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Skywatching/Marrow Gold (Stanley)

Here’s to second thoughts. Here’s to changing course, abandoning the past, to make sure you’re getting it right. That at least is the theory behind this oddly arranged release from Ben Leece, that is and isn’t his second album.

It isn’t his second album because it’s two EPs, though they’re packaged together (on CD) as one eight-track set, and released (on vinyl) as side one and side two of …well, not an album. Leece would also argue that it’s not an album as the first half/side, Skywatching was recorded in one period, with Shane Nicholson producing, while the second, Marrow Gold, came months later, produced by Adam Young, using some of the same musicians but a whole different attitude.

Can you tell them apart? And does it matter? Yes and no. To both questions.

As I said, several musicians – drummer Mat Taylor, bass player Liam Ferguson and Leece – are on both sides, with Nicholson’s guitar replaced by Trent Crawford and Melody Pool replacing Katie Brianna on backing vocals, while Chris Dale comes in on organ for Marrow Gold, Nicholson having played Hammond on Skywatching.

Since instrumentally it’s much the same, maybe the simplest answer is to look at the one cover included, which helpfully kicks off Marrow Gold, Paul Weller’s Changingman. Compared with the more introspective, though hardly soft, Skywatching tracks, it immediately smacks you in the face: everything that bit louder, that bit more delineated, and a lot more swaggering in its faithful recreation of not just Weller but his inspiration, the vigorous rhythm & blues/blue-eyed soul bands of the late ‘60s.

The flow on effect of Changingman can be seen in the next track, Eddie, which is decidedly in the country/rock rather than R&B vein, and spins brightly out of the blocks with more than a touch of I Just Wanna See You So Bad. There’s a carnival feel to the organ, the guitars almost seem to be racing each other, and Pool and Leece, while not equally prominent, feel like they are bouncing off each other around the same microphone.

It’s all energy, collective energy, and it’s there again in the EP’s title track, where even though it is probably the weakest of the eight –maybe because it’s the least defined – the foursquare rock ‘n’ roll hustle closes out the set on a clear upswing.

If someone told you that the Marrow Gold songs were tracked in one group session, you’d believe it. And that’s certainly what Leece wants you to feel. But does that separate them from. or indeed make them better than, the Skywatching songs? This is where things get a little trickier.

With the “bird” trio of songs that set the tone for the first EP, Magpie, Pigeons and Sundowner, Leece and Nicholson create a kind of muscular insularity. It’s a full band sound but condensed, as if everyone is set up around Leece, facing in and holding in. In the Ryan Adams-like slow power balladry of Sundowner, acoustic guitar and Hammond are the twin poles but the more densely packed arrangement intensifies and narrows the scope. Similarly, Pigeons suggests the potential for throwing off shackles that The Changingman will indulge in, but the power of the song rests in what is not done.

The singing has a similar withheld feeling: a hunched shoulders, leaning over the microphone tension reflecting the mixed emotions in lines such as “If you gotta go, you ain’t got to go alone/And if you’re doing it right just like the picture, don’t read it like it’s wrong”, and, particularly, the loss and love and hurt of “Silence works with appetite and kills the will to stand upright/What good are years if we raze them to the ground?”

All this may explain why Skywatching feel like tracks from a solo album, while Marrow Gold comes across as a band record. And maybe why Leece felt it necessary to shift direction. However, a spanner in the works of this theorising is the presence of The Drugs Did Exactly What They Said They’d Do (on Skywatching) and Constellations (on Marrow Gold).

Both tracks are basically home recordings: Leece on acoustic guitar and vocals, production minimal, any decision about which EP they belong on irrelevant. And in the way of these things, partly because they are surrounded by the fully produced, partly because we can’t help but respond to intimacy, and partly because a line like “Jesus Christ and Jenny Craig ain’t gonna save no one today/Best get to fixing someone else you can blame” has a bit of crackle and pop to it, these are the two tracks that stand out.

Maybe there was a third EP, a home studio job, in the offing with this set. Or maybe another four tracks might make this – whisper it – an album.

A version of this review was first published in Rhythms Magazine.


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