13 songs – 49 minutes
Mark Harrison is approaching “national treasure” status in the UK. In an era when the British blues scene is dominated by rock bands with a blues influence playing over-driven, over-loud and over-long guitar solos, Harrison’s exuberant music harks back to a much earlier age, featuring only acoustic instruments in a variety of line-ups, from full band to Harrison alone with his guitar. The musicians are all top notch players, but it is the song that matters, not the player.
On his latest album, Turpentine, the songs themselves also stand out from the crowd both through their construction – sitting squarely within the blues genre but rarely relying on simple 12-bar progressions – and through the stories they tell. Harrison wrote all 13 tracks on the album and, as with his previous releases, he turns his pen to a wide range of topics, from acute observations on the challenges of living in the modern world (“Hardware Store”) to taut reminders of how the original purveyors of blues had it so much harder than we do (“Shake That House”). There is often a moral to be found in the verses, although not always the one the listener might expect – in “The Treaty Of Dancing Rabbit Creek”, Harrison relates the story of Chief Greenwood Leflore and the Choctaw Nation losing their land in what is now known as Mississippi in the 1830s, but with an added twist.
Of course, he also addresses more traditional blues lyrical concerns, but he does so with rare wit and invention. In the opening track, “Black Dog Moan”, his opening lines are: “I’ve got a girl in Meadowland and I really love the bits of her that I can stand. The rest I can take or leave, and I’m pretty sure she feels the same about me.” It’s a great kick-off to a great album.
Harrison sings and plays guitar, and is superbly supported throughout by Charles Benfield on double bass and Ed Hopwood on drums, percussion and harmonica. Guest Paul Tkachenko adds subtle mandolin, piano, organ and accordion to various tracks. Hopwood in particular has a gift for playing minimally yet utterly musically at the same time. Harrison’s finger-picked guitar is continuously inventive and rhythmically driven. On “Hell Of A Story”, his 12-string guitar recalls the ragtime playing of Blind Willie McTell, while the instrumental “Dog Rib” features a lovely, slightly discordant, slide melody. Interestingly, Harrison’s main guitar is actually a 1934 National Trojan, a wood-body resonator guitar that used to belong to the great Eric Bibb and there are certain similarities between the two artists, both of whom openly display their folk/blues influences in well-constructed songs featuring intelligent, often uplifting lyrics and adroit finger-picking. There is also a gentle joyousness to the music of both. Even on potentially downcast tracks such as “So Many Bad People (Out There)”, Harrison’s slide playing conveys a sense of hope, or at least the possibility of hope.
Superbly produced by Tim Bazell, Turpentine is a very impressive release from Mark Harrison. There is a confidence and maturity about the album that suggests the musicians knew they were working on something special. Highly recommended.