Mr Love & Justice are a very English band, using a subtle mix of folk and pop to create well-crafted, meaningful, and above all else enjoyable records. James Turner spoke to vocalist, guitarist and main songwriter Steve Cox about his influences, the band, and their latest release Homeground.
Could you tell me about the band’s history?
The name Mr Love & Justice has been around about 12 years, as a name for material I did and stuff I did with Andy Jones [who provides bass and backing vocals for the group]. It became a band in 1999. We posted some material on garageband.com, which is a shop window for indie bands, and we got reviews and started to refine our sound.
Whom do you consider to be your most important influences?
As a songwriter and a person I’m steeped in the whole Beatles magic and myth. I’m also influenced by XTC, particularly their Mummer album which has had a strong effect on me. It made me realise that you can write about local things, because there’s things on that album which you only pick up on if you’re from Swindon. I try to be locally influenced but with a wider audience in mind. The track Wheatsheaf (from Homeground) is about Swindon, Marlborough Downs, and Banbury Castle, which is an Iron Age fort and a popular place for people to go to and take in the atmosphere of Wiltshire. Local influence also comes across in Wish Hound.
Your material seems influenced by Billy Bragg as well; is that true?
He’s someone I like a lot, particularly the political content of his songs. I don’t try to emulate him, because you can’t, but I’ve always been impressed with his Englishness and his internationalism, and the fact that part of his work is strongly personal. I also write both political and personal songs. I’ve been a political person all my adult life, throughout the strong divide in the 80’s, and I’m influenced by Bragg and Paul Weller, both predominantly English songwriters. Then of course there’s Ray Davies, who conveys something about the English. The Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society is a timeless classic. I feel that Englishness is important, and becoming more so in the aftermath of devolution. Previously we didn’t tend to question identity but now we’re starting to think more about what is important to celebrate about England in an international context. It depresses me that we can’t celebrate Englishness without people going down the UKIP/BNP route. To be able to recognise other cultures you have to celebrate your own culture.
So how did you start to bring Englishness into your music?
Our sound is quite a hybrid. I’ve been brought up very much in the pop world and only started to listen to traditional music in the past ten years. I’ve discovered some great political music, but I find that folk is sidelined, which is a pity. Without the nonsense and trappings of pop and rock we can be ourselves and can write and perform as ourselves in a more honest style. I’ve been stripping away the sound over the years. I’m getting more entwined in that world and getting more into roots. I got into the scene through a folk club in Swindon, which has been going since the 60’s revival. I’ve seen performers like Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick, and it makes me angry that narrow-mindedness had led to me missing out on them before. I feel sad that other people are missing out too. Richard Thompson should be a household name: great songs, great performer and a great guitarist. The guy is just so fantastic that it’s a shame he isn’t more well-known.
Do the rest of the band share your enthusiasm for the roots scene?
None of the rest of the band are aware of the folk world, and we’re unsure where to position ourselves. There’s a lot of ignorance about English music and we just have to do what we do. We aim to appeal to people who like folk and more mainstream acts, so we’re not out-and-out folk or rock, more of a crossover band.
Are there any plans for a follow up to Homeground?
I’ve converted my garage into a studio and I plan to perform and record over winter. There’s a more traditional folk side to the music I’ve been working on. I’ve half- written songs I’m inspired to finish and I have some ideas about a 19th century history project I’d like to complete. It would still be under the name Mr Love & Justice, which is the label I use for musical projects. The band has a very fluid line-up. I’ve written a lot of political stuff, and after a gig at Tolpuddle we resurrected a song about the Tolpuddle martyrs. We’re trying to get our name onto the festival circuit. Last year we did Guilfest and Cheltenham and we’re hoping to do a lot more next summer.
Interview conducted by James Turner.Thanks to Steve Cox of Mr Love & Justice for his time.
As mentioned in the interview with main songwriter Steve Cox, this band has a hybrid style, a roots mentality wrapped up in a pop sensibility. From the opening track Welcome to Our Garden (on which the band come across as a more radio-friendly Show of Hands) to the closing track, it is a very English sound, with influences from great English artists like XTC, The Kinks, and Paul Weller jostling for position in a collection of superbly crafted and well written songs.
Biting, questioning, intelligent lyrics cocooned in vocal harmonies, acoustic guitar performances to die for, and a mellow laid-back groove remind me of some of the earlier Beautiful South albums, on which the melodies sometimes hide the force of the lyrics. In the case of Mr Love & Justice this is a good thing, because you get sucked in by the groove (ably provided by Chris Annis on drums and Andy Jones on bass, with Marcus De Freitas adding extra muscle on guitar) and find yourself singing along, particularly to the very catchy Ten Bottles and the chilled-out The Answer. The words and music sneak into your head and you find yourself humming them for days afterwards. Tumbleweed is a superb, almost instrumental musical piece that could have been lifted off the recent Candidate album. The album closes in style with the bass-driven Window Shopping and the excellent Hide and Seek.
