Album Review | Tuna Mine Music | Review by Allan Wilkinson | Stars: 4/5
Concept albums worried me back in the 1970s and they worry me today still. Unfortunately, the term has found itself forever associated with Arthurian knights on skates, prancing around the ice rink astride pantomime horses strapped to the midriff, whilst our grumpy old caped crusader tinkles the ivories. It was always going to be a hideous affair from the get go. In the world we now know of as Americana however, the concept album has a much more intelligent approach. Tom Russell’s brilliant Hotwalker took us on a similar journey to the one Stevie Coyle attempts here on this his debut solo album Ten-in-One (a sideshow tent at a carnival or circus, we are informed), with a similar cast of burlesque characters. From the outset we know that we have been invited into a world freed from the restrictions of the standard ten song collection that Nashville is noted to approve of. In a slight twist, the first twenty seconds revisit Sgt Pepper with a reference to both the opening and closing few seconds of probably the most famous concept album of the lot, with all the middle bits removed for convenience. “A Day in the Life” is also referenced in the closing coda of “She Ain’t Got Me” ensuring the homage wasn’t entirely missed at the beginning. “Train on the Brain” is a growling introduction to this intriguing landscape of circus freaks and fairground folk, told with the authority of a Nighthawks period Tom Waits or a moody Robbie Robertson somewhere down a similarly crazy river. Former Waybacks guitarist Stevie Coyle makes no apology for turning his debut solo effort into a freak show. “When The Muse taps you, you gotta answer” he reportedly remarked, going on to conclude “especially if she taps you with a baseball bat”. The one constant thing on this album is the standard of musicianship. Each song or instrumental, augmented by an interlude of either circus sound bites or some determined rowing on a creaky boat, offers an entirely different and individual musical approach, whether it be a fiddle or banjo tune, “Mr Oster’s Theme” and “Cousin Sally Brown” respectively, or some Eastern influenced Davy Graham-esque guitar playing on “Cousin Sari Brown”, which to all intents and purposes could be seen as the “Within You Without You” moment on this potential homage to The Fab’s most lauded album. The artwork only adds to the mystery with its bleak photo montage featuring presumably the mysterious Mr Oster and a booklet which reveals not much more to go on. Then there’s the stark warning at the foot of the inner sleeve, ‘Rip and burn this CD at your own karmic peril’ ooer, consider us warned. Fortunately there is a detailed personnel list with an array of assembled talent to aid and abet this conceptual carnival including Walter Strauss who also produces, Corinne West who adds her own distinctive vocals and a bunch of musicians who spar and duel throughout. Watch out for the duelling theremin and slide on the funky “Petrified Man”, where Star Trek meets the Staples Singers in another galaxy, far away etc. There are some moments of absolute beauty on this album such as the gorgeous “Rue Du Rome”, a thoroughly entrancing dance courtesy of Phillip Aaberg’s sweeping accordion and Coyle’s crisp finger style guitar and “The Falcon”, Richard Farina’s take on the old traditional song “The Blackbird”, which offers some gorgeous harmony singing to a single finger-picked guitar backing. If there’s a point on Ten-in-One where we would have originally expected the album to go, it would be on Rick Ruskin’s “Microphone Fever”, which demonstrates once again what a thoroughly excellent guitar player Coyle is. Personally I have become jaded with solo guitar albums of the Stefan Grossman tutorial variety over the years and therefore this album is infinitely more interesting than it was originally intended, in fact, I defy anyone to listen to this through just the once; there’s a distinct urge to play it over again and again.