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Date: 19/07/15

Steve Tilston - "Truth To Tell" (Hubris HUB008)

Scan of the front of 'Truth To Tell' by Steve Tilston

Following his excursion back into group work with his Trio's album Happenstance two years ago, Steve Tilston reverts back to solo fare on this, his first such album since 2011's fine The Reckoning.

Assisted - as on the latter work - by multi-instrumentalist/producer David Crickmore and bassist Hugh Bradley, Truth To Tell kicks off in fine style with Grass Days, an autobiographical song taking us back through Steve's life and career, referencing (either directly or obliquely) some of his key encounters with people such as Wiz Jones - with whom he still gigs occasionally - Ralph McTell and Jackson C. Frank, and the start of his time on the club circuit. There's no melancholy here, and it rides jauntily on another of those tunes for which he's justifiably celebrated which sounds traditional, even if you know full well that it isn't.

I must admit that initially I was thrown by the second track, The Way It Was. At the start, I thought that it was an elegy for his former wife and singing partner Maggie Boyle, who died late in 2014, with the opening lines, "Bad news came yesterday/You were taken far away/Wanna take it back the way it was". However, by the second verse it becomes apparent that the person being mourned is Stuart Gordon, Steve's collaborator in the Trio and other projects, who died earlier that same year. It's a sad song, of course, but not mawkishly so; just a quiet contemplation on the desire to turn back time.

Cup And Lip is an easily-flowing tune reminiscent of his classic Polonaise, with lyrics which tell of all our mis-steps as we "dared to fly", with a nice side-swipe at the tendency of Power (the religious kind in particular) to try to stop us seeking our own path.

Fairly unusually for a Steve Tilston album, there's only one traditional song on Truth To Tell; in this case Died For Love, one of those tragedies in several verses where a young woman bemoans her fate of having been left in pod by a waster who then goes off with a girl with more money. I don't think I'm giving away too much when I say that the girl wishes herself dead - several times, in fact. It's a fluent and pleasing adaptation.

Back to Steve's own compositions now, and Yo Me Voy (I had to use Google Translate: it means "I Am Going") has - as one would expect - a strong Spanish feel with an adeptly played tune, and - as you would expect from the title - is a song of departure, but with a more modern - almost sardonic - sensibility to the lyrics which prevent much in the way of sentimentality from getting in.

Pick Up Your Heart is a laid-back song philosophising about the losses and gains of life and the choices made (a theme which would tend to come naturally, I would have thought, to someone now in his 66th year), but yet with an underlying optimism quietly enjoining us to follow the advice given in the title. David Crickmore's pedal steel is a pleasingly effective and understated addition to the mix on this track.

The Riverman Has Gone is a nod towards Nick Drake, along with the most overtly political lyrics on the album, with sharp commentary on our world's crises, political, economic and environmental: "Now you know what the price is/Death by a thousand slices...Why wonder why water's seeping/Through your front door?"

Pecket's Well is the only purely instrumental item here, and the tune tumbles and flows more like a weir or waterfall than a well. It's an engaging enough piece, but there's an occasional lack of fluency in some of Steve's playing here, inevitable and excusable I suppose when your fingers have been working their way around the fretboard for half a century. It's only a minor weakness, truth to tell (see what I did there?), but it stands out more because this is the second-longest track on the album, clocking in at just under five minutes.

Bygone Lands is, to me, the stand-out track on the album, a slow, measured, melancholy song (to which Crickmore's piano and Bradley's double bass give the firmest of underpinnings) which - like Ozymandias' warning - tells us that all great civilisations have perished in their due time, and that ours will be no different: the route may be different, but the destination is unchanging.

There's a hefty change of gear to get us into Lasting Love, a Latin-tinted tune in which the question is put as to how we can find the way to that desired state, and how it is that "...Still we wonder anyhow/You'd think we'd know the way by now". The song is performed with a great verve and ebullience.

Like the title track of The Reckoning, Running Out Of Road is a blues-inflected meditation on the environmental mess we have created and are leaving behind for our progeny (should we have any, of course). The lust for oil in its manifold incarnations is the starting point - be it by drilling or the latest madness called 'fracking' - but the Bad Man is "running out of road", even if he's likely to take all of us into the ditches of hell by his efforts.

A more English feel returns in the penultimate track All Around This World, in which Our Hero describes the life of the travelling troubadour; the life, in fact, which he himself has lived to great effect all of his adult life, going from town to town, gig to gig, encounter to encounter. This is another example of how Steve Tilston's huge appreciation and absorption of the tropes of the tradition add an extra layer of authenticity to his own songs.

We close with Ways Of A Man, a gently-rolling reflection on life in which "Time always calls for its dues/Such are the ways we choose". It brings the album to a quiet, thoughtful conclusion.

So, to sum up: is this a good album? Yes, emphatically so. Is it his best? Well, no, I still think that Such And Such and Ziggurat are the high-water marks of his career to date. But Truth To Tell is full of consistently strong material, the arrangements are unfussy and unobtrusive and David Crickmore's production is at one and the same time clean and warm. A firm recommend from Yer Judge here, then.

Truth To Tell is officially released tomorrow (20th July) and you can order it by clicking on the front cover of the album (above) and going to Steve's website.