It was James Brown who probably never actually said, “If a man can put his arms around all his friends, then he ain’t got that many friends.” Ross Wilson has a whole world of chums, and he’s surrounded by several of his most talented pals on And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing, the third and latest outing for his Blue Rose Code project.
I say ‘project’ guardedly, for BRC is now synonymous with the trajectory of Wilson’s life and previously turbulent times. It is of course quite normal for songwriters to mine the autobiographical, and songs of personal experience dominate almost every oeuvre. Wilson is quite another matter. His songs are some of the most transparently honest, and disarmingly frank pieces of shared testimony to have emerged this decade.
His audience responds supportively to the candour he offers by returning it with genuine affection; his friends and supporters genuinely have his back; and the musicians he works with fall completely for his songs. On this latest studio release, the songs are as good as any he’s written, and some are outstanding. However, it’s the vocal performances that show where the real growth of Wilson as an artist truly lies.
The roots of that growth are to be found in the self-examination of his earlier songs, but the doubts and fears raised then linger only Glasgow Rain. It’s essentially a blues melody for wasted love in an indigo setting of late night jazz, with John Lowrie’s subtle brushes providing a wash of incessant precipitation. Colin Steele on trumpet paints in the neon signs and warmly lit windows, while Wilson sings, “I’m no good” with conviction, passion and all too believable pain. The song also includes a spoken word cameo by Ewan McGregor as it builds to a tortured climax, tempered by some intriguing instrumentation and Dave Milligan’s assured punctuation on piano.
The prevailing themes And Lo!, however, deal with the sunshine after the rain, and the brightness upon the lifting of the veil. An abridged version of the earlier single Grateful, states that pretty clearly, and its twin sentiments of gratitude and thankfulness are echoed in the vocal embrace of the wonderful McCrary Sisters.
The narrative is developed sequentially with a light, but still bittersweet touch on Brave Cedars and Pied Wagtails; the rhythmically descriptive My Heart, The Sun; and the quickstep love song Rebecca. Lyrically, Wilson (for the most part) simply tells the tale as it is, but his gift for strong imagery still percolates to the surface every now and then with lines like, “Come the springtime I rise like a red balloon, every morning, every morning I’m a-lovin’ you”. Whether any reference to Albert Lamorisse’s timeless short film is intentional or not, The Red Balloon is still one of the great leitmotifs of release and escape.
There is more lyric quality on In the Morning Part 1 with its assertively optimistic outlook and a melody that Wilson uses to showcase another new thing, refinement of his vocal delivery. On this song, Wilson is again joined by the McCrary Sisters, and it would have been the easy thing to swamp the tune with swollen vocals. Instead Wilson goes for nuanced expression and great phrasing to draw you into an endearingly intimate confidence.
This third offering from Blue Rose Code marks a shift from confessional anxieties of the past to the thrill of being alive through good times, bad times and indifferent times. You will hear that on the finger-poppin’, piano led, jazz-blues-swing of Favourite Boy, alongside a quite unexpected re-working of a BRC favourite, the enduring Love; and also in the uplifting communal vibe of In The Morning Part 3.
There are many gifted musicians on this album, including a reunion with Danny Thompson on double bass. His presence always lifts the occasion, but now there’s a noticeable shift from a supportive role to familiar foil. Wilson and Thompson have developed an understanding now, and they’re beginning to sound like they’ve always played together.
It is, of course, crass to single out individuals for special praise, but that won’t necessarily stop me from mentioning (Wild) Lyle Watt. He’s a young guitar player who’s already made a considerable impression on BRC audiences, and his contributions are very fine indeed. Far from being ‘wild’, he has great finesse, and older listeners will shamelessly pronounce that they can hear the deftness of Dicky Betts, or the sureness of Stephen Stills. But that really would be crass.
Wilson says with typical chutzpah that this is, “an album for music fans and musicians”, and it has to be said that he has a point. It’s full of singing for the joy of singing, and playing for the fun of playing. It’s also about expressing feelings because they needed to be felt.
So, if you’re feeling lonely or unlucky in love, then all you need to do is listen to Wilson’s devastating log-cabin lament, Pokesdown Waltz. You’ll probably feel heartbroken again sometime in your life, but at least now you know you’re not alone.
Michael S. Clark
And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is out now.
You can hear Ross Wilson of Blue Rose Code talking to 1320Radio on this Mixcloud Podcast.