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Reviews

Joe Wilkes Joe Wilkes
Album: Japanese Elvis
Label: Frontline
Tracks: 11
Website: http://www.joewilkes.co.uk

This is the fourth album from the London based songwriter; the first since Lorca in 2012, and the hand injury which nearly brought his career to an end. Unable to play the guitar, he taught himself piano and wrote this set of desolate ballads. The songs did not sit well in a conventional studio, and after spells in both Paris and London, he recorded demo style, mostly on borrowed instruments, the process giving intimacy and warmth to the sound.

His piano playing is to the fore on the opening number, Ironstone Sky. Right from the off, the class of this composition shows through, with delicate chord progression backed by distorted multi tracked guitars, a jagged arpeggio over an ambient wash, coloured by cymbal swells and subtle BVs from Natasha Williams. Wilkes's world weary vocal spins a sad fable of time passing, loss and regret.

Less Hesitation is a county blues, with harmony vocals from Siobhan Parr. Back on piano, After the Sorrow Has Passed, has a haunting synth motif in counterpoint to the vocal line, the song giving the album its enigmatic title

And the towering city is lonely and pretty
But the night we first met it was overcast
We were listening to the Japanese Elvis do his thing
Till after the sorrow has passed

Down in the Alley starts with a ragtime guitar break, moving to an extended sitar-like air, before settling on a picked blues, as Wilkes sings of modern urban warfare.

But it is the piano numbers that stand out. Track five, the reflective and melancholy parable If the Angels Don't Welcome You, They Can Go to Hell builds over an off tempo piano riff, it's hesitations stressing the vulnerability of the protagonist, as he sings of what happens when God falls in love with his dead ex- girlfriend.

A series of operations has restored his old skill on guitar, shown to good effect on Sleeping on the Floor, a duet with Charlotte Sometimes, with fluid and assured picking. Backing vocals (Parr) are well used on the Valley, giving the feel of early Leonard Cohen, and more than a hint of Randy Newman, both lyrically and musically, both world weary and knowing.

Operating in the area between John Cale and Tom Waits, with simple yet sophisticated soundscapes, this work will challenge and confront, enchant and transport. There is a rare sense of otherness to it, lyrically and musically outside conventional styles.

And it is a grower, an album that gives up its secrets slowly, layered and subtle. It needs and replays an investment of time. It has a darkness and depth, but never loses sight of its essential humanity.

The gentle talking blues of The High Life closes the album, a personal manifesto.

The high life comes fleeting fast
But quickly blows away

Superb.

Laura Thomas