Something very familiar and something relatively new (to me) for this latest posting. As a body of work Cream co-founder Jack Bruce’s solo music remains curiously underrated in 2018, a little over three years since he passed away aged 71. In part this may be down to the fact that he was never quite able to equal his astonishing debut, Songs for a Tailor, released in 1969 shortly after the end of Cream – but that should not negate closer inspection of the frequent brilliance of later albums such as Out of the Storm, Shadows In the Air and, especially, Monkjack.
But first a few words about Songs for a Tailor, whose 10 short tracks – their total playing time amounting to less than 32 minutes – continue to enthral with their structural and lyrical ingenuity. Working once again in partnership with his long-term co-writer, lyricist Pete Brown, Bruce sounds liberated after the messy demise of Cream. It is perhaps no surprise that these songs are shorn of the guitar heroics that characterised his former band, as Bruce’s own bass, piano and organ are foregrounded in the arrangements. With additional but crucial colour provided by brass and strings, Songs for a Tailor could be crudely categorised as ‘chamber pop’, but the sophisticated chord progressions and harmonies set it apart from many other occupants of the genre.
Distinguished by sudden twists and abstract imagery, Pete Brown’s lyrics are – as they have been throughout his career, in whatever collaboration he has found himself – an absolute delight. Who knows quite what ‘Rope Ladder to the Moon’ is about, and really, it need not detain us when the words are so entertainingly oblique and allied to Brown’s undulating bassline and baroque-pop strings. Much the same might be said of ‘Weird of Hermiston’ and ‘Tickets to Waterfalls’, which contain more than their fair share of arresting, oddly unsettling images.
In short, Songs for a Tailor sounded like nothing else released in 1969, and in today’s ambition-averse pop landscape sounds almost insanely creative. The performances are something special, too, especially those from the multi-instrumentalising Bruce. His vocals, too, are more measured and powerful than many of those cut during his Cream days.
Bruce and Brown would continue to evolve their own brand of ‘art song’ throughout the 1970s on a series of albums that always had at least 3 or 4 standout tracks apiece. But 1974’s Out of the Storm was pretty much all great, its eight elaborate songs often underpinned by a sense of loss and sadness – no wonder, perhaps, given that Bruce was struggling with heroin addiction at the time.
It would take him a long time to kick the habit, and by his own admission it had a hugely negative impact on his late ‘70s and ‘80s output, although the production traits of the day – notably an overly ‘bright’ sound and preponderance of sequencers and synths – didn’t exactly help. So to contemporaneous long-term followers, the release of Monkjack in 1995 must have seemed like a substantial artistic renaissance.
Previous LP Somethin Els had hinted that he was emerging from the darkness of the previous 20 years (something confirmed by Harry Shapiro in his excellent 2010 authorised biography of Bruce, Composing Himself), but on Monkjack he seemed to be in total command of his material once again. And any risk of over-production is neatly circumvented by the entire album featuring just Bruce on piano and vocals, and Parliament/Funkadelic keyboard legend Bernie Worrell on Hammond B3 organ.
The relative sparsensess of the arrangements only serves to enhance the songs’ inherent drama, particularly on the likes of the near-eight minute ‘Laughing on Music Street’ – easily one of the most ambitious songs in the entire Bruce catalogue. The cumulative effect is akin to what used to be called a song-cycle, although the thematic content is as richly diverse as one would expect from the Bruce/Brown partnership. And Brown is on phenomenal form vocally and at the keyboard.
It is to be hoped that there will be a wider reappraisal both of Monkjack – which is currently out of print on CD – and the wider Bruce/Brown repertoire in the years ahead. As a partnership the closest comparison I can think of is that between Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter, whose co-writes for the Grateful Dead (think ‘Terrapin Station’ or ‘Scarlet Begonias’) offer a similar blend of ambitious songscapes and densely poetic lyrics. Both teams were restlessly creative until the end, their writings informed and enhanced by the kind of curiosity-driven broad reading that is sadly unfashionable now.