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Chris Wood Chris Wood
Album: So Much To Defend
Label: R.U.F.
Tracks: 9

For a good number of years now, Chris has been bearing the standard for quality modern-day English songwriting. He’s unquestionably a major figure in the branch of the pantheon of significant practitioners of that art which includes Robb Johnson, Pete Morton and Steve Ashley (to name but three). Each of whom, in his own way, cleverly and memorably combines astute and entirely right-minded political commentary with sharp observation and genuine compassion. In Chris’s case, the impressive series of albums from The Lark Descending and Trespasser through to None The Wiser contains key examples of true ballads of today’s society, observing both the traditions of classic folk storytelling and the patterns of vernacular speech and thought. So Much To Defend, housed within a scarlet digipack sporting a bold tug-of-war cover shot that’s both literal and metaphorical, continues Chris’s own personal tradition by presenting nine fresh reflections on contemporary society that use folk song form to conjure his special brand of social documentary.

The disc’s opening salvo is a carefully scattergun moving pageant of telling observations of life’s minutiae. Set to a casually animated, almost melody-free Latin-jazz-style guitar figure, it juxtaposes images of the haves and the have-nots, each one of them with a designated, if unconscious part to play in the world jigsaw and having so much to defend one’s own little empire against the ravages of society. Yet there’s also love and affection in Chris’s portraits of often dysfunctional residents, a level of understanding that penetrates right down to the core on the tender This Love Won’t Let You Fail, the voice of a parent telling it like it is to a child leaving home. But every song here’s a masterpiece, from the almost jaunty banjo-backed vignette Only A Friendly and the wry old-stager’s rumination More Fool Me to the almost chilling depiction of mankind’s perennial capacity for self-delusion (Strange Cadence and the bleak The Flail). Chris invariably examines thorny political issues with remarkable insight, unapologetically mining his particular seam of English soul. And fittingly, at the centre of the disc, we find a setting of Housman’s gloomily prescient lament 1887 (from A Shropshire Lad), which here gains a new level of contemporary resonance; the almost desperate cracked vulnerability of Chris’s delivery having shades of Robert Wyatt in its portrayal of painful awareness. The stark piano backing on this item forms a significant and telling departure from the signature sound of Chris’s trusty Epiphone guitar that forms a binding thread for the remainder of the disc, to which are added only sporadically the distinctive timbres of Hammond and flugelhorn.

The album’s final track You May Stand Mute is an impassioned Darwinist soul-gospel hymnal that candidly explores the silver dagger of faith; it forms a majestic, magnificent close to the set, which will (I’m convinced) swiftly come to be regarded as one of Chris’s finest and most important collections.

David Kidman