Danny McGaw/Mystery Parade
Review by Sami Zahringer, Ojai Quarterly.
Danny McGaw’s indelible, new album “Mystery Parade” (December 18th) weds a particularly Northern English folk sensibility to the banjos, harmonicas, and rhythms of American bluegrass and blues. There is a vagabond feeling in this, his 15th collection of songs, many of which are bruising meditations on the push and pull of home; the road - its illusions, traps, and pitfalls; and what happens to the nature of love and friendship along the journey. He wrenches new perspective on the seeking life from the fist of experience, and molds it in his own image.
The first thing that impresses itself on you is McGaw’s singular voice, a mighty Richard Burton-esque baritone, containing, at once, an almost boyish earnestness with worldly heft and a sense of having seen a thing or two. The voices of many singers as powerful as his are are riddled with chilly technique resulting in a sort if cold beauty but he comes by his power naturally and retains a native, unstudied, and genuine warmth that allows for a far less removed, more intimate sound. The sheer power of it sometimes has the effect of lending it a strange solitude, as in tracks like, “I’ll Get Back.” Just as often, though, it sweeps you into a rousing, hey-everybody-sing-with-me! feeling.
A voice of that strength is grippingly vibrant in live performance, but needs careful framing on a studio record to keep the balance of the music. McGaw under his own label, Northern Lad Records, has produced an album that recognizes this and modulates it accordingly with a high degree of practiced finesse. Although this demands self-awareness, there is nothing self-conscious about the music. The voice is often allowed its full, untrammeled range inside the various landscapes of the songs.
An uncompromising sense of melody is to the fore in all of McGaw’s songs. Try getting the tune for “Good Woman” or "Ghost in the Attic” out of your heads after even one listen. Rhythms are strong, often even pounding and - making the process look deceptively simple - the words seem to slot perfectly into place within them with a certain amount of enviable inevitability. It’s difficult to imagine different lyrics to any of these songs because the lyrical mood cleaves tightly to the musical mood like a pair of clasped hands, imploring, but singular and strong. McGaw’s sense of melody seems hot-wired right into the old, deep, fireside part of the brain, the part that the saga poets and minstrels knew was where melody and rhythm impress meaning even deeper into the human soul. Into that melody he packs light and shade, and heart and head.
The vagabond spirit in this album draws from two countries. Having emigrated from England in his early twenties, McGaw has wandered widely in the US for over a decade, tapping deeply into the roots of different American musical styles, particularly in Kansas City and North Carolina. The result is a cross-breeding of traditions, creating a whole new American hybrid that’s rooted as much now in American soil as in British. Wound into a modern, bluegrassy sensibility, there are whispers of English folk music, traces of Nick Drake, rumblings of Irish pub songs, and something of the stark poetry of Billy Bragg. Each track is delivered with a propulsive beat and frequently an almost preternaturally catchy melody - sometimes in quiet meditation, sometimes in a rousing anthemic arc.
McGaw grew up in Manchester, in the North of England a place of brass tacks and make-do-and-mend, but where the Oxfam-shop dreariness of the 80s was cut through with bubbling volcanic energy and a deliciously sly working-class wit. As the late great NME tub-thumper, Steve Wells, once said “Northerness is to Englishness what unicorns are to horses, what with being further away from France”.
The Mancunian accent is a very distinctive, old, and storied one. If it were represented by a font, (italicized for speech) it would be an no-nonsense Helvetica, only with the italics pointing North East, reclining backwards, not forward, irreverently observing the daft world, and harking back to the days when every working-class Northern Englishman could be found beneath a flat cap, drinking over-brewed tea with his evening paper, and having informed opinions on ferret husbandry. There’s innate wryness in the cadences, and a sort of earthy, unapologetic starkness, which these days has people all over the world wanting to sound like Jon Snow of the Nights’ Watch on Game of Thrones. Northerners live within their accents rather than merely wearing them and, on different levels, that has implications for many of McGaw’s songs.
The tricky relationship with home is excavated in different ways on several tracks. The anthemic “I Remember it Well,” feels like an Irish pub song at the misty-eyed end of the night; people swaying arm-in-arm to a ringing paean of personal and collective memory; the song closing with the crowd roaring the chorus. But home is not that simple. “If there’s no-one there (to meet you)” McGaw asks in the song of the same name “is it still home?” Fittingly, this song of roaming, is the most country-sounding on the album:“This train is moving, where it’s headed I don’t know.” Two unaccompanied male voices start the journey, then instruments are gradually added, building poignantly as the song’s gaze turns from looking backwards to pressing forward: aimlessness turns into direction, and Northern English roots and reflection yield to California dreaming and escape. “There is one thing that is certain - Son, you’d better dream. Pick a direction, trust the road beneath your feet.” Without being didactic, it feels like the start of a solution.
Home is referenced again in the hypnotic, slightly trippy “I’ll Get Back.” We return “to that song that doesn’t care who’s listening, to that dream that makes sense of the day…Back to that road that led us away.”
As much as looking back for meaning is examined in this album, there is also a correspondingly strong sense of pushing forward to where hope lives and love endures. The future is looked to in the ambiguously titled “Give and Take”. A “hundred year-old wall” is left behind, but there is “morning light,” the taste of the ocean ahead, and the aching, searing, refrain “Oh my love, I’m coming to you.”
In the foot-tapping song of escape, “Let’s Go Get Ice-Cream,” the distraction for a rueful soul, beaten down and jaded with life and false promise, is returning to simple pleasures. The song sweeps us up wholesale in a mood we all recognize: we are weary; we are numbed in a system indifferent to the individuals within it; we want to get away from “these people who aren’t (y)our friends.” The beat builds and pitches us forward. We are in it all the way…we want to cut the crap and rediscover something simple and real! We feel it with the exclamation point because there is real catharsis in the way the song handles mood. It starts and ends quietly and ruminatively, building acoustically as we recount how life can beat us down, making it almost impossible for us not to relish the temporary reprieve from it and join in the supremely catchy refrain: “Let’s go get ice-cream, let’s go get drunk. Go see a movie, have some fun! Quit the fighting, move along. Let’s go get ice-cream! Let’s go get drunk.” It’s the McGaw way of coming up fighting and it makes us want to join in.
This same sense of private resistance against an unbeatable system is pervasive throughout the whole album, implying the large and small personal evolutions needed of necessity, just to survive in the world. Again and again throughout the album - like in the brooding “Heavy Heart” where “the sun is drinking in the daytime…promises are inevitably broken, and friends are hard to find,” - we intuit that McGaw, at one time homeless and surviving on busking and odd jobs, understands something of the unyielding nature of bedrock.
The mawkish self-indulgence that sometimes haunts songs of bottoming out, however, is avoided, because these songs are also about how to find some way back up to life; “There’s another way. It doesn’t have to be so cold.” They involve love as redemption from cynicism, but also contain a species of defiance that taps into the sense of injustice - even futility - we all feel sometimes when pierced by the infamous slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Defiance is co-opted as a virtue and, again, without preachiness of any sort, it feels like a solution.
In songs like “I’m Not Afraid,” McGaw’s leonine voice is the ideal instrument to send up that defiant cry, soaring and cracking for us all to see, above the static, and the din, “the ashes,” and “the fighting cage.” “I see right through you! Your twisted game. As long as I’m loving, I’ll be OK.” The static builds, then the dark noise-scape suddenly clears. Some wisdom has been hard-won. Californian sun breaks through the scudding clouds of a Northern sky and, even as we recognize troubles, there is relief from them. (Perhaps because he’s from Britain, a nation preoccupied with the weather, the sun and the sky are frequent tropes in McGaw’s work.)
“Pay the Man” is more subtle; it’s a short meditation on the promises of modern life: the advertising and big business, the system that leave so many trampled in their wake: “believe in anything…ask no questions…nothing here is free.” The Man is beguiling; he steals even as he sells things to us. He promises us everything, “Give your sins to me, I will see that they’re not found,” providing that you “ponder nothing you see.” The song is a clear-eyed, unsentimental statement of how modern life often is, but with a further step. With just voice and guitar in a minor key, we intimate an acceptance of the state of things but then also a pushback against it: this is how things are, but this is not how I will be. There are strong folk instincts in the song but it doesn’t call for a violent, bloody revolution against society; rather a quiet, soul-saving revelation within oneself that might be paraphrased: I will quietly turn away from all that and walk my own path.
Placed right at the heart of the album is “Ghost in the Attic,” a rousing join-in-with-me foot-stomper with an almost tribal beat, which, wholly unexpectedly, yields in the middle to a heartbreaking plea that that rises and falls, and which you don’t think is blistering until you can’t forget it for the rest of the day: “Let me go! I need to go.” Sudden tonal transitions like these are part of what makes McGaw’s music so affecting. The ghost in the attic feels like the voice that pulls him back, but the strong forward propulsion of the song and the repeated refrain “It’s not for me” suggests the uncompromising ghost - “standing arms folded, narrow pointed eyes” - is losing its pull more and more.
“Mystery Parade”, the final and title song of the album, can’t help but recall Hunter S. Thompson’s dark quip: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side.” It envisions life as a strange pageant that you stumble into by accident, and it brings together many of the album’s thematic threads with lines like, “I could not go home,” and “the sky was full of rain…the sun faded”; with references to homeless kids and veterans down and out on the streets; and pimps and hustlers trying to get you to buy their promises. The track also elaborates on the theme of our personal responsibility in the world: In the line “I could not look away” the ambiguous “could” refers not just to being mesmerized by the dazzle, but also becomes a moral imperative not to look away from the dreariness.
All of these songs achieve what every decent artist aspires to, in teasing the universal from the specific. But, less formally and more importantly, they make us feel recognized, and many of them just simply make us feel good for a little while, which isn’t all that easy a trick to manage with integrity in our cynical times. McGaw’s unmistakably heartfelt authenticity is the key to this and, in the larger sense, to his appeal. The restless spirit in the album is honored alongside a recognition that meaningful change and revolution can only come from within.
With a sensibility as vast and cloud-scudded as a Northern summer sky; with captivating melody, and a pure clear voice of force and feeling, it turns out that Northern English pragmatism mixed with California dreamin’ by way of the rhythms of the American Midwest makes for a rich, distinctive, and powerful brew - be that brew beer, tea or whisky.
Best place to watch Danny McGaw’s Mystery Parade go by: Stretched out on warm grass, looking up at the sky.
Earphones on or off: Listen to this out loud.
Best accompanying beverage: Any of the amber drinks.
Alone or with friends: each way will cast up different meanings; both will work beautifully. Couples might find “their” song in this collection, but so, undoubtedly, will friends.