This is a marvellous album, an excellent collection of folk/rock/pop music. It has an English charm and an English soul, and is all the better for it. Wonderful stuff. --James Turner
James Turner’s Best Folk-Rock Albums of 2004
In this first edition of the New Year I thought I’d provide a round-up of the best re-issues of the past 12 months, and also look at some new music.
Sandy Denny (folk-rock) Boxful of Treasures Fled’gling NEST5002
When critics and music fans in general speak of the great unsung singer-songwriters of the 1970’s, people like Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, and Anne Briggs are often mentioned. Nick Drake in particular is revered as a talented but tortured soul. Numerous posthumous compilations, an impressive boxed set, and his entire back catalogue, completely remastered, have been available for many years, despite the fact that he hardly sold any records whilst he was alive. His unique songs have also been featured on commercials and the soundtracks of films, including 2004’s independent hit GardenState.
It’s strange that the same enthusiasm has not grown up around Sandy Denny, one of the greatest performers England has ever produced. The lead vocalist of three classic bands throughout her career (the Strawbs, Fairport Convention and her own band Fotheringay) and the only vocalist ever to guest on a Led Zeppelin album (she duetted with Robert Plant on The Battle of Evermore from Led Zeppelin IV) she was also the writer of classic songs like Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,Solo, Like an Old Fashioned Waltz and One More Chance (probably the strongest track Fairport Convention have ever recorded). Although those who are in the know love to swap opinions on the strongest period in Sandy’s brief life, half of her back catalogue is inexplicably unavailable on CD.
David Suff’s superb Fled’gling label aims to change that with the release of this mammoth 5 CD boxed set, ordered chronologically. It includes a booklet containing Sandy’s story told in great detail with interviews with all those who knew her, in an updated piece by Jim Irwin that originally appeared in Mojo magazine. The material covered by the set spans everything, including Sandy’s early performances with the Strawbs, the accidental invention of the whole folk-rock genre when she replaced Judy Dyble in Fairport Convention, her first attempt at a solo career with her band Fotheringay (whose only album was reissued on Fled’gling earlier this year) and, of course, demos, live recordings and outtakes from sessions for her four solo albums and two stints with Fairport.
When you listen to this collection you can get lost in the beauty of the music, the intensity of Sandy’s performances, and the sheer quality of the musicians she had accompanying her. Despite the tragic end to Sandy’s life and the questions that will never be answered about what she could have achieved had she lived, this set isn’t mired in sorrow. It’s a joyful, ecstatic celebration of an extraordinary individual, a complete performer at home with her own music, rearranged traditional pieces, or even rock ‘n’ roll, a singer whose solo material was also her strongest, yet who felt more confident as part of a band. Sandy Denny was one of the lads and one of the best female vocalists England has produced. It is tragic that, since Sandy’s death, she has drifted into obscurity and hasn’t received the acclaim she deserves in the wider world. In an age of strong female performers like Eliza Carthy, Kate Rusby et al, it’s time to acknowledge the debt they all owe Sandy, for she did it all first. Hopefully this boxed set will bring Sandy back to the people. -- James Turner
Fairport Convention Angel Delight Babbacome Lee Rosie Island Records IMCD307, IMCD308, and IMCD309
Here we have a brace of three Fairport Convention classics, all remastered in natty slip cases, with extra tracks and sleevenotes.
Angel Delight (1971) was their first record without guitar maestro Richard Thompson, who had left the band but still managed to contribute the rather wonderful Journeyman’s Grace. Dave Pegg, Dave Swarbrick, Simon Nicol and Dave Mattacks recorded this overlooked album, containing such classics as the title track, Sickness & Diseases, and Wizard Of the Worldly Game. It is notable for the fact that Simon Nicol took on the mantle of lead guitarist, and succeeded.
The follow-up album Babbacome Lee was a major tour de force. Not only was it the first time that the same line-up of Fairport Convention had recorded two albums in a row, but it was the defining Fairport record of the era: a folk-rock opera concerning John ‘Babbacome’ Lee, the man they couldn’t hang. Adapted by the band working in harmony as tight-knit four piece, and co-produced by Simon Nicol, the remastered version returns the lyrics and original booklet to the packaging, alongside a couple of live tracks taken from a BBC documentary in 1975 about Babbacome Lee. This was a mighty sound, and was reprised in its entirety by the same line-up for 1982’s Cropredy folk festival.
