The leaders of alt-folk go country.
If you aren’t already a paid member of the Martin Stephenson and the Daintees Fan Club, you should stop reading now, as I don’t want to share this secret with anyone else.
First formed over 30 years ago, The Daintees defied description and even logic as they released a series of highly successful albums that drew heavily on English folk and traditional country music. But, they put a sharp punk edge to it that appealed to a whole generation of music-loving students.
In the intervening years, the prolific Martin Stephenson has kept the flag flying by touring non-stop and releasing numerous solo albums. In 2012, he got the nucleus of The Daintees into a studio and recorded the wonderful California Star, which appears to have rekindled the fire.
Most albums I review take at least three listens before I get a ‘feel’ for them. Others can take several weeks. But, by the time I heard track #4, “Hobo Trains”, I had to stop the car and scribble down some notes. Twenty minutes later, the same happened with the second instrumental on “Haunted Highway” and the instrumental “Johnny Red” (which was like The Shadows meet Duane Eddy). I can’t remember the last time an album excited me so much.
Whatever category you try to put this band into, they will squirm into a different one. The lovely “Black Eyed Rose” is a pure country love song while “Let Your True Love Show” has a Reggae lilt to it, and neither sounds out of place here.
I’ve absolutely fallen in love with the title track “Haunted Highway”, which tips its hat to the classic country sound of Hank Sr. and Buck Owens, without ever sounding like a pastiche.
Even allowing for the hot surf sounds of the other instrumental “Mahina”, there simply isn’t a bad or forgettable track here. The jaunty love song “Stansted Ground”, which opens the album, is as good a song as Stephenson wrote in his youth. By the time you get to “Ride”, which closes the album, I defy any right-thinking music fan not to have a big grin on their face and be tapping their toes. The gentle, laidback tune masks a deceptively intelligent set of lyrics. That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has listened to Martin Stephenson and/or The Daintees for more than 10 minutes.
Stephenson’s voice hasn’t sounded better, but credit must also go to long-time cohort Jon Steele, who provides assorted guitars, piano, and bass, as well as the ever-wonderful Kate Stephenson, who shows the boys what a real drummer sounds like.
Quite often, in recent years, Stephenson’s solo albums have been aimed solely at his existing fanbase. But, too many songs here are perfect for National Radio, for him to remain a secret for much longer.
The first 300 copies come with a free Various Artist album called We Are Llama, from parent label Barbaraville Records. I promise you that there are quite a few gems here too, with songs by Shipcote, El Cid, Davey Cowan, and Amy Cochrane, all whetting the appetite for releases over the next couple of months.