Spiritual Man almost has a Ray Davies feel, and probably has a nod in that direction but this one too is classic Vagaband with all the instruments to the fore and giving that familiar vaudeville, New Orleans-esque jaunty jazziness to it while remaining distinctively themselves.
That sound continues on the song that closes the album: Zoetrope (a pre-film animation viewing device) and the yearning to go back in time (“take me back to how it was before … what about all the plans we made before … what were we hoping for?”), favourite tunes going out of style “but they’ll soon come back, if only for a little while”. The constant wrestle of not being able to hold on tightly enough to a moment to prevent it slipping out of our grasp and passing through our hands. Resonating with photographers too, trying to always live in the now whilst also attempting to capture moments.
It’s a mature and beautiful piece of work from the entire band, with a stunning production. Professional, clear and unfussy without distraction, a brilliant job from José and Greg with great performances from the whole band and the guests.
Pre-official release copies of the CD (no vinyl this time) will be available at their annual Midwinter Moonshine gigs at Norwich Arts Centre. Yes, “gigs” plural. The traditional 21st date has already sold out so a second has been added on the 20th. The first features support from The Arlenes and Murphys Lore, and the second has The Shackleton Trio, and Yve Mary B, with Hank Jd Sleek dj-ing honky-tonk, western swing and Americana in the late bar, where, of course, hot toddies will also be served.
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