The notion of Britishness has long been dear to Graham Coxon’s creative heart: the work of Blur often
returned to the concept of national identity, as have his solo ventures —
engaging with it and exploring it in myriad lyrical and musical ways.
Consequently, it comes as no surprise to learn that Coxon has a deep affection
for folk music, a genre that’s intimately associated with the preservation of
cultural memory and the cementing of collective identity.
While Coxon’s previous solo
releases have always made room for acoustic song craft, The Spinning Top fully indulges his love of folk with a
predominantly acoustic suite of songs paying homage to figures such as Davy
Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake and
John Martyn. Coxon even establishes a direct, flesh-and-blood link to that rich
tradition by enlisting the help of double-bass legend Danny Thompson, who at
one time or another played with every one of the aforementioned.
Although The Spinning Top is clearly influenced by some of the greatest
artists in the British folk pantheon, this record is no passing whim, no
collection of shallow exercises in style. Coxon’s work evinces a deep
appreciation and considerable knowledge; he’s obviously steeped himself in this
music and studied it closely. But rather than just imitate or indulge in
pastiche, he deftly integrates what he’s learned into songs that are very much
Coxon’s thin, rather weedy singing
has a naïf charm, but sometimes it’s also been his Achilles’ heel and a quiet,
acoustic record might threaten to foreground that weakness all the more. That’s
not the case here, though, and on intricately picked numbers like “In the
Morning,” “Perfect Love” and the Nick Drake-esque opener,
“Look into the Light,” he turns in assured vocal performances.
One of the innovations of ’60s
recordings by the likes of Jansch, Renbourn and Davy Graham was to infuse
British folk with elements of jazz, blues and Eastern musics, and Coxon shows a
similar inclination. “Sorrow’s Army,” for instance, has a mantric
groove, “Brave the Storm” recaptures the kind of jazzy swing Pentangle
pioneered and “Far from Everything” creates a trippy, ethereal
Incredible String Band-style vibe. “In the Morning,” which evolves
into an expansive epic, is particularly compelling thanks to its subtle
incorporation of Indian string and percussion instruments.
When Coxon does briefly plug in
and turn up the volume, the songs become more redolent of Blur, with a chugging
Beatles-y build here (“If You Want Me”) and some distorted guitars
there (“Dead Bees”). Especially memorable is “Caspian Sea,”
which schizophrenically disrupts the album’s calm acoustic character with its
slightly manic, electric other, veering into Blur’s beloved Barrett/Floyd
territory on weird and wobbly choruses that suggest a hybrid of
“Maisie” and “Vegetable Man” in aspic.
It was always obvious that there
was more to Coxon than his trademark whiney, noisy songs, but The Spinning Top underscores that point.
This album emphasizes his versatility as a songwriter, his willingness to
explore new forms and his openness to the less fashionable — but often more
demanding — possibilities of his instrument.
As a postscript, it’s impossible
to talk about The Spinning Top without reference to Blur’s imminent return. It’s interesting that Graham
Coxon’s most adventurous and engaging record to date, one that attests to his
growth and maturity as a writer, should come on the eve of that reunion: given
Damon Albarn’s well-documented and wide-ranging creative accomplishments in the
intervening years, the prospect of the pair working together again is a highly
Standout Tracks: “Look
into the Light,” “In the
Morning,” “Brave the Storm” “Dead Bees” WILSON NEATE