Joe ToppingJoe Topping
Album: The Vagrant Kings
Label: Fellside
Tracks: 11

Joe Topping will, no doubt, be familiar to readers as a member of both Ashley Hutchings' Rainbow Chasers and Elbow Jane. A highly regarded singer, songwriter and guitarist Joe has also formed his own band, The Vagrant Kings to provide a highly original soundscape for his uniquely personal songs.

And what an exciting and hugely talented band The Vagrant Kings are. They are all brilliant musicians in their respective fields. Steve Parry [keyboards, drums, brass/wind, guitars and bass] is a notable arranger and composer of music for film, theatre and television [he is currently the musical arranger for the BBC's "The Voice" programme]. Jack McCarthy is a versatile percussionist who has studied with Cuban maestro Amadito Valdes of Buena Vista Social Club fame. Last, but not least, is Scott Poley, who is a highly sought-after pedal steel guitarist. Scott has featured on many albums and has toured with both Cara Luft and Kevin Montgomery.

With a band of that pedigree one would expect something special and this superb album certainly lives up to those expectations. The unusual combination of Hammond Organ, Latin Percussion, Brass, Pedal Steel and Bottleneck Slide Guitar provides a lush setting for Joe's excellent songs.

The album begins with a haunting, raga-like bottleneck guitar intro to "No Matter Where I Ramble"and you just know that this is going to be something special.

"Cat On A Cold Slate Roof"is an emotional Country-Soul ballad with gorgeous strings from The Leos Quartet. In stark contrast is the rowdy "I'm Not Gonna Worry", which has a New Orleans-Trad Jazz feel to it, courtesy of Steve Parry's horn arrangement.

Despite its title, "Heartbroken Blues" is, in fact, a Country ballad, where the poignant lyrics and Joe's plaintive vocals are echoed by Scott Poley's exquisitely played pedal steel, which adds just the right amount of pathos.

Joe's skill as a lyricist is exemplified by the superb, bluesy "This Love And Lack Of Money", which tells the tale of a man driven to desperate measures by poverty and which features the pinpoint percussion of Jack McCarthy.

Yet another excellent song is "Leaves On The Line", a tender ballad about how small problems can lead to bigger ones and "stop the train" and how "one last straw can break the camel's back" in a relationship. The mournful atmosphere is accentuated by a wonderful brass arrangement by Steve Parry.

Whilst many of Joe's songs are personal, an exception is the fact-based "The Ballad Of William Burke", which tells the sorry tale of the notorious bodysnatchers Burke and Hare and how Burke was betrayed by the treacherous Mr. Hare who turned king's witness. Terry Coyne's Irish Flute gives the song a Celtic flavour, reflecting Burke's Irish nationality.

The album's closer is the only song not composed by Joe. This is an evocative cover of the traditional ballad "Sweet Sixteen"which features a beautifully lyrical trumpet solo from Steve Parry.

Whilst it is only January and there are still eleven months of 2015 left to go, I have a feeling that this album will be up there in December in my list of "albums of the year".

Peter Cowley