After the triumph of Babbacome Lee, Simon Nicol left the band. Dave Pegg and Dave Swarbrick set about recording the album that became Rosie (and whose title track still lingers on in the repertoire today), with various friends, including Sandy Denny, Linda Peters, Richard Thompson and Ralph McTell helping out. The major development as the record was made was the introduction of former Fotheringay guitarists Jerry Donahue and Trevor Lucas (Sandy Denny’s husband) into the mix. With guesting drummers Gerry Conway and Timi Donald, and Dave Mattacks on drums, an album appeared out of the chaos. ‘Fotheringport Confusion’, as one reviewer called it at the time, kept the band alive and headed it off in new creative directions. Rosie as an album is patchy and does feel a bit disconnected, but when the line-up works (on tracks like Furs & Feathers, Trevor Lucas’s Knights of the Road, and the Full House line-up off-cut Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) it works really well. To prove the point the bonus tracks, all live performances from that line-up recorded in April 1973, show how tight the band were. With superb liner notes from Jerry Donahue, this rounds off a collection of albums from one of the more turbulent periods in Fairport Convention’s history. The fact that they always end up surviving is one of the great legacies of this important English cultural institution. --James Turner
Richard Thompson Henry the Human Fly Fledgling FLED3045
Richard and Linda Thompson I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight Hokey Pokey Pour Down Like Silver Island Records IMCD304. IMCD305, and IMCD306
Richard Thompson created a number of highly significant folk-rock albums during the seventies and eighties, most of them featuring the beautiful vocals of his then-wife Linda. Now the first four Richard Thompson albums have been remastered and reissued (with Henry the Human Fly, Hokey Pokey and Pour Down Like Silver available on CD for the first time in about 10 years).
Thompson had just left Fairport Convention when he made his solo debut with Henry the Human Fly in 1972. It is an album full of his own material, with songs like Roll Over Vaughan Williams, Nobody’s Wedding, The New St George and the raucous The Angels Have Taken My Racehorse Away all infused with warmth, and Thompson’s trademark guitar underpinning the tunes. As fresh today as it would have been 32 years ago, there’s no wonder it is one of Mojo’s top 100 guitar albums.
The first three albums recorded by Thompson and Linda appeared in quick succession between 1974 and 1976 and show Thompson’s song-writing honing itself, whilst Linda’s vocals get better and better. The best place for a beginner to start is Bright Lights, with its stories of the lost and lonely, the hope contained in the title track nicely counterpointed with the wistful Nothing at the End of the Rainbow. Hokey Pokey is more of the same, with minor classics such as Old Man inside a Young Man and a joyous romp through Mike Waterson’s Mole in a Hole.
1975’s Pour Down Like Silver is the high point of Thompson’s career in the 70’s. A brace of classic tracks, including Shame of Doing Wrong,Dimming of the Day, Beat the Retreat and The Poor Boy is Taken Away, have all entered into the folk club repertoire. With its striking sleeve (the couple had embraced the Muslim Sufi religion at this stage) and atmospheric production, the apex of the album is the amazing eight minutes-plus Night Comes In, which is one of the best songs that Thompson has ever written.
With full lyrics, new sleeve notes, fully restored artwork and superb bonus live tracks, this is a great collection of material. If you’re interested in the development of English folk rock and Richard Thompson’s influence on it, these four albums are indispensable.--James Turner
Dransfield The Fiddler’s Dream Sanctuary CMEDD943
Robin and Barry Dransfield were always the next big thing in folk-rock music. Barry performed on the original Morris On album and both brothers were asked to join the original Steeleye Span. But they got bad breaks, and by 1976 when this epic album was released indifference had pushed the brothers to the sidelines, leading them to ultimately stop performing.
Lovingly remastered, repackaged, and with a bonus disc of live material from sessions recorded for the BBC, the sheer talent and genius of the brothers shines through the album and restores it to its natural place in the UK folk-rock canon. In context, 1976 was a bad year for anybody who wasn’t punk. Fairport Convention were struggling and Steeleye Span were on the verge of splitting up, and they were bands on major labels. Any innovative, exciting and moving folk concept album released on a small independent label (in this case, Transatlantic) was bound to disappear without a trace and become the stuff of legends, as this did. Loosely based around the story of a fiddler and his impact on a small village, this album highlights Robin and Barry’s harmonies, Barry’s superb violin playing (particularly on The Blacksmith Parts 1 &2), and the tight but loose arrangements that hold together as fine a set of songs as you could find. A strong and timeless electric folk album, it hasn’t dated like some of its contemporaries and can stand proudly alongside Liege and Lief, Please to See the King and Rise Up Like the Sun as a definitive English folk-rock album. Well worth buying. --James Turner
Mawkin, a young four-piece Ceilidh band from Essex, are brothers David and Jamie Delarre (on guitar and fiddle respectively), Alex Goldsmith on diatonic melodeon and Danny Crump on bass guitar.
