THE PRETTY THINGS – Bare as Bone, Bright as Blood (Madfish) LP/CD

by admin  17th Dec 2020 Comments [0]

By Mike Stax


IT ENDS LIKE IT BEGAN. Two men digging into the blues, finding something new to lift them out of the mundane and into the sublime. When it began, they were art students: Dick and Phil, 20 and 18. A Howlin’ Wolf song on the record player in the common room, a Muddy Waters song in the cloakroom between classes, “Hey, Bo Diddley!” in Dick’s front room in Dartford.

It’s the same two men here on Bare as Bone, Bright as Blood: a guitar player and a singer, now with more than a half-century of hard road behind them, a half-century of life experience, of triumphs and failures, of family and friendship, and music. With “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “Come Into My Kitchen” they’re back in that cloakroom at Sidcup Art College, digging the blues, finding something new. If you saw the Pretty Things live in the past ten years or so, you’ll know that these two songs were a featured segment of their set with just Dick and Phil playing together acoustically. The room held its breath and it was magical. And so it is here: Dick’s slide playing is magnificent (as it is throughout this album) and Phil is in fine fettle. They draw from that that same deep Delta well to bring us fresh interpretations of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” and Leadbelly’s “Black Girl” (the CD also includes a fine version of Muddy Waters’ “I’m Ready”), as well as a pure bluesy reading of the old gospel song “Ain’t No Grave,” with more superb slide playing from Dick along with some tasteful harp by Sam Brothers; Phil throws in some of his trademark yelps as he improvises over the coda: “Not down… not down!”

But this isn’t just a blues album. As well as digging into their roots, they’re also on a journey of discovery—just as they were in the beginning—finding newer material to dig into and find their own resonance with. “Faultline,” a song by Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, feels completely natural in their hands: a stark, simple arrangement with lots of empty space for Phil to place a nuanced vocal into, and a lovely, dirty slide guitar solo by Dick. “Redemption Day,” a Sheryl Crow song also recorded by Johnny Cash, is extraordinary. You can hear the weight of a lifetime in Phil’s world weary, fathoms-deep vocal. The song is laden with an unutterably heavy sadness yet at the same time the arrangement is so understated, moving like ripples across a vast, dark lake with huge rain-heavy clouds reflecting from above. Mark St John’s pure, uncluttered, analogue production is perfect throughout this album but no more so than here.

Gillian Welch’s “The Devil Had a Hold On Me” has an Appalachian folk-blues vibe that works really well with Phil’s voice, as does “Bright as Blood,” a remarkable, dark, stark folk-blues piece written by George Woosey, the Pretties’ long-time bass player. George’s acoustic guitar drives the song, which is enhanced by Sam Brothers’ banjo playing and Jon Wigg’s mournful fiddle.

The ominous, rootsy mood of the album shifts for the two closing numbers, like rain clouds parting to reveal the sun. “To Build A Wall” is a wise, tender song by Will Varley, and Phil embraced its sentiments completely: his voice straining with emotion, he never sounded more vulnerable. His frailty is exposed for all of us to hear, and I have to admit that the first few times I heard this—just after it was completed, while Phil was still alive—it was difficult to get through: the emotions were too real, too intense; I could hear in his voice that he knew he was reaching the end of his road. Listening now, I still hear that vulnerability, but I also hear strength and dignity. Phil asked that on the album cover the song be dedicated to his kids. What a remarkable gift he left them.

The vinyl album closes with “Another World,” a lovely, remorseful, romantic number composed by a young, unknown songwriter called Pete Harlen. Phil sings it beautifully, finding an asset in his fragility. And then it’s over.

No one wanted the Pretty Things to end, but all things must, so let it end as it began: two men digging the blues, finding something new to lift them—to lift all of us—out of the mundane and into the sublime.

One man remains. For Dick Taylor new music and new horizons still lay ahead. The music will endure.


This review also appears in Ugly Things #55, which can be ordered at this link.