Album Review: Justin Currie – Lower Reaches

lower reaches

It’s an inevitable result of the relentless passage of time that our social circles change as we grow older. As jobs evolve into careers and relationships develop into families, your life shuffles into a new shape and you inevitably lose touch with some of the people that, in your younger days, you felt would always be a part of your life. This isn’t always a bad thing, they’re usually just people you were friendly with, but didn’t necessarily have the closest emotional bond with and changes in your social dynamic are just a signifier of changing priorities as you get on with living your lives.

Every now and again, when you’re enjoying a night in the pub with your partner, inexpertly guiding a shopping trolley through the local supermarket, or just browsing the racks in your local record store, you randomly encounter those familiar faces that you haven’t seen for years.

Del Amitri were only very briefly viewed as a cool band. In the mid 80s they were played by John Peel, found themselves on the front of Melody Maker and even found themselves supporting The Smiths. They also didn’t sell many albums, so found themselves getting unceremoniously ditched by their record label.

When they returned to the public eye as the decade closed they were signed to a major label, were enjoying top forty hit singles, top ten hit albums and were playing a mature brand of rock music, that while melodic and soulful, didn’t exactly excite the weekly music press. When you consider that Teenage Fanclub were releasing music that wasn’t a million miles removed from Del Amitri and they were lauded all through the early 90s, you may reach the conclusion that Del Amitri were unfairly dismissed out of hand. Not that such matters effected their sales, as they continued to release top forty singles, enjoyed hit albums and even made inroads into an American market that was otherwise remaining immune to the charms of UK acts.

By the mid 90s Del Amitri found themselves in a rather odd position of being a relatively popular British guitar band who were managing to keep their career afloat while all around them floated the detritus of Brit-pop. Del Amitri were not Brit-pop. They were too mature, too uncool, too hairy to be Brit-pop. They were Del Amitri and the weekly music rags wouldn’t touch them. As the 90s started to come to a close Del Amitri began to voice their annoyance at the fact that, despite being consistently successful for almost a decade, they were still routinely ignored by music weeklies, while the not-dissimilar Teenage Fanclub were still being celebrated as one of the finest acts in the UK by the same publications.

As the new millennium dawned and jangly melodic rock was enjoying a renaissance at the hands of the likes of Travis, Del Amitri were apparently issued an ultimatum by their record label – The next album had to be a big a hit, or they’d be dropped. While it sold healthily, it wasn’t enough to please their paymasters, so in an odd echo of their mid-80s ‘cool’ peak, they were unceremoniously ditched. Del Amitri seemingly put into stasis at that moment and that would appear to be that…

Apparently Lower Reaches is Del Amitri vocalist Justin Currie’s third solo album. I didn’t know this and hadn’t even realised he had released solo albums previously. Given the music press’s previously indifferent relationship with Del Amitri this isn’t surprising. Even the self-deprecating album title, ‘Lower Reaches’, gives the impression that Currie doesn’t expect it to be the album which launches him into the mega-selling musical stratosphere where he can expect blanket-airplay, a completely fair reassessment of his band’s career and every drop dead cool skinny trousered axe-wielder to confess that Del Amitri were the band that were the band that convinced them to pick up the guitar for the first time. Chances are that this will never happen and Currie seems to be completely comfortable with this fact.

There’s something quietly reassuring in the fact that Justin Currie as a solo artist doesn’t sound that far removed from Del Amitri. While there’s not so much of a commercial edge to the songs here, that’s probably more to do with the fact that music is marketed in a completely different way than it was at the height of Del Amitri’s success. It’s not that Currie’s writing, vocals or way with a melody have been lost behind the sofa, indeed all three are very much in good health throughout Lower Reaches and “Bend to My Will” could have been prime-period Del Amitri, it’s just that the how the music industry works has changed, and as a mature forty-something playing to his strength’s at this stage in his career Currie is not going to get the commercial push that younger talents creating not-dissimilar music may be enjoying.

Lower Reaches is a reflective release, even by Currie’s standards. Maybe you could even call it downbeat. Even with this taken into account, it still has an unyielding core-strength that was his band’s secret weapon while all around them was musical magpies and Badfinger haircuts back in the mid 90s. There has always been something genuine and believable in Currie’s lyrics and his slightly cracked vocals have always made the most of them and both remain undimmed on this album (though I’m not sure I would have advised him to try and hit the high notes on “Into a Pearl”).

There’s not much in the way of riff-based rock on Lower Reaches, which given it’s a lower gear and more emotive release is understandable. At this stage in his career it’s unlikely that Currie will attempt to pen another “Always the Last to Know” or “Roll to Me”, but that’s not because he can’t, it’s because he’s grown and matured just like his audience. While it’s unlikely that Currie will ever regain the commercial heights of his work with Del Amitri, it’s not outside the realms of possibility. All it would take is a hotshot independent film director deciding that he wants “Half of Me” or “Little Stars” to play over the closing credits of his unexpectedly well-received new film, for Currie to find himself riding a whole new wave of interest in his music.

Bend to my will

Currie certainly hasn’t lost it and fans of Del Amitri will find much to admire throughout Lower Reaches. For those in search of a recently released well crafted album by a mature singer-songwriter, then you could do far worse than giving this album a chance.

Sometimes it’s worth looking up those folk you’ve lost touch with.

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