This Vinny Peculiar album has proved something of a challenge. Not in a negative way mind you. I’m not generally quite so tardy when it comes to reviews but somehow I’ve had to revisit Return Of The Native several times just to get to put fingers to keyboard. That’s not a bad thing as all the tunes are marvellously crafted like the rest of Alan Wilkes’s output over the years, but it’s hardly professional of me. Slapped wrists all round.
It’s weeks since I saw Vinny Peculiar in Worcester and therefore weeks since a good friend and Mancunian exile from the US took a detour during a trip home and we ended up in the underground venue known as The Marrs Bar. Vinny Peculiar has been in my peripheral vision for years but it’s this album that has really caught my attention and I’m very happy that Andy came from LA to Worcester for what was basically a homecoming in more ways than one.
The Native in the title is Vinny. His time in Bromsgrove as a youth and Worcester most recently acts as a sandwich for years in the Northwest. His collaborations read like a who’s who of Manchester and Liverpool luminaries. You can tick them all off; from Bill Drummond to half of The Smiths, all the way to Bonehead. Look them up. Go on Youtube. It’s all there.
So why the tardiness? Well basically it’s because this album appeals to me from two perspectives. One is the fact that it is a story of a guy identifying with a place and telling stories about it. This can be dealt with in standard reviewer mode.
The songs are tremendous; full of humour that picks your pocket under the cover of his prose-like lyrical style. Some pundits call it conversational but I think that is just damnation with faint praise. He likes lists. OK not specifically lists but layers of references that become the building blocks of the pictures that he paints in songs like the title track or The Malvern Winter Gardener. He likes a gentle pun too.
The great skill in all of this is to avoid the cliche, keep it all honest and tell the stories. It’s a fine line to walk and many other tunesmiths have fallen on the cringeworthy side of that line. This is about observation and nostalgia, with a tongue firmly in the cheek as in Golden City. The take-away does exist; I’ve driven past it. Vinny’s very own Hong Kong Garden.
The other perspective presents me with a problem. The subject matter that really started to appeal to me is just the sort of thing where a reviewer can be over-nostalgic, maudlin, and indeed cringeworthy. You see Vinny and I are similar in age — men of tender years if you will. The early to mid 70s were seminal times and he’d probably forgive me for getting a bit wistful when he brings images to mind. Maybe that’s the point of the album.
Images of boys in blazers and flares knocking lumps out of one another with an eye out for that one bloke who was seriously violent, in The Grove and The Ditch. A list of much loved bands that took on an air of the uncool during the transition to punk in The Malvern Winter Gardener.
And then the big one. It is clear that Clifford T. Ward was Vinny’s teacher. Who? I hear you chorus. Only one of the most natural song writers to come out of the UK at any time ever, I reply. If you don’t know who this is then get your backsides onto Youtube and listen to Home Thoughts From Abroad. A marvellous stream of conciousness and a poem in a song. It’s so different from the formulaic pap that we were fed in the early 70s that the guy should have been a megastar. But then punk came and eclipsed the lot for a brief period. Buzzcocks and The Clash were great but in retrospect something of value was lost and left behind as the “old farts” were brushed aside in 1976 and 1977.
The Singing Schoolteacher puts this into Vinny’s own story with Ward’s drift into anonymity and final descent into illness and his eventual demise proving to be a painful moment, one tinged with regret.
I’ve played this album a lot and I will probably continue to do so. It could have been the musical equivalent of The Rotters’ Club/The Closed Circle but instead it’s a thoughtful and humorous consideration of how important places and times are to people; at the risk of sounding sentimental — to people like me, and Vinny.
Vinny Peculiar – Return of The Native track listing:
The Grove & The Ditch
Malvern Winter Gardener
Return of the Native
A Girl From Bromsgrove Town
The Singing Schoolteacher
On Rainbow Hill
David Swan Riverman
Return Of The Native from Vinny Peculiar is available from Bandcamp on S&D Records
Review: Ian Gelling