Skools Out(,) Sadly.
Bill Ryder Jones‘s third solo album has much to live up to. If and A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart were two entirely contrasting albums that explored emotion with raw and brutal honesty, one classical, one pop. As a result, West Kirby County Primary has much to accomplish to improve upon its predecessors. And it does, in spades.
The early lull of Tell Me You Don’t Love Me Watching soothes us into West Kirby County Primary. The first note, accompanied by Jack Prince‘s gentle brushwork on the drums suggests a tender beauty of an album is about to unfold. At 55 seconds we have the first ‘moment’ via a heart melting chord shift and already it is apparent that this is going to be a well crafted, well thought out and spectacularly delivered account of where Bill is right now. Echoes of alt-Americana seep through this paean to young love as Bill dreamily watches his girl getting ready and as with his previous work, Ryder Jones‘s attention to detail voices an every-man’s daily life which is one of the essential ingredients that makes his work so charming.
In a similar vein, those of us who have lived or worked on the Wirral will have at some point uttered the immortal phrase Two to Birkenhead (although those of us of a more gentlemanly persuasion might have added ‘please’ at the end; manners William). The opening chords are sledgehammer-like when compared to A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart’s mostly gentle refrains, but then the wistful reverie and desire for escape (there’s a theme here) trades with a squall of guitar heavy noise as Ryder Jones speaks of heartbreak, desperation and err…Conway Park. Two songs in then and musically, the contrast is marked, but lyrically, the album hints at hard and sad times, eloquently expressed.
Let’s Get Away From Here ( that escape theme again) starts off with one of Bill‘s many sea references. The slow build up is a warm and lazy stroke with beautiful chord shifts and dark humour (Yes sometimes things go wrong and I should know) and it conspiratorially beckons the listener in before an apocalyptic assault on the eardrums drives it to it’s thrashing conclusion. I bumped into Liam from By The Sea (who moonlights as a guitarist on here) at a recent Super Furries gig in Manchester. Neither of us were particularly sober or coherent, but I remember Liam describing the album as ‘our nasty album’. It isn’t but I now know what he meant. The guitars on this are turned up to 11 Spinal Tap fans, which is quite a departure from Ryder Jones’s previous offerings.
Bill Ryder Jones‘s stunning and majestic If was dedicated “For Daniel and Italo”. Italo Calvino is the author of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, upon which Ryder Jones‘s classical opus was based. Daniel is Bill’s brother and there is a definite sense of family tragedy that is not something you would want to pry into, but Daniel is the title of the fourth song on West Kirby County Primary and so we must. It could well act as a companion piece to the heartrendingly haunting but as yet unreleased 1991. The latter song epitomises the confusion of a young boy trying to make sense of tragedy, whilst Daniel seems to be examining the same events from a parental perspective. A whispered count in and the story of how ropes were worn and became undone and how Daniel belongs to the ocean might further evidence why much of Bill‘s oeuvre seems to reference the sea. That said, Bill seems like he is making peace with his past here. Some beautifully sad imagery such as ‘like some unopened birthday card I keep you boxed in my unwanted memories’ make this a song of therapy, although Ryder Jones knows he is not alone because this was ‘one in a million tragedies though everyone belongs to one’. He then refers to the medication (It’s just a little pill) he was prescribed to help (?) him through the tragedy, ‘Let’s make it easy for you Bill’. One senses it hasn’t, but then in my own personal experience the magic pills don’t make life happier, just bearable. And this is the thing with Ryder Jones‘s honest and open songwriting, it is something most listeners will be able to relate to in one way or another. The melancholic thrill of the music and breakable words make this a personal and LOV(E)ing tribute to Bill‘s brother, Daniel. One of the most heartbreaking songs I have ever heard, and it needs to be heard.
The emotional intensity of Daniel is not eased by Put it Down Before You Break It which seems to trawl a similar trough of melancholia with accompanying vocals provided by Guiro, helping carry the weight on this fragile excursion into the struggles that life can present us with. The old adult admonition of ‘put it down before you break it’ seems to be applied to a relationship here. A clever and pretty ballad that lays the ground for an epic.
