Thursday, March 3, 2016
Every once in a while in music, something comes along that makes you want to shout about it to the world. You become a bore to your friends and family as you take every opportunity to shoehorn it into the conversation, no matter how tenuous it may be. I find it happens less and less as time passes but that thrill of listening to a new album, connecting with it instantly and knowing that - as a whole - it is a work of staggering brilliance, never diminishes despite its infrequency.
Such a thing happened to me a few months ago: hearing a Bill Ryder-Jones track on an end-of-year music magazine compilation CD, I went straight out and bought the album, West Kirby County Primary, that it came from. From first play, I fell in love with the contrast between the tender delicacy of its whispered ballads and the scuzzy lo-fi of its slacker rock. Then I started to mention it. To everyone. And that was when I knew how good Bill Ryder-Jones is - because they all came back just as evangelical about his music as me.
Later, I found out that I had missed seeing Ryder-Jones live by minutes at last summer's Green Man festival in Wales: arriving at the main stage on the first afternoon to await Sweet Baboo, I was unaware that he had just left the stage; I could have been smitten much sooner. So when last night's gig at Brighton's Green Door Store was announced before Christmas, I snapped up some tickets.
Ryder-Jones is modest and unassuming from the start: he thanks us for coming out on a night when there is football on the televison and apologises for not being good at "banter" between songs. We don't care. The songs are so breathtaking live: he has the audience spellbound with the hushed fragility of album-opener, Tell Me You Don't Love Me Watching, and gives us an early treat with the glorious druggy fug of Catherine and Huskisson, one of the album's stand-out tracks.
The set is not all drawn from the current album, though. There is a new number and a quintet of songs, including the beautifully evocative The Lemon Trees #3, from A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart, Ryder-Jones' previous album which is currently on heavy rotation at my house. Wild Swans, with its restrained Northern Soul tempo and recurring refrain of "don't tell me that it's over", is particularly moving.
Halfway through the set, Bill's band - fellow Wirral natives, By The Sea - leave the stage and he performs By Morning I and, as the focus once again becomes West Kirby County Primary, Put It Down Before You Break It accompanied only by his guitar. The latter song feels as though it will fragment under the weight of its own emotion as he sings, "And now I'm throwing up/ Because the things I'm thinking/ Are things I'd like to keep from sinking in." "I'm alright, y'know," he reassures us between songs but the writing is so raw and confessional that we feel for him.
When the band return, there is a run of oustanding songs - Two To Birkenhead, Wild Roses, Daniel, Satellites - to close the set; Ryder-Jones dedicates Daniel to his brother and, from the lyrical content, it is hard not to be fearful of the tragedy it contains: "Like some unopened birthday card I keep you boxed with my unwanted memories/ Daniel belongs to the ocean." And as it moves from bereavement to depression, the narrative switches to a convenient objective voice: "If you take the pills you might not get so ill/ Let's make it easy for you Bill."
The lyrics are personal and heartbreaking and, as he sings on Wild Roses, Ryder-Jones is adept at "turning stories into beautiful truth." A founder member of The Coral in his mid-teens and having left the band ten years later, Ryder-Jones has had his share of difficulties with drink, drugs and a troubled state of mind. But he has no illusions about the romance of music: in a recent interview he declared, "You've already fucking lost if you're involved in it [music]. Artists aren't happy. People who love music aren't happy." I just hope that such a tender soul manages to not snag on the sharp edges of this jagged world.