Nick Bollinger reviews releases from globe-trotting troubadours Tom Cunliffe and Will Wood.
It sometimes feels as though all the singer-songwriters in this country might just be part of the same big band. That’s a thought that passed through my head listening to the debut of Tom Cunliffe and second album by Will Wood.
Cunliffe and Wood are part of a loose affiliation of local troubadours that seem to gather around particular hotspots, Auckland’s Wine Cellar being one. It was after a Wine Cellar show that Cunliffe’s friend and fellow singer-songwriter Wood persuaded him to go with him to Lyttelton, where he was planning to make an album at Ben Edwards’ studio, another neo-folkies’ gathering place. The result was two records - one by each of the troubadours - utilising the same producer and a few of the same players. Notably, there’s multi-instrumentalist Dave Khan, whose skill on anything with strings or keys contributes greatly to the colour.
As a songwriter, Cunliffe stays light on his feet, shifting between raucous stompers with a hint of Pogues or Waterboys, and gentler, more reflective things. It’s easy to hear the influence of Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan in the quieter tracks, but there’s also a touch of almost-Brill Building songcraft, like the Bacharach horn in the opening song, ‘Old Moon’ - or ‘Just Kids’, which reminds me of something Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell might have come up with in their collaborative prime. But one of the best is ‘They Dug It All Way’, a ballad in the classic folk tradition; an iron-town tale with a tragic ending.
Laying down the drums on Cunliffe’s album is Wood, whose Magpie Brain and Other Stories came out of sessions around the same time.
Wood’s songs form a loose travelogue and, as one quickly discovers, the frustrated romantic encounter is universal, whether it takes place in New York or Paris.
A strong musical feature of Wood’s album is the lap steel guitar of Tom Landon-Lane. Some of that can be found on Cunliffe’s record as well, but it sweeps its way right through Magpie Brain like a Pacific island breeze.
With the exception of a rough-and-ready rollick through the old American folk song ‘John Henry’, Wood’s stories are his own and they can be disarmingly personal, from the accounts of short-lived relationships to a raw and detailed ode to his own father (‘For the Old Man’.)
Of the two troubadours, Cunliffe’s songs are the more sophisticated, while Wood’s might be the more soul-baring. Both are worth a listen.
Tom Cunliffe - Howl and Whisper & Will Wood - Magpie Brain and Other Stories are both available on Lyttelton Records.