Catharine and Huskisson could be about two characters but is actually the name of two famous Liverpool streets in the Liverpool 8 district. It’s Tocky, but not as you know it. These two streets can be seen on many period drama TV shows, belying the image Toxteth has in the national consciousness. Musically it’s a joyous romp around the ‘pool and provides some light relief after the trauma of Daniel, and softness of Put It Down Before You Break It. Lyrically it’s a Penny Lane for the whatever these years are called (the teens?) with it’s psychedelic meanderings around Liverpool in 2015 and could act as a sister song for Streets of Kenny by Shack. Talking to the bums, Listen to the weirdos, The dogs from downstairs started barking, Jill from next door is on nights and she’ll be fucking fuming (a laugh out loud line of recognition, although you know in Merseydrawl it’s fooking fewming). A truly boss song.
The sparkling strum of Wild Roses flips the subject matter of fleeting happiness, because the euphoric chorus reminds us there is some beauty in what, if we are realistic, is a cruel and hard world. Ryder Jones finds it in the eponymous Wild Roses. The song is a corker and having seen it live earlier in the year, I am sure it will become a staple of his live set. It follows on neatly from it’s predecessor in that it breathes space for guitars to fill allowing Bill‘s playing to take flight.
You Can’t Hide The Light With The Dark begins with an flighty intro not unlike Bowie‘s Sound and Vision/Manic Street Preachers Roses in the Hospital and continues throughout, except when the tempo brilliantly shifts, accompanied by hand-claps (yeah!) The light of the title is in the music, the darkness in the lyrics, but the song has a lovely vibe to it. The crescendos of the bridge are soulful and lots of light touches make this special, and possibly the brightest tune on the album.
Seeing the title Satellites I was reminded of two other songs bearing that title. The Doves produced a song of that name in the singular, that lent itself to the spiritual backing of a gospel choir, whilst Giant Sand delivered a fiery and cacophonous majesty in their song of the same name. Bill has amalgamated both here. Satellites tears open with the motherfucker crash of squalling and squealing tuneage via, yes Liam, “nasty” grungy guitars. As they dissipate into the ether and into the Nirvana loud-quiet-loud blueprint, the lyrics contemplate the fact that sometimes, as Edwyn, suggested, you need to rip it up and start again. It’s just marvellous stuff. I love it when guitars are just so fucking noisy you can stop thinking for a bit. Like the Boo Radleys Ride the Tiger, this song achieves that. Play it Loud!
After the thrall and thrill of Satellites, a simple voice and guitar rest on the wings of the Seabirds (sea again, escape again) as guitars in the background imitate their swooning dip and flight to the gentle refrain of you can’t know what I’m hiding from. The end of the song and album seems to beg for more since there is no big build up to it’s denouement, or anything flash to say “That was ace wasn’t it?” It just ends, but thankfully with the promise of more. It is a stark finish to a journey into a writer’s exploration of emotions that is sometimes hard to take, although there is always a sense of determined survival there too. West Kirby County Primary is an exhilarating listen sonic-ally, and for the most part, an exhausting listen lyric-ally.
You get singers, you get guitarists, you get pop stars and you get musicians. Rarely do you get an artiste. Bill Ryder Jones is one. Three albums in and you can feel the painstaking thought that has dripped into every note, word and arrangement.
West Kirby County Primary has it’s focus on Merseyside, but it’s themes are relevant to all the ears of the world. I found myself laughing, sighing and contemplating things long left forgotten after listening to this wonderful album. Despite the confessional nature of the songs it is neither self indulgent nor self pitying. It is more the case that Ryder Jones is simply saying “I’m Bill Ryder Jones and this is who I am” and then asking “Can you relate?”
I began this review with the sub heading Skools Out(,) Sadly. One senses that Bill Ryder Jones‘s time as a primary school student, before the trials and travails of real life lend heartbreak to your life, was where he was happiest.
In these parts, Michael Head is seen as the lost genius of modern day music (and his bad luck just keeps on keeping on, the much awaited The Olde World is now slated for a January 2016 release after delay upon delay). Bill Ryder Jones is not lost, and his songwriting just gets better and better. He needs to be appreciated for an already remarkable trilogy of albums, but the boy (it’s sometimes easy to forget that he is just thirty two years old) has so much talent that you wonder where he will turn to next. West Kirby County Primary nestles comfortably alongside his previous two classics and there is little praise higher than that. It is a must-have album, so go get it and be prepared to be thrilled whilst at the same time being put through the emotional mincer. You will feel rewarded, believe me.