The Whisper - SLIP 012
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At first glance this seems like a fairly run-of-the-mill part-trad part-written Brit folk effort, but there's more to it than meets the eye. The Whisper unveils a string of compelling story songs, presented with thought and subtlety, balancing dark material - The Sin of Mary Prout is brilliant - with humour and oddball arrangements. Writer Louis de Bernieres pops up to recite the nonsensical Tumblebum Tongue-twister. Colin Irwin
FOLK NEWS KERNOW
Tom is one of the country's finest songwriters, and also one of our finest singers. This powerful - and very generous - cd must get an award of some sort, surely. Tom overdubs and so do his ten backing musicians, so there's a good full sound. Lyrics - you lucky singers who are looking for new quality songs - are at the above website. Chris Ridley
Years ago, my wife, who is French, would travel home from work by a tortuous route that covered much of County Durham. It started with a lift from Shildon to Chester-le-Street (not passing Pity Me, but that's another story), and continued with at least one bus on to Stanley and finally to Hobson (where we lived, though not necessarily by choice). One evening, the bus that normally said "Stanley" said "No Place" instead. I leave it to the reader's imagination to think about the kind of conversation that ensued between young French lass and grumpy north-west Durham bus conductor.
What our ancestors chose to call some of the small towns and villages of England is a joy to behold. I used to opt for the A1 for journeys back north at least partly because the exits offered a higher standard of place name than the M1.
Tom Bliss was gripped by similar thoughts as he drove up and down the country smiling at the signposts as they flashed by. One in particular, pointing the way towards the Oxfordshire villages of Mixbury and Evenly, read to him rather like an extract from a Chaucerian cookbook.
With his highly developed imagination and sense of fun, Bliss proceeded not to those villages but to the pages of a good gazetteer, dug out a long list of candidates and turned his own amusement into a splendid poem in which dozens of place names are arranged to form the ingredients and instructions of a wonderful recipe.
If The Whisper contained nothing else, it would be worth the entrance fee of whatever the CD costs. In fact, there is much, much more, from the strident marching beat of Sound the Drum to the understated beauty of The Sin of Mary Prout, a Victorian mum driven by post-natal depression, which no court then recognised, to kill her baby daughter.
If you like intelligent songs, handsomely sung and accompanied, pleasant instrumental pieces and the dry humour of a natural stand-up comic with perfect timing, this may well be the one to spend that unused Christmas voucher on. Colin Randall.
A new CD from Tom Bliss is always an eagerly awaited event for this reviewer. The prospect of having a permanent record of the new songs heard at Tom’s live performances, and of hearing those not yet encountered, is one of great joy.
This is a typically generous offering extending to 77 minutes. So if there are a few tracks that don’t quite hit the mark with me then it would be churlish to be over critical when so many are gems of the brightest hues. In any case, those that leave me a bit cold may find favour with others, as I have always preferred Tom’s serious and, I am sure he won’t mind the word, sentimental, songs to his more amusing offerings. I should say though that the latter are often very clever indeed and work well in the live situation.
In the limited space here I will focus on the highlights of the 15 tracks contained on the CD.
The opening ‘Bristol Lady’ provides a spirited introduction to this collection – I will even forgive the ‘Whack fol the tiddle I, etc’ chorus – just this once - as the tune and playing has such drive and punch. This is followed by one of the brightest of the jewels – ‘The Spirit of Ecstasy’, which tells the tragic story of Eleanor Thornton who was the model for the eponymous Rolls Royce mascot and who lost her life at sea. This song reminds one of the incredible facility that this artist has to move one with expertly chosen words and totally sympathetic melody. The following track ‘North At Night’ demonstrates his ability to write and play great instrumental music too.
The traditional ‘John Riley’ is here a gentle duo between Tom and Alex Birch (she of the gorgeous voice on ‘Where Strangers Stare’ on the ‘Island Slices’ CD) and is followed by their thoughtful rendition of ‘The Sins of Mary Prout’, in which Tom has taken the story of a young girl who kills her baby at a time before there was any understanding of post natal depression.
Unashamed (and confessed) sentimentality follows in the form of ‘The Four Foot Track ‘ – a father’s thoughts and reminisces as his daughter prepares to leave home beautifully sung by Tom supported by young Ned Darlington who adds just the right amount of electric guitar to the mix.
‘Mark Purdey’ had already made a strong impression on me in live performance and though it gets a very different and more dynamic treatment here it lodged itself in my brain more than any other song on the CD. Telling the song of a young farmer who took on the might of the organophosphate industry it comes close to being a protest song of the kind that Tom doesn’t write.
