CD Review – Greg Fleming and the Trains – Edge of the City
If the opening track is any indication of how far Greg Fleming has come in his career this is the achievement. Wow.
Greg has had many wonderful songs through the years – but, this is certainly something to be proud of. Usually it takes a few listens to get into an LP and then pick excellent tracks but this lead off track is like getting knocked out in the first round.
A band, or an artist, needs a “sound” that is beyond just merely playing great and writing well. Influences can rear their heads and that’s fine because being influenced helps the process. But once those influences jell and an artist reshapes that influence into something that defines them — that’s the moment a career has its defining moment. Greg Fleming has sculptured a well-developed career sound and there is now “a Greg Fleming sound,” and I like it.
The lead off “More Time,” is nothing short of excellent. A driving, catchy and very well produced song with all the necessary voodoo, mojo, juju and spells that make it work and announce the shaping – or should I say emerging — of an important artist.
Background vocals are haunting, exciting and cool — framed by an arousing guitar melody. Fleming’s Springsteen-oriented voice has found its own voice. There are no comparisons now. This is refined, smooth as cognac and sung with authority. The song is quite compelling with its stirring arrangement and chiming guitars. The lyrics are smart and the melodic piano colorful. I’m sitting here reviewing the LP and was compelled to go back and press replay on this track more than 3 times. There’s lots to respect in the structure and formation of this album.
“Elijah,” – sounds like something out of the American west: landscapes of the desert, sand and dust, the cowboy image, a muddy pickup truck, a whiskey and beer, and the crisp guitars of our own heritage – now ringing true and clear in tales from another continent. Greg’s story could be at home in Austin, Texas or Tupelo, Mississippi. The musicianship is first class and has a determined soulful feel. After listening – you’ll need to get up to wipe off the dust of the desert from your pants and shoulders. Take a guzzle of Tennessee whiskey and a long drag off a strong cigar. The punchy female backup voices project perfection and if you need mood – this has mood painted all over it.
“Edge of the City,” – a film noir impression — slows things down. When Joni Mitchell released her CD “Shine” she had a song called “Night of the Iguana,” on it. It was based on a Tennessee Williams play that became a Richard Burton movie and that was her motivation. There’s something cool about writing a muscular song based on a strong play or story. The music of “Edge of the City,” has that “naked city” feel because I “see” the wooden venetian blind shadow on Greg’s face as he sings — sincere and dark. I see soft focus images of Humphrey Bogart’s cigarette smoke behind him and Robert Mitchum’s wicked smile in the cracked bathroom mirror. This is more evidence that Fleming has stepped out of his own shadows. The piano and lead guitar percolate while the background singer hovers under the radar. This is not just well-produced, it’s well prepared.
On “Recent Hire,” a clean acoustic guitar melts and blends like sugar in hot tea with tribal drums and they sweeten the sound spilling from the speakers. This is where Greg’s voice reminds me again of New Jersey’s veteran rocker Billy Falcon – though Billy’s voice is more gruff. These two are world’s apart yet kindred spirits. I’m partial to a voice with a little sandpaper — it’s more interesting than the boyish polished voices singing in that overly emotive manner. I listen for sincerity and it’s here. The female duet continues with this album’s haunting-mysterious approach and its witchery is sewn in with cleverness, with a good contrast of musical diversification. The guitar sounds like it was recorded in some abandoned factory and it’s eerie – and good.
“Wait Up Mama,” has universal appeal and could be sung anywhere in America – rural or urban. To find another song similar you’d have to go back to songwriters of another era like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash. This is not a rocker, but it’s still played with strength — without being loud. This is why this poignant song comes across with such conviction and generates soul with a dash of gospel.
From soul to grand piano “Sonny Jim” introduces us to another colorful Fleming character found in a neighborhood tavern. A father? Brother? An old man from the past? A forgotten school friend? Sonny Jim is one of the characters that shapes this interesting image filled album. As we leave the tavern we meet the “Cut Man” and his song announces his arrival with a loud harmonica. A cut man — a ring specialist in the corner of a boxer is there to stop any bleeding. The song is sung by the boxer himself – a serious assessment of a career — whimsical in the tradition of John Prine – and that’s a compliment.
Looking back, the only critical thing may be that many songs, on this fine LP — despite its title — left me with more of a rural interpretation and not a city one. There wasn’t much about the “city” — subways, noise, population, seedy people, attaché case people, the rush and riotous life of the city, the night life, the dirt and grit, or tar beaches.
Instead, Greg Fleming introduces us to interesting people in compelling situations, told in a voice that somehow is not….bitter, but narrated in a voice that signs off each track with a fine slice of Americana filtered through the creative nuance of a fine New Zealand singer-songwriter. It has stories worth hearing and this could’ve been his intention.
Regardless, the work IS a success. Take a walk to the “Edge of the City,” shut the lights off, close your eyes, sip a brandy and let Greg Fleming and The Trains take you somewhere special. Meet Mama, Sonny Jim, the cut man, his boxer and Elijah among others. You won’t regret it.
The CD is scheduled for New Zealand in store release / websites such as bandcamp Aug 31st 2012. // iTunes & digital release the following week. Release in the United States / North America pending // www.gregfleming.co.nz & www.facebook.com/gregflemingandthetrains
John Apice / No Depression / August 17th 2012