Emily by Stephen Fretwell, proves the slightly dubious theory that the seventh song on any given album is the best track*. Simple, like most of the album; rythmic lyrics, like most of the album; sung in an accent that’s both musical and authentic, like most of the album (though one wonders, is it as annoying to folk in Fretwell’s native Scunthorpe as Damien Dempsey’s is to Dubliners?), Emily triumphs by having the best tune on an album that’s filled with brilliant hooks.
There’s nothing new on Magpie. There’s plenty that’s unique though, and that’s the point with this album. Sure hundreds of people have picked up guitars and strummed them, singing their maudlin songs, but no one has ever done it with the combination that Fretwell has. There’s rhythm, lyricism, and a healthy dose of depravity with these songs.
Sadly, while following some quasi-kabbalistic guidelines by placing his best song at #7, Fretwell breaks the most pragmatic and sacrosanct of running order rules with the first track Do You Want To Come With? It’s a lovely song, but takes an ice age or two to develop.
Far better would have been Brother, which is one of the closest things to an upbeat song on the album. It hurtles along with all the breakneck speed of a mid-tempo Counting Crows song (indeed there’s more than a whiff of Mrs Potters Lullaby from the Crows ’99 album This Desert Life about the backing track). The tune may be derivative, but Fretwell’s voice is anything but, as he defiantly swaggers “But the Girls on Swan St must cost you more … now you’ve got the money!”.
The stripped back sound, coupled with the scowling smile-free subject matter will inevitably draw lazy comparisons to Damien Rice, but that shouldn’t do Fretwell a major disservice. There is certainly some shared ground. And there could be worse comparisons. There’s a purity of purpose, perhaps too much so, but it reminds one also of an early David Gray – albeit one with a better taste in decadence.
Bad Bad Me starts with voice and guitar, and lyrics sung in a voice rough around the edges: “You look so dainty darling, crossing over the road where the taxis wait in line. You move like violence baby, your stubborn airs get me, every time”. On paper they border on trite, but as he phrases the lines, rushing a bit here, delaying there, it mutates into poetry. It’s all about delivery. After the first couple of lines, the piano, drums and bass join in, each keeping its own phrasing and space to create a dynamic song, though I won’t hazard to guess what he’s getting at when he sings “come on over darling, and bring those magazines, and show me which one’s your favourite floor”.
It’s not perfect by any manner of means. It’s too monotone to be an album to constantly return to, and there are a fair hand full of fillers – but when the songs hit the spot they are in a word, perfect.
*While My Guitar Gently Weeps on The Beatles’ White Album
Communication Breakdown on Led Zeppelin I
Brand New God on the criminally overlooked Stuck together with God’s Glue by Irish band Something Happens.