Review Summary: Fame is But a Fruit Tree
The familiar cliché of the tortured artist states that the blessing of their talent can often prove itself an equal curse; Gavin Clark’s a classic example, the authenticity that shines through in his mesmerising melancholic vocals and introspective lyrics is born of personal struggle and a shy nature…the very traits that make any chance of longstanding success that much more remote. Despite being invited to provide lead vocal cameos for the musical collective UNKLE and the continued support of his close friend Shane Meadows, who’s included his songs on all of his film soundtracks, a true breakthrough has remained frustratingly elusive. In 2009 Meadows even went so far as to film ‘Gavin Clark: The Living Room’, a documentary about his friend’s attempts to reignite his career that also served as an intervention of sorts; Gavin was making ends meet delivering takeaways, a situation Meadows equated to ‘Bob Dylan delivering pizzas’ in his eyes. Sadly any possibility of Clark seeing true career recognition and belated commercial success has been extinguished; he died unexpectedly last year at the age of 46 and a posthumous album has since been released, the tragic reality of course being that he now seems destined to go down as yet another Nick Drake, an artist whose ‘Fruit Tree’ will only start to flourish now he’s in the ground.
98’s ‘Crazy on the Weekend’ was Clark’s first major release and the near instantaneous conclusion you draw from first listening to the album is that here’s an artist fully deserving of a similar legacy; what we’re presented with are a set of songs arguably the equal of any of Drake’s three classic full lengths. Aged 29 at the time of its release, Clark gives the impression that these are songs he lived, breathed and carried inside for many years before finally committing them to tape here; every lyric feels considered and reflected over, every vocal sounds imbued with rich history and emotion. Fortunately the magic doesn’t start and end with Clark, the band he assembled do his songs more than justice, the compositions are neatly varied and full of effortless personality and warmth. Most of the material can be loosely filed under the label of 'folk rock' and there are definite nods to the classics like Dylan and Van Morrison, but more contemporary 90’s references crop up in places too (‘Animal’ in particular is a very grunge thing).
The low key album art showing a downmarket looking Chinese takeaway that’s probably seen better days (though we’re assured is still ‘crazy on the weekend’) is matched perfectly in tone by the opening title track; a simple acoustic guitar line and some other minimal instrumentation provide a non-fussed backdrop to a sad lullaby that catches Clark daring to daydream of escaping the grim reality of barely scraping by. The introduction to ‘Hurricane’ throws a feint cheekily following a similar formula until the 1:20 mark where drums, harmonica and piano flesh things out; the message is received that this is a band effort, not a hushed singer/songwriter affair. By ‘Chasing the Dream’ the album has already established an atmosphere of consummate ease, the gospel backing vocals and rich organ tones as familiar and welcoming as a long missed old friend.
As well judged as the start of the ‘Crazy on the Weekend’ is it’s not until track five, the swaggering ‘Good Day to Die’, that Sunhouse start to reveal just how strong their hand is; the song is masterful, the sort of whisky drenched classic Dulli or Lanegan would have built an entire Afghan Whigs or Screaming Trees album around. Even better still is the ballad ‘Lips’, the delicate ‘barely there’ backing and imagery of white clouds/sunlit skies genuinely make it sound like Clark believes this love he sings of is better than heaven. A trio of perfect songs is concluded by ‘Loud Crowd’, a more experimental offering that successfully introduces flavours of Pink Floyd and Talk Talk into the mix. Each of these songs is individually excellent but it’s the pacing that makes them all the more effective; finally the penny drops that this is a traditionally classic album and a carefully constructed piece of art.
To cement ‘Crazy on the Weekend’s standing the album has two further gems to surrender buried deep in the track list; ‘Hard Sun’ sports irresistible conversational verses and a string drenched chorus that lands the devastating emotional haymaker you’ve been anticipating since the very first song, the lead vocals are cut with 80 seconds still on the clock so the song can literally weep itself to a conclusion; the nocturnal ‘Swing Low’ follows straight after and is bleaker still, a dark night of the soul moment of clarity, Clark singing of swinging by the neck pleading for rescue though he already sounds utterly defeated.
It isn’t hard to imagine that with a twist or two of fate this album could have found a much wider audience and eventually commanded Jeff Buckley ‘Grace’ levels of acclaim and devotion; that is didn’t succeed on a similar level can perhaps be partly attributed to a case of bad timing and the album’s defiantly understated Britishness, though the overriding suspicion is that the band imploded largely due to the pressures of Clark’s battles with mental illness and drugs. In 2003 most of Sunhouse were reunited in a new band Clayhill and while there are glimpses of the same qualities that work so well on ‘Crazy on the Weekend’ the songs rarely seem to hit quite as hard as here. That Clark’s subsequent output fell a level short of the standard set by this album hardly matters, if the man’s legacy amounted to nothing more than ‘Crazy on the Weekend’ that alone would be more than worthy of reverence.