The softly powerful Black And Blue opens the album with a disquieting look at domestic violence and is typical of a forthright and often bitter lyrical approach. Woven expertly together by Ned Douglas’ samples, Martin’s songs talk to the past; often with deep-seated regret and asperity. Vane Tempest takes some of that acrimony, aims it at the the effect of the miners’ strike on North East families and employs a memorable guitar duet from Dan Dugmore and Tom Bukova. At times though, that retrospective gaze turns towards more positive memories. In Shipyards he calls out, and pays homage to, his grandfather in a beautifully sparse guitar/vocal offering.
These intimate forays into the past include the nostalgic childhood memories of 1996 where Dave Stewart’s Fripp-like guitar adds a fifth voice to Colorado’s Holbrook sisters’ (SHEL) backing vocals. Or there’s North View; an upbeat folk/country approach and an impressive degree of fiddle versatility from Ann-Marie Culhoon delivers more wistful childhood memories.
Martin certainly has his positive side. Your Face provides the album with an excellent single. An uplifting love song with a lighter-than-air approach and a full, rich sound. The violin provides added depth, but it’s still the reigned-back sound that pulls you into the lyrics. In a brief departure from the atmospheric, acoustic approach – See You Tonight is something to give the audience a nudge. More of a full band sound with bass, drums and guitars to the fore. The arrangement succeeds in lifting the pace but it’s as an acoustic act that Martin makes the most of his voice and his lyrical content. The finest example, and stand-out track of the album, being Edinburgh. Vocal, guitar and piano augmented by keyboard atmospheres, makes the best use of those arresting vocals and his impressive ability with a lyrical hook.
First impressions come from Martin’s distinctive voice. It has a pitch and a purity that immediately stands out – it’s a captivating sound. Soon, though, the lyrical content of this début album makes its presence known. Martin seems to bare his soul to give a song worthwhile content, the kind of deeply personal and emotional song-writing that can all too easily take its toll. For Martin, though, this is grist for the mill, his capacity for forging a strong lyric from his own experience shines through. When combined with his distinctive vocal it’s a heady mixture that’s well worth enjoying.
The album was recorded at Nashville’s legendary Blackbird studios under the guidance of friend and mentor Dave Stewart, and features a whole host of Nashville alumni session musicians. The prominent sound over these 11 tracks though, is Longstaff’s delicate guitar work and his even more delicate falsetto vocals. The album then, will stand or fall on the strength of Longstaff’s deeply personal songwriting, and there are certainly moments of tender beauty here.
‘Black and Blue’ is a chilling tale of domestic violence, and like the gorgeous ‘Edinburgh’ (surely a future single) and ‘1996’, is a sparse acoustic lament.
The upbeat and country tinged ‘See You Tonight’ and the single ‘Your Face’ feature fuller productions, electric guitars and strings backing up Longstaff’s Sunderland brogue, and are all the better for it.
Longstaff’s music has been compared to folk legends Richard Thompson and John Martyn, although it is another British songwriter – Tom McRae, that I am most reminded of. There is a touch of Paul Heaton about the vocals too.
Album highlight ‘Vane Tempest’ really showcases Longstaff’s lyrical skills, and the story he weaves here, like much of this album, is rooted very much in the North East. It’s a touching tribute to his father, a former coalminer, and is a virtuoso piece of songwriting. When he sings ‘’There will come a time for people like me and you,’’ it’s genuinely heartfelt and affecting.
The album closes with two further ballads. ‘Shipyards’ and ‘Orphans’ are soft and tender, Longstaff’s voice, gentle guitar and lyrics again front and centre stage.
Personally I find that singer-songwriter albums that are as sparse as this all the way through, tend to wear a little thin by the end, unless it is something truly exceptional such as a ‘Pink Moon’ or a ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’. Whilst this record (understandably) doesn’t quite fall into that bracket, it’s an album that very rarely lets your attention drift away. The album would certainly benefit from a change of tempo or two though, and those Nashville session musicians could certainly have been put to more use.
Nonetheless, it’s a very promising album from a very promising artist, and hopefully next time there will be a little more meat on those beautifully constructed bones.