The number 18 just might have a special significance for Ray Cooper. 18 years into the 21st Century, after having made some 18 albums with The Oyster Band, and some 18 years since he relocated to live in Sweden, this May sees the official, (non-digital platform), release of his third solo release, following on from 2010's debut Tales Of Love War & Death By Hanging, and the 2014 sophomore CD Palace Of Tears.
Recorded in 'The Love Shack', a small log cabin in his adopted Malmköping home, with The Oyster's Al Scott undertaking the mixing and mastering, Between The Golden Age & The Promised Land should possibly come with the disclaimer 'no other musicians were harmed during the making of this record', as Ray is credited with all vocals, together with piano, guitars, cello, mandolin, harmonica, harmonium, bass guitar and percussion. Obviously feeling under-employed, he also undertook production duties on the project too.
Musically, Between The Golden Age & The Promised Land is a majestic, tour-de-force of an album, destined, surely, to become one of the releases of the year.
Liner notes accompanying the CD release include the following:-
'The golden age and the promised land are the two great dreams.
Both are exaggerations, probably, but nevertheless compelling.
The dream of how great things used to be and the dream of how great they are going to be.'
Words which act as a leitmotif for an album on which the ten tracks on offer show a great variety and diversity, and give ample opportunity to highlight Ray's instrumental virtuosity, accomplished song-writing skills and, to my mind, often-overlooked orotund vocal talents. If a cello could sing, it would probably sound like Ray.
Whilst the absence of hardanger fiddle and kedele, (both featuring on Palace of Tears), results in a less overtly Nordic sound, traditional influences abound, albeit infused with Cooper's trademark contemporary interpretations.
One of Ray's seasoned skills is taking traditional tunes, and then either embedding or embellishing them with his own, often contemplative, lyrics. Thus opening track, the upbeat Drunk On Summer, recalling the perceived golden age of his youth, aged 16, incorporates the old English dance number, Speed the Plough. Similarly, Little Flame, a delightful mandolin-led song for his daughters, has an instrumental break based on the traditional tune Go And Enlist.
Another characteristic that has made Ray's music so very distinctive, has been his ability to take a chronicle from history, a biographical memoir or simply an alluring facet of life, and then, through modifying the narrative and augmenting with memorable melodies, skilfully elevate the original to a higher plane. In this respect, I would place Ray's storytelling proficiency alongside the likes of Harry Chapin, Al Stewart and, more contemporaneously, Reg Meuross; and on this release we are blessed to be presented with several tracks which give supporting evidence to uphold that claim.
The Unknown Soldier Has A Name, commissioned by the Dranouter Music Centre in Flanders, the song ostensibly recounts the true tale of World War 1 soldier Private Fred Broadrick, who, whilst being brave in battle was also somewhat of a rebel, being punished for offences such as drunkenness and using obscene language to officers, eventually being executed in 1917 for absence without leave. However, also woven into this moving piece, which subtly incorporates the golden age and promised land theme, is the story of a mandolin owned by a 17 year old German soldier who also perished in the same conflict. Reflecting on the fact that all unknown soldiers had names, this song is a valuable additional to the current crop of Great War memories.
Dramatic piano chords introduce the monumental Love & Vengeance recounting the story of Druze singer and actress Asmahan, a star who came to fame in the Middle East during World War 2, and who is still one of the most revered singers in the Arab language. Aspects of her turbulent life, including alleged involvement in espionage, together with her mysterious death in a car accident, are adroitly revealed in a song that is both powerful and evocative in its delivery.
The sound of Ray's trademark, haunting and sonorous cello comes to the fore in Ocean Of Storms, an atmospheric exploration of the features of the moon and the perceived loneliness of astronomers; and a fine example of the type of idiosyncratic subject matter, (akin to his Ranulph Fiennes-inspired My Compass Points to North), that sets him apart from so many others and renders his work so intriguing.
At just shy of five minutes, and returning to the piano, The Promised Land is an inspirational, thought-provoking song concerning the human impulses that drive people to seek a better life. Inspired by a tale related to him by an old man in Sweden, an exile from the former East Germany, who had escaped the tyranny of Soviet occupation by crossing the Baltic in a tiny boat, an undertaking that for so many others ended in loss of life, the message that comes through strongly is that overcoming hardship and barriers to reach 'the promised land' is, and has been throughout history, an inalienable goal.
'And the human heart is beating free
On an open boat out there on the sea
From the fires of war and the desert sand
A distant shore is the promised land'
Rich keyboard tones also accompany The Golden Age, a track which paints a vivid picture of Venice, once impossibly magisterial and full of beauty, but now deteriorating and appearing somewhat tired. The deft addition of harmonica lends further appeal to this sumptuous offering.
In a further contrast of style, with Valentine's Day, a jolly number with a catchy chorus, dedicated to those who have, once again, forgotten to treat their loved ones on the titular day, Ray might just have secured himself annual plays on radio stations across the country; it is certainly a song which evidences his adroitness at writing a song which leans towards more of a universal or 'pop' sensibility, (compliment intended).
Whilst the words and music on all of the above are penned by Ray, the two remaining tracks Adieu Sweet Spanish Ladies and Wayfaring Stranger, are traditional songs given a masterly lease of re-invigorated life with fresh, and very distinctive, arrangements. The former, is generally accepted to have been written from the viewpoint of sailors returning from Napoleonic Wars after The Peace Treaty of 1814, and thus can be seen, in the context of this album as alluding to the promised land being a return home. The strummed acoustic guitar is well-placed within the mix to ensure that Ray's vibrantly rich vocals are not over-shadowed, and as the harmonium is introduced an evocation of the sea is assured.
The final cut is Wayfaring Stranger, an old American gospel hymn covered by a host of artists including Tim Buckley, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Eva Cassidy, and Johnny Cash. The song, which tells of a dying wayfaring stranger looking back on the hardships and struggles faced in their mortal life and looking forward to the final reward of reuniting with their family, benefits greatly here from its sparse instrumental accompaniment. Cooper brilliantly captures the gravitas of the subject and delivers the song like a lightning bolt right to the heart and soul.
This is a wonderfully well-balanced collection, showcasing perfectly the consummate song-writing and musical skills of this multi-talented artist, an artist firmly at the forefront of contemporary singer-songwriters.
The album delivers the aural equivalent of a wide-screen UHD cinematic experience, such is its richness, and it rewards the listener with the promise of songs that will long remain in the memory.
This review was completed using a CD version of the release, purchased in advance of the official date, at one of Ray's recent live concerts. The accompanying full-colour booklet gives song explanations and background details, (in English and German). Both the artwork, (Neomania Design), and photos, (Kerstin Maier), are excellent and certainly contribute to what is a fine overall package.
The CD gets its official UK release on 25th May, and will also be available on gold coloured vinyl. It is available now on various download platforms.
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