Over a decade ago my friend BB introduced me to The Bevis Frond. This was both a blessing and a curse. The blessing part was simple: enjoying Nick Saloman’s psychedelic-infused, guitar-driven songs has been no chore at all. In fact, my respect for his extensive songbook has grown steadily over the years. Which leads us to the curse part: it is a very substantial catalogue of albums. Starting with 1987’s Miasma, The Bevis Frond released no fewer than eighteen albums up to 2004’s Hit Squad, at which point he called a halt.
Although I have a respectable number of titles (BB has a few more besides), I always check out the B section of the racks wherever I’m browsing in the hope of augmenting the collection. Do I need more? Probably not. The Bevis Frond sound is well-defined and rarely strays from the established path of good tunes, broad lyrical interests entering around the human condition and loud guitars, interspersed with introspective English folk-rock reflections. But on every Frond album you are guaranteed at least a couple of moments of either air-punching joy or soothing melancholy or, more often than not, both. And that is why I’ll buy any Bevis Frond album I encounter.
It is also why I was quite excited to learn that Saloman had re-ignited The Bevis Frond in 2011, releasing the excellent The Leaving of London. Production was a little cleaner, recording a trifle crisper than the early days, but the spirit was intact. Hooray!
Since then there has been a studio album every couple of years. A quick bit of mental arithmetic will tell you there was one in 2013, White Numbers, and another just recently released. I took delivery of 2015’s Example 22 last week and quite a buzz it was too, but that is not the focus today. With a bit of luck we’ll have a special Vinyl Connection post on the new album soon.
The Leaving of London opens with the sound of a stylus dropping onto a vinyl record and a posh BBC voice enquiring, ‘Everybody has a favourite tune. Is this yours?’ Then we are off with the mid-paced rocker ‘Johnny Kwango’ which introduces us to several classic Saloman characteristics: a minor chord melody, lyrics that prize humanity over posturing, and a chorus that is eminently hummable. Oh, and a guitar solo. Make it a double? Sure. Here there are two solos multi-tracked so that they interweave and dance. ‘Speedboat’ has backwards guitars and a quiet opening before exploding with wah-wah guitars and a thumping insistent beat nailed by Dave Pearce. We are most definitely off and running.
I love a short song and ‘More to this than that’ delivers a rollicking rocker in 1:45 that even includes the trick of a brief… stop! then continuing. Love it when it’s done well. What follows this raucous 100 seconds is the piano based title track, a melancholy ballad showcasing Nick’s modest pianistic abilities and his oh-so-human voice in the most engaging and endearing way. It’s what I love about this songwriter: there is no artifice or pretence. What you get is what you are willing to hear.
‘Hold the Fort’ is one of those air-punching moments. The riff and refrain work fabulously, rolling with an ocean-deep groove where the sea-themed lyric melds fluidly with the music.
Though this is undisputedly a rock album, plenty of light and shade ensures the ears don’t wear out. ‘The Divide’, for instance, is a gently reflective waltz-time ballad over delicately picked guitars, reminding us that nothing is permanent —especially in the perplexing world of relationships. There are plenty more good songs on the album, but for fear of wearing out your eyes, I’ll leave The Leaving of London here with the observation that, as returns to the fray go, this is a beaut. What is more, it would make a fine introduction to Bevis World.
When I read that there was a new album coming out in 2013, I started looking for pre-order options. Being deep into my vinyl revival, naturally I wanted it on the black stuff and Amazon obliged. Let me tell you comrades, when a new album by a favourite artist arrives in the mailbox and you unwrap a three LP set of spanking new vinyl, that is a damn good day. But you don’t need me to remind you because that is exactly why you are here. So we have White Numbers, two LPs of songs and a third that spreads a 42 minute instrumental jam over two psychedelic sides. Phew!
According to my research, Nick Saloman released White Numbers in the year he turned sixty. I mention this because there are few albums in the entire Vinyl Connection collection that charge out of the gate with the bullish energy and sneering power of ‘Begone’. Forget going gently into that good night, Nick is rocking his orthopaedic socks off with a song that would not be out-of-place on a punkish heavy rock album. Guitars, distortion, ripper bass line. And what a great lyric.
There’s a certain time of life, when you start to see
The things that once were blurred, with clarity
Your planes of thought will leave no vapour trails
And strangely this occurs as your eyesight fails.
“Begone,” she cried, “I can’t take your weight,
We’ll subdivide, we’ll relocate,
I’ll book your ride, I’ll help you pack,
Begone,” she cried, “And don’t come back.”
Things ease back for ‘Opthalmic microdots’, another in a long line of songs where Saloman explores the mystery of how we struggle to understand each other, failing constantly but always coming back for more. The pretty ballad ‘She’s just like you’ covers the same territory with more resignation, deeper sadness. From the personal to the global, the refrain of ‘Cruel World’ reminds us that ‘this is a cruel world’ but here is a beautifully weighted song of endurance, and maybe, just maybe, more than mere survival. It reminds me of a James Branch Cabell quote I’ve often fantasised as an epitaph. The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true. Or, in Nick’s words, It’s the excrement floating on the sea, makes it beautiful to me (‘Beautiful to me’). Yes, he’s angry, but he’s funny too (in a wry, darkish sort of way).
A characteristic of Bevis Frond albums that takes some getting used to are the sudden changes of pace. On White Numbers, for instance, the 85 second punk thrash of ‘For Pat (On the chaise longue dreaming)’ is followed by the folk-tinged Beatlesque gem ‘This one’ which in turn ushers in the churning psychedelic guitar-blast of ‘Neverwas’. Given the limitations of the Frond aural palette (guitars, bass, drums, a little keyboard mostly back in the mix), it is the variety of pace, volume and tone that holds interest.
BB came up with an apt summary of Nick Saloman’s music: power and poignancy, honesty and humour. Though I cannot improve on that, I’ll throw in a few more adjectives.
And deeply human.
If those attributes appeal, buy a Bevis Frond album. Either of these will do just fine as a starting place, knowing the huge back-catalogue awaits if you fall under Nick Saloman’s unique lo-fi spell.
Intrigued by the Bevis Frond story? Here is an excellent interview from The Quietus (August 2013). In it Nick talks entertainingly about gigging with Hawkwind, auditioning for Procol Harum, and the long and winding Frond.