Mister KeithMister Keith
Album: Record Of Wrongs
Label: Umbowler
Tracks: 14

Britain has a happy knack of producing gently quirky, lyrical and narrative song-writing - think of Ray Davies, the Beatles, Stackridge, Squeeze - and this album represents a new addition to this tradition. Keith Ayling, alias Mister Keith, has a long background in music and the arts. He's a former art gallery manager, educational charity worker, media manager, academic, Britpop musician (with 13 previous albums to his credit!) and songwriter. Somehow, the term polymath doesn't sound too overblown! But this is his first album as "Victorian pop" songwriter and singer Mister Keith; and it's a little gem!

The secret of this album lies in its tasteful use of instrumentation, lilting melodies and warm, very English vocals. The vocal sound is reminiscent of Chris Difford (Squeeze) or even Mike Batt (the Wombles) - soft, breathy and even jaunty, despite frequently sad or dark lyrics. The songs are melodic and catchy - which is why they remind me so much of the heyday of British pop song in the sixties and seventies. The sound (and the sometimes melodramatic lyrics) though add the Victorian element to the mix; arrangements subtly use strings, brass band, glockenspiel, clarinet, banjos and hammond organ to create a diverse range of tonal colour. Another reference point could be late sixties Beatles arrangements - credit here for the arrangements by Katie Virr acting as a George Martin figure, bringing Mister Keith's themes to life.

The songs are structured around three instrumental Interludes which mark a start, middle and end to the songs, with The end of the tether acting as a kind of coda. The styles vary from jaunty showground (The Circus, featuring Ben Castle's swinging clarinet) to slow lament (All this Time, The end of the tether), all carried forward by Keith's haunting and beautifully enunciated lyrics. It is great to listen to an album where production values enhance, rather than smother the lyrics! And lyrics are another strength of these songs: often oblique, even gothic, their sadness contraposed by the warmth of voice and arrangements. Sometimes sad, the effect is never depressing.

Tracks to check out include:
It's a good year, a wistfully slow waltz with echoes of She's Leaving Home; the latin-influenced Love is strong, which could be a Squeeze out-take; and Welcome to my world, a classic ballad, with beautiful brass band playing and a disturbingly oblique set of lyrics.

Perhaps the upbeat Healing Tonight best illustrates Keith's approach. Sounding not unlike a Noel Gallagher song with banjo accompaniment and bluegrass rhythms, the tune is jaunty, almost singalong. Until you listen to the words:

There's some strange kind of potion in my head
Rendering my body just like lead'
You've captured my heart in to a jar;
On this table now all I see are stars …..
It's a dungeon, it's a cellar full of tears…..

There is a depth of meaning in this album which I can only begin to guess at - I leave it to you to explore the strange but compelling world of Mister Keith. As he says, welcome to my world! It's well worth a visit.

Martin Price