MICHAEL WESTON KING
The Struggle (Cherry Red)
THIS IS AN ALBUM that gently nudges its way into your company, playing the role of that friend with the guitar who, at the end of a really good night, starts rolling out songs everybody knows (almost) all the words to, so no one (really) wants it to stop or to go home.
No, not Cat bloody Stevens – enough you damn Christians or I’ll sing you one of those dire Catholic hymns I have in my repertoire – but yes, songs from what you might call the eternal 1970s of the mind.
On day leave from his other regular gig, and occasional visitors to this page, the more clearly country rock My Darling Clementine, King brings in tracks songs that draw from the sipping whiskey end of soul and country, some that balance anger and mournfulness with tenderness, a few that might nod to the triple Js (Joni M, Jackie L, E John), others that wouldn’t be out of place on the bill at a singer/songwriter coffee shop on the lower east side, and then some from sources that predate them all but appear, refreshed, every generation.
One of the latter, The Old Soft Shoe, is a croon-in-a-cardigan (think Nick Lowe doing Andy Williams) above a guitar that seems a breath away from playing some Wes Montgomery moves, surprisingly but satisfyingly visited in the solo by the trombone of Barnaby Dickinson. Another, The Final Reel, is both a wistfully joyful ode to one of those Js, his friend and mentor Jackie Leven (“You roaring, roving vagabond/You tall story-telling vagabond”) and a sad eyed promise to the future (“But I’ll play the halls we knew so well/And I’ll sing the songs we cried”) that carries with it the traces of a century or two of folk music.
Me & Frank, on the other hand, suggests King has metaphorically sat at the knee of Willie Nelson (in his warm and relaxed delivery) and Townes Van Zandt (in his bittersweet storytelling), the Texas border country tenor of the song suggesting both limpid sky and languidly sad faces, and while Sugar may come across as a Harry Chapin song born out of its time, King and co-writers Peter Case and Sean Bruce bruised and wry both musically and lyrically, it finds its feet – or its boots – in the way it settles into a dusk version of that same Texas border country.
None of which should suggest by the way that Weston King is doing some soft blandishments here. Not when even something as prettily appealing as The Hardest Thing Of All, that sounds a second cousin to Dylan’s lovingly romantic If Not For You, digs into the crippling inertia of depression, and Valerie’s Coming Home looks straight at the loss of a parent (that of King’s wife and partner in My Darling Clementine, Lou Dalgleish) and how in its immediate aftermath the practical demands to override the emotional.
Weight Of The World, which opens and closes the album, is southern country soul (in its first appearance) and northern jazz soul (in its second) that uses its beguiling tone to infiltrate lyrics about the crushing complexities of race, police and political relations in the USA. And while Theory Of Truthmakers (lyrics by Leven, music by King, piano by Steve Nieve, backing vocals by Dalgleish) comes down delicately, mandolin and piano providing small flourishes to its pre-rock electric guitar, there is a blend of regret and defiance within it that has a late impact.
If this was the last 40 minutes of your party, you could say that not all the guests will be leaving buoyant, but you’d know that none will be leaving without some comfort. And isn’t that half the struggle?