On England Green And Grey Reg Meuross has put together a full band line-up including long term collaborators Jess Vincent (vocals) and Roy Dodds on drums and percussion. This is the satisfying sound of a group of musicians very much on the same wavelength, presenting a collection of songs that vary in style yet fit and belong together like the many and varied elements of a bespoke suit.
The opening three tracks set the tone of the album in that they relate aspects of England old and new in terms of both regret and celebration. Firstly, “What would William Morris say, if he could see England today?”, Meuross asks. The answer while not explicit is implied in a lyric describing the replacement of pianos in pubs with karaoke machines and the disappearance of farms to make way for big industry’s warehouses. The current trend towards mass disenchantment with politics (perhaps it was ever thus?) is encapsulated in the line, “Liars all speak politics with poison on their tongues”.
Balancing this take on the decline of communal culture and the lack of esteem in which politicians are held today is “Tony Benn’s Tribute To Emily Davison”, in which the writer’s admiration for these two pioneers of English society in the century just gone is evident. The swishy pitter-patter of brushes on drums and a piano picking its way lightly forward recreate the furtive movements of the suffragette as she crept through the Palace of Westminster to protest in support of universal suffrage by taking up residence in a broom cupboard on the night of the 1911 census in that House which back then admitted no female representation either in person or in votes.
Meuross is, like Ray Davies, a perceptive chronicler of the moments, events and characters who conspire to shape the great sweep of England’s social and cultural history. England Green And England Grey’s title track, for instance, could be put to work by innovative teachers up and down the land in the service of sparking debate among and firing the interest of drowsy teenagers who would otherwise be snoozing through their dull, dank Monday afternoon history class. Coincidentally, the writer’s soft, clear voice sounds not at all dissimilar to the that of the Kink as observations such as “Austerity and slavery – I thought they were behind us” trip off his tongue.
The music takes on an American, countryish sound for the middle chunk of the album. Given the influence that the States have had on English culture – music in particular – over the last sixty years and more, this is pleasingly apt. There’s the magically evocative tale of a traveller whose “future lies in ribbons of river, rail and road”, which with Mike Cosgrave’s piano bass notes rumbling forebodingly beneath warm layers of vocals and Phil Henry’s lush dobro, feels every bit like the latest incarnation of Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson’s Highwayman.
Many’s the album that peters out with a few weaker songs towards the end. In the case of this one, though, the quality remains staggeringly high throughout and the emotional highlight arrives on the tenth track. The Band Played Sweet Marie is a touching, heartbreaking song imagining the thoughts and feelings of Maria Robinson, whose fiancée Wallace Hartley was one of the 1,500 people who drowned in the North Atlantic’s icy water when the Titanic went down. Hartley, the ship’s bandleader, had been given a violin – engraved, as an engagement gift – by Maria, which was later found and returned to her in its leather bag that it’s thought he strapped to himself in his final moments. This beautiful, tender love song imagines and captures Maria’s almost unbearable sadness, and with it therefore the devastating sense of loss that thousands suffered following the ship’s demise. “Every note my darling played took further away my love from me.”