Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Feels like a storm's coming...

Don McGlashan is one of a very small handful of songwriters who occupy the highest strata of my music collection. A lot of this is due to the 1997 album he made with The Mutton Birds, Envy of Angels, a peerless collection of perfectly produced pop songs and the kind of melodies you can only dream of.

Following on from last summer's in-depth interview, I had the great pleasure of seeing him play in London last month, one of what were apparently his first ever solo shows, which is astonishing in itself given his lengthy career. At the show, a fine selection of Mutton Birds greats was pulled from the bag, interspersed with selections from his brand new album. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the new one, Marvellous Year, a few weeks before its NZ release date of 2nd March. To say it's a fantastic piece of work would be to downplay it, so here goes nothing: I think it's his finest collection since Envy. This is not to say the Mutton Birds' swansong Rain, Steam & Speed wasn't a fantastic album, because it truly was (and songs like Last Year's Shoes and Winning Numbers are grade-A pop tunes and will continue to be so), and it's not to say that Warm Hand, the intriguing solo debut from 2006, wasn't a satisfying bold new direction (largely eschewing the pop songs of yore for lengthier, more textural compositions) - it's just that Marvellous Year takes the best elements from all sides of his songbook and the result is truly stunning.

Picking highlights is tricky. Parts of Not Ready seems to hark back to one of the Mutton Birds' most sadly overlooked triumphs, No Telling When. You're The Song is a disarming ballad that on first listen sounds too easy but on subsequent plays makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Everything's Broken; Life's So Sweet is just downright awesome. Then there's Bad Blood, one of the story-songs he's so good at; this one finds him travelling on a bus with an unwanted fellow passenger who may or may not just be a malevolent alter-ego. 18th Day is a momentous piano ballad which sees Neil Finn provide beautiful layered harmonies. Don even chucks in his own version of Bathe In The River, after having had such huge success with the Hollie Smith-sung version from the 'No.2' film soundtrack. Radio Programmer flies out of the speakers at a pace even the Mutton Birds rarely hit, a tongue-in-cheek self-referential piece about how the titular programmer works out what's going to sound good on the radio: "Take for instance this one / By the Seven Sisters / It's gonna be a tough call..." Which reminds me, this album isn't strictly a solo record, it being billed as 'Don McGlashan and the Seven Sisters', the collective of musicians he's been backed by in recent years.

All in all, it's a phenomenally good record, and one that's going to continue to get a good thrashing on my stereos this year. Hopefully it'll build on the huge boost to his profile that his recent work with Neil Finn in both Crowded House and the recent 7 Worlds Collide project have given him.

Marvellous Year is released on Arch Hill Records in NZ on 2nd March. Get pre-ordering here. Hear Bad Blood on Don's Myspace page.