This five-track demo CD is a sampler of the band’s work, useful both as a primer for the debut album proper, due later this year, and for prospective bookings. Mawkin are primarily a live band who have been making a name for themselves at folk festivals and on folk websites for their performances. They form part of a new wave of English dance bands and their playing is fresh and vital, breathing new life into reels and jigs, and showing enough musical maturity to keep their tunes tight and not let them turn into 100mph reel marathons (after all, people have to dance to this!) This is a great taster for the band, although I suspect that live they are even better. --James Turner
And finally, some albums for those who want to prolong the Christmas spirit….
Albion Christnas Band An Albion Christmas Talking Elephant Records TECD060
The festive season has passed us for another year, but this CD in the ever growing collection of Ashley Hutchings/Albion Band albums from Talking Elephant is sure to make up for it. The collection was recorded by 2003’s Albion Christmas Band line-up of Hutchings, the sublime singer Kellie While, Simon Nicol and the versatile Simon Care. Taking the material from last year’s successful tour, this is the companion piece, a superb album celebrating the festival of Christmas with old favourites including On Christmas Night All Christians Sing, a collection of wassailing songs, some songs celebrating the Wren, and the Chiming Bells version of While Shepherds Watched. With music, spoken word and dance, this is a superb Christmas album, and one well worth returning to again and again even though Christmas is over.--James Turner
Steeleye Span Winter Park Records PRKCD74
Winter is the first festive album to be recorded by the latest line-up of Steeleye Span, who are still on a high after the success of their superb They Called Her Babylon album (which introduced guitarist/singer/songwriter and former Albion band stalwart Ken Nicol into a group of Span old-timers Maddy Prior, Rick Kemp, Peter Knight and Liam Genoccky). From traditional carols like The First Nowell, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and Good King Wenceslas to seasonal material such as Bright Morning Star, Down in Yon Forest and Blow Your Trumpet Gabriel, this is a superb addition to the band’s canon, and no mere throwaway album. Peter Knight and Ken Nicol work well together as the guitar and violins weave and twist, allowing Maddy room to push her vocals; indeed, this album may contain some of her best vocal performances in a long time. With Rick Kemp on bass and Liam Genoccky on drums holding it all in place, this is the sound of a band excited at the music they can make. A surprise release from Steeleye Span, but a most welcome one.--James Turner
The Streets A Grand Don’t Come for Free 679 2564615342
English hip-hop is an interesting and fairly eccentric field, and until very recent times, it took a bit of getting used to. The advent of UK garage and rappers such as Ms Dynamite and Dizzee Rascal has helped to change all that, as has the work of Mike Skinner, a Birmingham DJ otherwise known as The Streets, who produces wry and carefully-crafted tales of urban geezer life based on his own experiences. The character created by Skinner is quite endearing; he has an uncanny knack of identifying the amusing, touching and universal aspects of urban working-class life, describing such mundane experiences as trying to return a DVD to avoid late fees, unsuccessfully trying to place bets, going to clubs, and struggling with getting the TV repaired and searching for a thousand quid that has gone missing. Throughout these prosaic themes, the character’s love story (which is too good to give away) ripples.
Raw, hypnotic and frequently funny, this is a very significant album in the development of a unique style of English music, far removed from American hip-hop. The tracks are consistently interesting and musically well-developed. The use of keyboard and strings on a hip-hop record is audacious and has the effect of softening the break beats, so that we can focus on the lyrics. Grand is also highly unusual in being a bona fide old-fashioned concept album, instead of a random collection of tracks. In this age of the demise of the album, it is refreshing to find a record that on its own forms a single and cohesive listening experience.
This must be one of the most assured uses of rap lyrics to tell a story. All the tracks are strong, but there are a number of stand-outs: Could Well Be In is humorous and perceptive, Not Addicted is a funny indictment of the stupidity of gambling, and Fit But You Know It is a great party track. But the devastating break-up song Dry Your Eyes is extraordinary, forming the high point of the album. This album has the ability to rivet people who normally don’t even like hip-hop, and it makes you listen to the lyrics and pay attention to the character’s emotional ups and downs. The revelation at the very end of the album, leading to a hopeful conclusion, is extremely satisfying. Intelligent, emotional, linguistically inventive and genre-bending, this was one of the most authentic albums of 2004. --Isabel Taylor