The CD closes with a new recording of the incomparable ‘God Speed’ (originally heard on the now unavailable ‘The Kelping’ CD), which magically evokes all the atmosphere of Paul Gallico’s ‘Snow Goose’ on which the song is based. Recorded at a time of great emotional turmoil for Tom, the words and that glorious guitar tune are imbued with a tension missing from the original recording. Chris Parkinson’s harmonica adds an extra twist of the emotional knife in case you aren’t crying yet. I will continue to treasure the more reserved original for its purity but this is a fine new version and a fitting end to the proceedings.
As expected the musicianship from all the many performers on the CD is excellent throughout and there are copious notes and lyrics as well as extracts from each track on Tom’s website.
Looking back at this review I recognise that there has been a surfeit of adjectives for which I could apologise – but I stand by them all. This is a CD that should help to gain Tom the respect (and audiences) he deserves. Joe Grint
Tom is one of that rare breed of performer who really is the epitome of consummate. Not only does he possess a virtually unrivalled ability to write songs with strong tunes and memorable lyrics (and diligently undertake the necessary background research), but he’s also a really characterful singer and a true virtuoso on too many instruments to name. All of these attributes are allied to a freshness of approach and delivery on The Whisper, definitely Tom’s finest record yet. Sure, Tom’s talents have been a best-kept secret for too long, but he seems at last to be achieving a measure of that overdue nationwide recognition, which this new solo album should cement. The sheer breadth and accessibility of its extensive menu invites deliberate comparison with Tom’s whole attitude and devotion to his craft and to his role as an entertainer (he congenially tailors his live sets to the preferences of the clientele, invariably ending up winning over all its factions!).
The CD displays Tom’s multifaceted talent in all its glory, and genially conducts us on a tour of this fair land introducing us to places and people who have fascinating histories or important tales to tell. Tom has a real flair for getting right inside his characters and bringing out both their essence and their aspirations. The title track concerns Eleanor Thornton, model for two statues which became Rolls-Royce mascots, whereas The Sin Of Mary Prout relates a harrowing sequence of events that took place in west Wales in 1864. Mark Purdey is a biographical narrative tribute to an unsung hero of the world of science, and The Mighty Montagu jovially recounts the exploits of the hapless naval anti-hero Captain Thomas Adair. And I’d defy anyone to remain unmoved by the simple poignancy of The Four Foot Track (even if not everyone will get all the more personal references therein). Furthermore, Tom shows his prowess as a keenly humorous wordsmith on the delicious Middle English (And Welsh) Pie (a veritable tour-de-force of tortuous toponymy!), whereas The Tumblebum Tongue-Twister is delivered by guest reciter Louis De Bernières at a lick that even Tom and his merry band of musicians can’t quite match! As an encore, there’s also a “full band” version of God Speed, Tom’s take on the story of the Snow Goose (one of the most-requested of his own songs, incidentally).
Alongside his own compositions, Tom proves his aptitude for intelligently adapting traditional sources with fine versions of John Riley (here done most persuasively as a duet with Alderney singer Alex Birch, who lends her lovely voice to several other songs on the disc too) and The Handsome Cabin Boy, and a couple of inspired reconstructions from fragmentary (at best!) sources (Sound The Drum and The Bristol Lady). Other gifted musicians taking part on The Whisper include guitarist Ned Darlington, saxophonist Matt Nelson and Tom’s fellow-Pipers-Sons Tony Taffinder, Tom Napper and Chris Parkinson; production, recording, balance and liner-notes are all exemplary. A whisper would be far too muted a response to this exceptional CD. David Kidman Netrhythms
The Whisper" is a great song lead album drawing on events and people from England's past, both from the last millenia and this one. "Branscombe Bay" commemorates the beaching and looting of the Napoli, whilst "The Mighty Montagu" covers the wrecking of an earlier Royal Naval vessle by one of Tom's distant relatives. Good though they are, it's the songs about people the events of their lives and deaths that really highlight Tom Bliss' as a writer apart from the crowd. He's not a bad singer either. Emotional and evocative, what good folk music should be and is. Neil Fatea
The title song is the story of Eleanor Thornton, the model for the Rolls Royce mascot, and the lover of Lord Montagu. They were together when the ship they were on was torpedoed in 1915. He survived - she drowned. A sad romantic song that deserves to be in the folk song canon. On the rest of the CD most numbers are either Trad arranged Bliss or Bliss from Trad sources. Like all of our best folk singers he adapts the song to give it a chorus where needed, or brings together the elements that will make a song complete. As in the title song, his original material is just as good. A fine album, surrouned by excellent musicians Tom Bliss is a force to be reckoned with. Toby Freeman.