Reviews

Den MillerDen Miller
Album: A Headful Of Fancies
Label: Self Released
Tracks: 11
Website: http://www.denmiller.com

Seven or eight years ago, Keighley-based singer-songwriter Den re-emerged into the cold hard light of acoustic venues and folk clubs (having reached the end of a short “career break” after a stint with folk-indie-rock outfit The Spooks) and released two CDs in fairly rapid succession (Still A Beautiful World and Be Where You Are). These provided ample evidence of Den’s special, individual talents, as songwriter, musician and arranger. He really is unique – and as you know, hand in hand with uniqueness often goes an unfathomable difficulty in reaching a wider marketplace.

Den’s songs are masterly: remarkably strong creations with an acutely developed pop/indie sensibility; well-crafted, first-time-accessible, often earworm-catchy, brilliantly arranged, and (in spite of all the odds) sporting a generally positive and forward-looking outlook (and a keen sense of humour) even when they deal with or discuss weighty matters – for the right-minded listener will almost certainly heartily agree with, and punch the air vigorously at, the views expressed within. Den’s commentaries on life’s imponderable inconsistencies, its dubious moral codes and major-minor hassles (eg. Little Things Blues) have an air of familiarity that invariably manages to transcend any superficial obviousness in their lyrics or sentiments; yet Den’s knowing, self-evidently sincere and perceptive anthem England is just one of those songs of his that by nature should be an award-winner in almost any context. Sure, there’s a healthy degree of clever-cleverness in the smart expression and construction of many of Den’s songs, a quality that you just can’t help admiring, if not loving to bits, for somehow Den always leaves you smiling and forgiving.

And then… in spite of their idiomatic nature and pure accessibility of language both musical and verbal, Den’s songs quite often incorporate a distinctly peculiar progression, whereby the line of the melody develops seemingly awkwardly, sometimes taking off into an unimaginable register, an uncharted realm of the voice (you seriously wonder how on earth Den gets his larynx into such a contorted position without apparently trying!). Always Be One is a case in point, where what starts off as a comfortingly pastiche-Dylan (Blonde-On-Blonde-era) romance suddenly finds its melody lunging imponderably upwards and outwards; and, on the jolly swaggering pub-rock mantra of One Of Your Five-A-Day, Den challenges us to not-quite-singalong by another feat of octave-busting, stretching those elastic vocal cords of his impossibly into the stratosphere before launching into the chorus.

Den’s confident sense of identity and ability gives his music an appeal that works equally well live with just guitar or keyboard and in the recorded format, where his thorough and extensive studio savvy (and canny sense of just what layers to use to build a relevant and satisfying texture) pays dividends to deliver a professional and highly accomplished product whose solid production values are complemented by attractive artwork and a sense of artistic vision that’s both persuasive and rounded. Everything you hear on the album is performed by Den himself (aside from a vocal chorus of friends on two songs and a guest violinist on one other track). That means acoustic and electric guitars, bass, keyboards, percussion and assured, pleasing vocals including harmonies – and this is the standard Den has set himself. The guitar-led arrangement he conjures for the back-handed protest song Things Can Always Get Worse, for instance, is both ideally judged and extremely well played.

Indeed, each successive CD of Den’s (there’ve been four now, counting this new one) has been something of a work of art – as well as a work of heart (for his is right in it!) – although the convivial album opener Don’t Fail Me Now, My Heart is one of those swear-you-know-it-from-somewhere jobs that’s listener-friendly almost to a fault and as a result probably goes on a bit in comparison with the more succinct span of most of the other songs).

And finally, almost by the way, Den’s never-less-than-highly-proficient multi-instrumentalism is proudly (and intensely referentially) showcased on a brace of instrumental tracks: Dance Of The Hobgoblins gleefully pastiches prog (ELP, PFM, Focus) with a soupçon of Stackridge and a joyous air-guitar passage thrown in for good measure, while Penultimate Orders settles on a kind of swinging mid-60s-Shadows-meets-Muswell-Hillbillies groove

Re-invent and re-exist, Den says; so I urge you to go investigate his music – and soon.

David Kidman