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Country Darkness Vol. 2 (Fretsore Records)

Here’s something which with the wisdom of hindsight – the basis of many a critical career, let’s be honest – seems so obvious a route that it’s tempting to underplay the effectiveness of the result. Elvis Costello songs sung as country duets, and not just the ones he wrote with George Jones (and probably Tammy Wynette) in mind, feels right. Feels natural.

He was a country music fan from when he was still Declan – or even DP - McManus, a man who recorded his first album at the height of punk with a pedal steel more prominent than a slashed amp, who three years later took his alcohol-soaked band to Nashville to record an album of country covers while the sceptical legend of countrypolitan, Billy Sherrill manned the boards and wondered if he’d finally see someone drink more than The Possum Jones, an artist who would later write and/or sing with Loretta Lynne and Emmylou Harris (as well as cover her first duet partner, Gram Parsons), and return to Nashville to record two Americana-ish albums earlier this century.

Mind you, obvious and successful ain’t always been bosom buddies, and it’s worth noting that the great country duets pitch two spirits sometimes against each other, sometimes against a greater force, but always as two halves of one story. The failures pair voices and hope the split service doubles the appeal rather than halve the effectiveness.

So some applause for English duo, Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish, who have found a path to flesh out four songs here (there being four more on Vol. 1, which was released last year, and presumably another four on Vol. 3) as more than point and counterpoint, or quirk and oddity, but something broader and capable of amplifying the base material.

Alternating verses and combining for the choruses, using his old school country low tenor and her more flexible, more easily reshaped to character, they find the conversations within. They make them feel like they’ve always been duets.

The churchified soul of Either Side Of The Same Town finds them bruised from the night before, a little tentative to admit their place, but as the song nears its end they begin to break free, looking for some higher power to resolve this. In Too Soon To Know though, they are studies in contrast in a song which Sherrill would have filled with strings and choir but here plays more as a shadow play: King bringing some of the wracked need of the very Jones-like man alone with the bottle; Dalgleish replying with the relieved and yet regretful tone of the woman half out the door.

In the honky tonk morality tale I Lost You, the voices mirror the interaction of danceable and prickly in the rhythm and the guitar, Dalgleish flying lightly through the drama while King begins to let the sharper edge show. But in the fun fair immorality tale of Different Finger they each sound like someone on the verge of reckless freedom, while making it clear their decisions, like their needs, are running independently of each other.

Applause too for bringing in pianist and longterm Costello collaborator, Steve Nieve, as the potent third weapon, the basis on which the band tracks were later added. His playing brings a tequila bar solo to the border country high step dance of Different Finger as comfortably as it hints at the heaviness beneath the torched ballad Too Soon To Know, it slyly blends Euro romanticism and Elvis Presley’s TCB Band in I Lost You as easily as it lays out a Muscle Shoals intensity to Either Side Of The Same Town.

Having belatedly discovered Vol. 1 of this series – which features the song Costello and George Jone duetted on 40 years ago, Stranger In The House, refashioned in the form of a mid-60s Roy Orbison number - after this one turned up, I’m genuinely keen to see what My Darling Clementine do with some or all of the rest of the 25 songs they laid down with Nieve.


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