Review Summary: It's the interplay of the three vocalists that stands Tell Men This apart from any number of other folk-blues outings.”I like vanilla better,”
sings Yngve Wieland on the song of the same name, a standout among standouts on his captivating debut album Tell Men This
Vanilla, in contemporary parlance, is taken to mean something plain or ordinary; boring, in other words. Alternatively, it can stand for something ice cream makers have known for years: vanilla might be the most basic and common form of the tasty treat, but it’s also the most difficult to get right. Without the benefit of strawberry swirls or sprinkles or those pointless green cones that taste exactly the same as the regular ones, vanilla survives on strength of substance alone. Pushing the metaphor one step further, Tell Men This
is a celebration of the vanilla over the chocolate. The sentiments are simple, thoughtful and elegant, centring on growing up and the loss of innocence and purity. The music is no less contrived, steeped as it is in Appalachian folk and blues, with little touches of jazz, classical and even a hint of gypsy folk thrown in for good measure.
Although the album is credited solely to Yngve, the principle performer and creative spark behind the entire affair, the recording itself is the work of a larger art collective, the ‘Space To Be Yourself’ collective. This includes two female vocalists, Bennie Reilly (who also designed the cover art) and Michelle Considine, who appear together on nine of the eleven tracks, bassist Paul Diamond and drummer Finn Murray. Murray’s nuanced style, which includes liberal use of brushes and militaristic snare rolls, is an unusual but endearing feature, but it’s the interplay of the three vocalists that really stands the album apart from any number of other folk blues outings, from straightforward male-female duets like ‘The Gondola Song’ and ‘Innocence,’ to energetic call-and-response routines a la ‘Keep On Calling Me.’
Yngve resists the temptation to open with an arresting rocker, instead opting for the more subdued ‘Innocence,’ a cautionary ballad about how girls, in particular, labour under the pressure to lose their virginity earlier and earlier with each generation, while Bennie’s almost child-like support vocals seem uniquely suited to the subject matter. ”A man steps in and bends to his will things that should not be so easily won [...] And on a whim it seems that any pretty thing wants to prove maturity.”
It’s followed by ‘The Gondola Song,’ a three-way “duet” that pits a man furiously rowing a gondola as a metaphor for trying to force love, the underlying message being that sometimes it’s best just to let nature take its course. ‘I Like Vanilla Better’ operates under a similar remit, opening with a line that should strike fear into women the world over- ”It should be a law that love has nothing to do with chocolate”
- and closing with an extended hand-percussion and cello coda. Incidentally, and only through non-traditional instruments, it’s the only other indication aside from the accents that it’s an Irish folk album.
Given the slow, occasionally morose pace of the opening numbers, track the fifth ‘Keep On Calling Me’ hits like a bit of a brick. It opens with tinkling piano chords, reminiscent of Cat Stevens, while a serrated edge has crept in to both the (electric) guitar work and Yngve’s vocals. The verse lyrics are delivered quickly and precisely, giving way to a cathartic three-way harmony on the chorus, which give way in turn to furious trumpet bursts. The mood carries over to the title track, which is strongly (perhaps intentionally) reminiscent of Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ in terms of meter and delivery. The subject matter is equally as playful, though thankfully it makes more sense: ”Tell men this, if you give love a miss, it'll only be your mama comes looking for a kiss / And when you're done, please tell mum: 'I know you're a good kisser but it's time to move on.”
Another standout example of Wieland’s sharp wit pops up on anthem ‘(Sing A) Protest Song,’ where he makes sly reference to the (then impending) US presidential race: ”Who knows who's lurking behind the next bush? Should we be running for the next election rush?”
Tell Men This
will never be hailed as strikingly original, musically or lyrically, but Wieland has shown himself as a real songwriter of character. His influences may be decades old, and his themes achingly simple, but just as Bruce Springsteen’s star shows no sign of waning, Tell Men This
lends credibility to the notion that style is no substitute for substance . Sometimes, vanilla does taste just as good, or better.