Back when mid-price CDs were all the rage and we were actually grateful to ‘The Man’ for letting us buy old albums for about £7 a pop instead of £16, I would often take risks on the back catalogue of artists to whose current work I was rather partial. By such means ‘A Storm In Heaven‘, ‘Pablo Honey‘, ‘Reckoning‘, ‘Leisure‘ and plenty more entered my racks. I remember completing a Virgin Megastore 5 for £30 pile one day with Everything But The Girl‘s late-Eighties release ‘Idlewild‘. I imagine I was lured in by the cover of ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It‘, but had grown fond of them during the period from the Todd Terry remix of ‘Missing‘ through to the majesty of the ‘Walking Wounded‘ album and later singles like ‘Five Fathoms‘. I knew I wasn’t getting one of their dance records when I bought it, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the utter beauty of ‘The Night I Heard Caruso Sing‘. Plaintive piano provides the backdrop for a slightly reverby but completely mesmerising vocal by Ben Watt. Something about that song connected with me and still does to this day. I’ve got it on again now while I type this. If you don’t know it, be sure to give it a listen. Tracey Thorn‘s never less than stirring vocals briefly assist at one point, but Watt’s performance was so much more striking as, at this point, I had no idea he could sing like that.
All of which leads me to his 2014 solo release, ‘Hendra‘, whose delicate, folksy sound provides a similar platform for those transcendent pipes. Some of these songs neatly swing, others proceed at a more mournful pace, but the one constant is the power of his vulnerable, honest vocal, mixed clear and out front. ‘Matthew Arnold’s Field‘ tells a the tale of commemorating a death atop a warm, yet sparse, organ accompaniment while ‘Golden Ratio‘ has something of a John Martyn shimmer to it at times. What I love about the gentle variety across ‘Hendra‘ is that it feels like one of those albums you pick up during your late-teens voyage into ‘proper’ music. You dig around for cool but slightly obscure records that have those little flecks of magic to them. Its simple clarity and consistently smooth-edged sound afford it a certain timelessness that is very much part of its charm.
I’m not sure if having read Watt’s wonderful memoir, ‘Romany & Tom‘, about his parents and, in part, their later years, made his sincere, unpretentious approach to lyrics all the more appealing, but it certainly did no harm. The book is a captivating read in the way that the best non-fiction writing so often is – enthralling snapshots of the lives of people you don’t know, told with a turn of phrase and emotional nudity that leaves you a little empty when their story ends and they leave your life. That ability to paint a picture with words transfers to much of ‘Hendra‘. The beguiling washes of sound on the David Gilmour-assisted ‘The Levels‘ perhaps best represent the sonic texture of this wonderful album. I’ve not heard anything like it all year. Or, indeed, for some years. I’m surprised there aren’t more people shouting about it because it has really got to me. It’s not an immediate, thrusting, pulsing beast of record, but its understated nature is hugely endearing.