I had reasons for dismissing this record in particular and Mickey Newbury in general. First among these was Elvis Presley and his overblown, blustering version of the Newbury-arranged “An American Trilogy”, which for me is among the most misguided perfomances of Elvis’ career. Second was the slavering of Mojo, et al. accompanying the recent (it has to be said, handsome-looking) box set re-issue of the trio of Lps either side of and including ‘Frisco Mabel Joy. That sort of critical consensus for a relatively obscure work smacks of muso exclusivity and I’m with Groucho Marx about joining a club that would have me as a member.
Well, I was wrong to dismiss Mickey Newbury in general and this record in particular.
True, the mood is almost unrelentingly sombre and the pace is slow, but so well articulated is the mood and appropriate is the pace that the effect is one of genuine existential rumination giving even the notionally “happy” songs an air of desperation about them. As a songwriter, the man certainly knows his way around a metaphor, rhymes often occur internally and he scans them interestingly across the verses (i.e. what you never hear in a Noel Gallagher song), the story telling is concrete-poetic and has the bite of personal truth, the music constantly surprises by landing on the relative minor or another unexpected, but natural sounding chord.
At the heart of ‘Frisco is Newbury himself, specifically his voice and his guitar. Like Gene Clark and Nilsson, other popularly underappreciated critics darlings from the American South, his tenor is quiet-strong, but not hushed (as opposed to Tindersticks or Black Swans, both of whom share Mickey’s kind of darkness). Newbury’s delicately appegiated acoustic leads the musical proceedings, somehow not overwhelmed by strings, pedal steel, choirs, etc. The production is thoroughly idiosyncratic, an unlikely, but perfectly judged art rock-C&W blend all the more remarkable for its unobtrusiveness: Heavily-reverbed choirs provide an atmospheric, ghostly pillow; bass harmonica/pedal steel/strings/keyboards/stylophone(?) combine to form a disturbing ambient noise shockingly prescient of the unsettling Bowie/Eno experiments on Low; songs fade out and in with false endings; and so on. It makes Joe South‘s earlier similarly ambitious country-psyche crossover seem even more jive.
The players certainly sound like they knew they had something special on their hands and strike not a cheap lick or obvious fill anywhere on the record.
In short, ‘Frisco Mabel Joy is a five-star album and if you’re lucky enough to find a VG++ first edition US press for £1.50, as I did this weekend in Faversham, then I suggest you buy it.
NB: This was not the same record alluded to here.