album // The King Is Dead
In 2011, my wife and I went to see Ryan Adams at the Barbican for what turned out to be an excellent acoustic solo show. Adams’s musicianship has never been questioned, but what was surprising was how comedic and downright funny his story-telling and banter was; for an artist with a history of issues and a reputation for cantankerousness and volatility (only in evidence once that night), to see / hear this side of him was totally unexpected.
Later on in 2011, we’d had a plan to see Josh T. Pearson, also at the Barbican, for what was billed as a solo acoustic show (with special guests); unfortunately, we wouldn’t make it to that show thanks to a suspected burglary at a relative’s house. When we booked the tickets, Mrs S said ‘He’s supposed to be really funny on stage,’ which seemed totally implausible; the songs presented on his album Last Of The Country Gentlemen were so uniformly maudlin, intimate and personal that any possibility of a lighthearted side to Pearson seemed remote. But, at least at the start of this audio document of his performance at Union Chapel in Islington on 11 May 2011, what’s revealed is a man who’s not afraid to send himself up, making jokes about his appearance (‘I totally forgot to shave this morning,’ he quips, referencing his copious facial hair) and generally acting the clown; he comes across a lot like Loudon Wainwright III in the self-deprecating, all-too-honest way he speaks.
The King Is Dead is described as an ‘official bootleg’ and is presented in a way that does indeed look like a cheeky crowd recording (i.e. a simple white sleeve with the track details glued on). The 6-track album was released on LP only and was exclusively available via Rough Trade Stores and their website, where it was described as ‘future eBay gold’. For some reason, the rear sticker on the sleeve includes the old Mute Czechoslovakia logo. The album was sensitively mastered in Berlin by Stefan Betke, aka minimal techno musician and one-time Mute artist Pole, regarded as one of the best vinyl masterers in the business these days. Betke’s pressing manages to successfully capture the quiet, almost silent, sections of Pearson’s delivery. It is not, as I found, an album to be listened to on a train whilst commuting; this is one for the evening, at home, when the house is near-silent, with or without a herbal tea. Or possibly a glass of bourbon. And most definitely to be consumed on your own without people around you. Especially anyone you may have wronged at some point.
Last Of The Country Gentlemen was a moving album and Pearson’s live delivery of the outwardly simple, but inherently complex, emotional outpourings of his debut’s tracks – all of amorphous length, volume and with tempos often varying throughout – highlights the assuredness with which Pearson owns these songs. The addition of gentle orchestration (on ‘Woman When I’ve Raised Hell’ and again on ‘Country Dumb’, with additional piano by Dustin O’Halloran) subtly raises the moving dimension of these songs. The section of ‘Woman When I’ve Raised Hell’, where the orchestra swells above Pearson’s strummed guitar, is one of the most rousing moments in a set which could otherwise be depressing.
‘Devil’s On The Run’, included here and unavailable elsewhere, features the audience taking over singing duties toward the end – and, as this was recorded in what used to be a church, the assembled voices have a natural choral effect, which is a beautiful thing for your ear to experience. Appropriately enough, given the setting, Pearson also does his familiar blending of ‘Rivers Of Babylon’ with Last Of The Country Gentlemen‘s opener, ‘Thou Art Loosed’ and its one of the most sublime moments on The King Is Dead, particularly at the very end when Pearson’s guitar gets wildly fuzzed-up. Also included here is the upcoming next single, ‘Sorry With A Song’, which is exactly that – an apology, in a song; here it’s a somewhat more rambling affair, but it’s shorter than the other five tracks. The whole thing – all six tracks – runs for a grand total of fifty minutes; Pearson doesn’t do brief.
Listening to this on the way to work back in 2011 had an unexpected effect on my outlook for most of the morning; it may have been tiredness and nothing to do with listening to this, but I found myself thinking introspectively for most of the day, I couldn’t concentrate and I found myself apologising for things I knew weren’t my fault.
A1. Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ
A2. Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell
A3. Sorry With A Song
B1. Country Dumb
B2. Rivers Of Babylon / Thou Art Loosed
B3. Devil’s On The Run
Originally posted 2011; edited 2015
(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence