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Date: 12/11/16

Steve Tilston & Jez Lowe - "The Janus Game" (Tantobie TTRCD115)

Scan of the front cover of 'The Janus Game' by Steve Tilston & Jez Lowe

What happens when two of the great singer-songwriters of English folk get together? When Steve Tilston - guitar virtuoso and teller of stories of his wandering life from London to Bristol to West Yorkshire and beyond - teams up with Jez Lowe - the often sad and wisftul yet defiant and funny minstrel of the old County Durham coalfield - the result in this case is a selection of eleven new songs combining engaging and often memorable tunes with comments on the past lives and current concerns of their land and of the world in general.

If this makes it sound worthy and dull, then that's my fault; whilst our two troubadours' feelings may be on the right side of the argument, the quiet wit of the lyrics, the liveliness of the tunes and the enthusiasm of the playing is engaging throughout.

The lead-off (and title) song sets the tone for the whole album, with Tilston singing the verses and Lowe the choruses in a chugging song telling of the duplicity and dishonest intent lying (in both senses of the word) beneath the surface of our alleged civilisation.

Lucky Sami is a more specifically up-to-date song in slow 3/4 time telling the tale of a young refugee in the notorious 'Jungle' near Calais, and how he is having to grow up too fast, including the telling line, "He came so far to knock on your door/Just to hear 'no room for more'".

The third track, "The Wagga Moon" is quite obviously one of Lowe's songs (there are no writing credits on the album at all, although it's likely all tracks were joint efforts). The song is in Lowe's trademark style where the jauntiness of the tune is set in counterpoint to the story of a man remembering the flares and flames of the steelworks at Hartlepool and the devastation left when the politicans de-industrialised large swathes of the land - an experience with which I can identify only too well; it happened to us as well.

Leaving For Spain is a song about a young woman who leaves behind the greyness of her upbringing in the back-to-backs of a northern mill town to take her chances come what may in Spain, even if it means she has to, "...dance for the drunkards in some corner dive". A melancholy song, because for all the hopefulness there's an undercurrent suggesting that her dream will turn to sand all the same. A track in which Steve Tilston shows that's he's still in good voice, with that baritone voice leaping most effectively up into the higher register near the end.

As one might guess from its title, Crosses, Crescents And Stars is a song about religion, the three Abrahamic ones in particular. It's the closest to a pop song on the album, with an understated bass drum providing the rhythm, but the lyrics point out the inertia of believers in resorting to the mere habits of their religions without seeing any further to the dangers of allowing the fanatics to play unrestrained on their allegiances. The highlight of the album for me.

The next track, The Strings That Wizz Once Strummed, is a tribute to Wizz Jones, a mentor to and collaborator with many of the Folk Revival performers (Jansch, Graham, etc.) and those who came after, and who has played alongside Tilston and Lowe from time to time. Like much of the work of the man being eulogised, the tune is in a jazz-inflected blues style, and is delivered with great verve and affection in a worthy tribute.

Shiney Row takes us back to Lowe's home ground with a tale of an old man and old woman who - whilst not living together - cling to each other in default of anything else to protect themselves from the loneliness of an old age clouded with regrets for the chances not taken. A beautifully tender song.

Track number eight, Tattered And Torn gives us the alternate view to the Bonny Bunch O' Roses style of soldier songs, reminding us again of the heedless dishonesty of intent of the ruling class in sending the flower of the nation's youth to fight for their enrichment. This is far and away the most traditional-sounding song here, and highlights Tilston's remarkable facility - demonstrated so many time over the years - for writing songs which sound as if they have existed since time was.

For light relief, we then have Mrs Einstein, which sardonically suggests that old Albert (and Shakespeare and King Kong) would have got nowhere without the women behind them.

On Beacon Hill is a song centred around the various beacons which stand on hills and mountains throughout England, and what they mean to those who live around them, sledging during the winter (sung by Tilston) and canoodling during the balmier days (Lowe). This is, unfortunately, the one track which doesn't quite gel; the chord sequences at the start of most of the verses sound rather odd and dissonant, the time signatures are sometimes enough to throw you off, and there is too great a discrepancy in style between Tilston's verses and Lowe's.

Our closer, Goodbye Johnny D's/Hey Frankie, commemorates the now-closed Johnny D's club in Boston, Mass., and the experiences of the musicians who stayed at the house of a woman called Frankie, with Archie Fisher and Chris Smithers amongst those name-checked. A pleasingly uplifting end to the record.

Throughout The Janus Game, the playing is excellent from both the main performers and the sidesmen and -women Mark Boyce (drums), Hugh Bradley (double bass), Kate Bramley (fiddle) and David Crickmore (bass, percussion and Fender Rhodes). Crickmore's production - as with previous Tilston albums - is devoid of fuss and unnecessary embellishments; the arrangements are almost all spot-on; and the whole thing is accomplished with a verve and energy.

In short, this is a very good album, no two ways about it (see what I did there?).

It will be released officially on 24 November, and you can pre-order or buy it from Steve Tilston's website or from Jez Lowe's website. Whichever way, Yer Judge recommends it. If nothing else, it brings a little bit of joy and light to a dark year.