Rab Noakes – I’m Walking Here (2015)

Good lord! Two current albums in two weeks! Though whether I’m getting with it (or whatever the analogous contemporary phrase is) or not is another matter.

Noakes is 68 this year and has made a record that is full of old-fashioned touches. The production and the performances are authentically retro. Noakes stayed away from click tracks and had the basic tracks recorded “live in studio” with the musicians all in the same room and some unavoidable but organic “bleed” between the instruments. – and the tempos not rigid It’s even mixed in mono.

Noakes talks a lot about “twenty first century skiffle” and the record has that feel to it too – not overly sophisticated, enthusiastic.

It’s a double album – twenty six tracks. And seven more available for free download from his web site. He also gets marks for a splendid set of sleeve notes that provide useful information and some extra insights into the songs. These are not included with what you buy from iTunes but, again, are a free download. So the distribution is bang up to date (there IS a physical copy available) but the product, though newly recorded, has the sound and feel of something a lot older. Or maybe it deals in timeless virtues.

I’ve long believed that a person and a guitar can serve up perfectly acceptable, complete, even powerful musical performances and several tracks here fit that bill. Mostly on the second disc (if you buy actual discs) which is mostly what Noakes will not permit to be called “covers”. I’m on his side here – one can perform songs that somebody else wrote and still be creative and expressing something of yourself (consider Martin Carthy whose long career is nearly all “covers” and yet is indisputably rich in creativity and originality). Some of the performances here are terrific – vivid and engaging. Notably his performance of the unjustly obscure “Guernsey Kitchen Porter”. And he takes on, and very well too, one of the most important pieces of the British 1950s Skiffle revival, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train”. More up to date are Garbage’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” and Beck’s “Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard”.

Good songs transcend eras and genres and lend themselves to interpretation (and that’s what Noakes does with them, these are not “covers”) and to rediscovery. And Noakes has a good ear for a song. And he places his own stamp upon them. His version of Gillian Welch’s “That’s The Way The Whole Thing Ends” is different from but a match for the original (and that’s a complement, in case you were wondering. The original was one of the best things on a marvellous record).

The first disc is all his. These songs exist at the intersection of folk and late 50s pop, though every so often the now suddenly jumps out. So “Where Dead Voices Gather” name checks some obscure old country artists whose music the young Noakes learned to love, but “One Dog Barks” seems aimed squarely at the modern world of social media and the way we often repeat things as if they’re gospel without considering their virtue nor their veracity.

Stylistically it’s mostly of a pleasingly retro piece. Nearly always the foundation is acoustic guitar using a vocabulary of blues, country and rockabilly. There’s some electric (overdubbed by Noakes) with a nicely old fashioned overdriven amplifier tone. On the opening “Slipping Away” there’s a very musical and also reverential detail – blues licks played on a piccolo. Early on in the history of the blues it was performed on instruments other than the guitar, the fife being one. These solos are simultaneously novel and nerdily satisfying and entirely effective.

All this gushing! There is a problem though, one that’s all too common with double albums. Which is that they nearly always could have been distilled down to a potent regular length album. I’m Walking Here fares better than most because of the strength of the material and the consistency of the performances, but it could still shed some weight. There’s a pair of instrumentals that are little more than doodles and run out of steam quickly. They’re out of place on this otherwise solidly crafted album. A couple of the “covers” grow old more rapidly than the surrounding tracks.

But this may be nitpicking, because even with this handful of excisions – or without them – you’re still left with an album that offers sustained entertainment and satisfaction. Noakes seems to be having more than expected late success with this album and it’s entirely deserved.

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