EP Review | Neon Records | Review by Ian Taylor | Stars: 4/5
The launch of Rab Noakes’s last album, the excellent I’m Walking Here, released in 2015, had to be delayed as a result of his being diagnosed with tonsillar cancer early in that year. Characteristically stoic and defiant however, the Fife singer-songwriter vowed to deal with the condition head on, rather than wallow in self-pity or give in to the ‘brave battler’ tabloid language that invariably surrounds the hideously random disease. With the support – both emotional and practical – of his wife Stephy Pordage, he saw off the rigours of thirty radiography and two chemotherapy sessions which understandably rendered him inactive musically for several months. Thankfully, he has made as full a recovery as he dare claim. As Noakes says though, “When something like this happens to the likes of me at least I know I’ll probably get a couple of songs out of it.” If that sounds flippant, he continues, “Truth is though, it’s what we do creatively. We utilise experience and observation of, and response to, life’s ingredients, add a helping of imagination and deliver a work”. Which is exactly what he has done with The Treatment Tapes. The EP comprises six songs written during, and/or inspired by his period of enforced inactivity. “Fade (To Shades of Black)” opens the EP, a solo voice and guitar piece very much in the style of latter Noakes work, such as that on I’m Walking Here, with a delightfully mellow and rich tone to his guitar and a lyric about “..not wasting time, getting up and doing things, being in the moment”. Then comes “By the Day (One More Shave ‘n’ Haircut)” which is perhaps a little more explicitly autobiographical, documenting the sequence of events from diagnosis (“Breaking news in the afternoon, one more thing that’s happening too soon”) to treatment (“The whole affair seems like a sequence of dreams, fuelled by potions, tablets and creams”). Noakes adds his own backing vocal and there’s a little percussion which helps drive the song along and tempers its initially gloomy, but ultimately hopeful message. Mindful is significant for Stephy being given a writing credit. They wrote the words jointly to a tune that had been around since a US holiday in 2013. Anne Rankin’s oboe gives the song added poignancy. “Stay vital, like vinyl” seems an extremely appropriate sentiment in the context. “That Won’t Stop Me” reflects Noakes’s defiance in facing his disease. His fingerpicking blues guitar playing and Stu Brown’s percussion a perfect foil for the ambiguity of the lyric. “I Always Will” is a love song pure and simple, celebrating the reciprocation inherent in the process of tackling an illness as a couple. The opening riff almost sings the words “I’d do the same for you”, and you just know that he would. Finally, “Water is My Friend” might literally reflect the necessity of hydration in the treatment process, and the mantra that emerged as a result, but it’s also laden with prosaic social commentary: “There are people looking after me who don’t get paid enough, while bankers take a big reward for far less useful stuff”. It’s an upbeat end to what could have been an utterly depressing listen, but in fact even taken superficially is a worthy addition to Noakes’s body of work. When you know the context from which it emerged, it is all the more remarkable.