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John Watterson John Watterson
Album: The Lost Will And Testament Of Jake Thackray
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 15

Not to be confused with the late, great Mr. Thackray's 1967 LP of almost identical title (just the one crucial vowel is different!), this new release from "the man also known as Fake Thackray" pays sincere homage by unearthing and (with all due permissions and full support from Jake's family) performing for posterity close on a dozen "lost songs" that were previously unrecorded by Jake and/or long buried in archive transcriptions or obscure or poor-quality tapes or else all but forgotten. Quite a task, then, and who better to undertake it than John, who has been performing Jake's songs to the manner born for a number of years, carefully and affectionately replicating (without pastiche) Jake's own delivery, and who has carried out extensive research for a forthcoming biography of Jake. John's previous release was a live album, on which he gave a whistle-stop tour through Jake's songs, introducing us to some less familiar byways as well as performing the known classics. Four of the songs on that CD - the pithily amusing (if surreal and macabre) children's songs Our Dog and Tortoise, the profound and starkly economic anti-war song The Remembrance and the blisteringly hilarious, proudly irreverent late masterpiece The Bull - are revisited here in brand new studio recordings that do them full justice.

But then, such is the quality of the writing on the remainder of the disc's fifteen songs, that there can be no doubt of the immense worth (and genuinely historic nature) of this release. Even on Kinnell, a legendary, teasing fragment (one verse and sundry phrase ideas) completed with not a little relish by John and his collaborator Paul Thompson, the presence of the master is right there with you in the room, daring you almost to challenge his wordsmithery. For when alive, Jake was an enigma in the performing world, for he delighted, enraged, outraged and puzzled audiences in almost equal measure. For all that he appeared on the BBC, often in prime-time, and became something of a household name, much of his writing was (and is still) surprisingly underappreciated, and it has become all too easy to underestimate the intense degree of artfulness that went into his delectable creations, not just in the brilliant, rapier-thrusting lyrics but also in the deceptive, actually decidedly tricky and demanding guitar accompaniment. It is for the latter reason that John has enlisted the skills of an absolutely brilliant guitarist, Paul Thompson, to provide the requisite technical sophistication that will withstand the rigorous scrutiny of close-up home-listening. And not only does John's deployment of Paul prove a masterstroke, but the additional engagement, of Paul's enviably skilled 18-year-old son Will for engineering, production and arranging duties on the project, turns out to be a similarly inspired decision. For Will so clearly understands Jake's work, his style and musical modus operandi, as much as he evidently responds to the interpretive flair of John and his father as hand in hand (or should I say voice in fret?) they so capably re-create Jake's creations. On just a handful of the songs, Will invokes the musical palette of Jake's earliest two LPs (especially the first) by incorporating tasteful aural embellishments like sampled bass or piano, or (on Side By Side and The Cenotaph) mildly chamber-instrumental gestures. Over the course of the whole CD, the subtle changes in overall ambience work together to produce a very satisfying and immediate listening experience.

Back to the songs themselves, then. These take a typically wide variety of approaches; first there's the "point-making" topical ditties written for TV programmes such as Braden's Week (The Ferryboat) or Nationwide (The Municipal Workers' Strike), which, though of necessity ephemeral by nature, were just as well-crafted as those of more lasting import like Side By Side, a commentary on the nature of boundaries (written for a German TV company) and The Cenotaph, a powerful piece exploring the themes of heroism and fading memory (its transmission, on the BBC TV series The Camera And The Song, was juxtaposed with scenes of rural Yorkshire life). There was piquant social commentary (Uncle Arthur, perhaps a kind of answer to Dedicated Follower Of Fashion), an angry response to prejudice-based jokes (One Of Them), and uncommonly savage political satire (God Bless America, a distinctly Tom Lehrer-like, and enormously shocking, portrait of a racist American). There was quintessential comic chanson (When Lucy Comes) and a "quirky eco-friendly love story" (The Berm House, very probably the last song Jake wrote, which was penned as a mere private joke for a friend). One might say "all human life is there" in Jake's songs, and their special brand of humanity is brought alive so unerringly by John and Paul in these recordings.

This Lost Will And Testament is a magnificent achievement, and of major importance in the continuing realisation of Jake's legacy. It has obviously taken John a great amount of perseverance to obtain these hitherto largely unrecorded songs and take them (with Paul's invaluable assistance) to full performing quality; "where there's a Will there's a way", one might say, indeed, for his diligence is amply rewarded.

And finally, the disc is also superbly presented, containing well-researched and impeccably informed booklet notes (by Paul) and rare photos. In this context, a special mention too for Jamie Lenman, whose canny cover design tips a nod to that of the album cover for Jake's own 1967 LP of almost identical title… which is where we came in!…

David Kidman