Not really having heard about Martin Simpson until his previous album Trails and Tribulations but falling in love with his music immediately after doing so, I didn’t waste time buying Rooted upon its release back in August. Since then there (nearly) hasn’t been a day in which I didn’t listen to at least part of Rooted. Like Trails and Tribulations it’s an album of rare and pure beauty.
As before, I greatly admire his unique and exceptional style of guitar playing. The varied guitar (and banjo) sounds are once again brought to light very well by producer Andy Bell, starting with the first song Trouble Brought Me Here and ending with the equally wonderful More Than Enough. The latter was written by Robb Johnson and is a fine pointer to Simpson’s left leaning political views (don’t know if he’d call himself a Socialist, but from all I know it’s fair to assume he might). The song’s lyrics (appropriately reflected in the music) are both sad and a hopeful (‘… there’s always the money for missiles and tanks, there’s always the money for generals and banks, there’s always the money for new ways to kill but a limited budget for you if you’re ill…’), but ending on a rather more hopeful note (‘… if we’d learn to want less and love more there’d be enough for the poor, cause there’s more than enough for us all’ – truer word was never spoken)
These also come to light in his singular reworking of the (not very well known, but still) classic Ragtime Millionaire, here called Neo (Neo-Liberal Billionaire), it doesn’t take a whole lot of fantasy to figure out the sort of people he is talking about there (‘… trickle down, that’s what I said, it’s just me pissing on your head…’). Great, upbeat song that too, with the brilliant Dom Flemons (Ex-Caroline Chocolate Drops) on bones and a (rather unusual in that context) clarinet giving it a suitable swinging old-timey feeling. Probably the most lovely song on the album is his version of the traditional Child ballad Who’s Going To Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot, which Simpson first heard by Woody Guthrie, I don’t know that or any other versions, but his, mainly played on acoustic guitar accordion (or melodeon) and strings, is utterly gorgeous. I just love his way of playing those incredibly intricate acoustic guitar melodies, accompanying and mirroring the tunes of the songs, very few guitar players I know of can do that similarly well, maybe Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn are in the same league.
A large appeal for me is the fact that his music is deeply rooted in both British and American traditions. A fine example of this is his version of the traditional Joe Bowers on which he’s (if I’m not mistaken) playing a Weissenborn (style) slide guitar, and of course that does sound wonderful (love those guitars myself). The whole album is an absolute feast for (acoustic) guitar aficionados, all of the guitar parts are recorded crystal clear (the sound overall is excellent too).
Another thing I love about his music is the creative way they deal with his apparent love of nature (on Trails and Tribulations it was the amazing Ridgeway) and on here it’s Born Human (excellent song that but not written by him) and his own composition Kingfisher – the latter about a walk (?) on a cold and clear winter morning, and it’s easy to visualise that morning listening to the song. That aspect (‘… tells me how alive and lucky I am…’) is also present in the album title and artwork with the front cover finding him nestled among the roots and branches of a large tree.
Perhaps most affecting in a quite understated way of all songs on here is the (true) story of Ken Small, who in 1984 (after a 10 year struggle) succeeded in having a Sherman tank from the 2nd World War pulled out of the ocean and placed in the Southwestern English village of Torcross (where it still stands today) as a monument to the about 1000 soldiers that were killed thereabouts during an military operation in 1944. Ken Small, after a nervous breakdown, spent a large amount of his time at the shore where he found ‘… truth and healing…’ and the song sounds suitably melancholic. That’s another of Simpson’s strength – in contrast to a lot of excellent finger style guitarist out there he’s not merely an outstanding guitarist, while he undoubtedly is that, he’s also a great storyteller in his own compositions, as well as being equally adept at choosing very fine material for his singular and accomplished interpretations.
The rest of the songs I haven’t mentioned so far are by no means any less good (the catchy and upbeat Henry Gray and Fool Me Once are all brilliant as well) – I for one could (and indeed have) listen to them over and over again.
I was fortunate enough to get the bonus disc version, the second CD called Seeded featuring 7 instrumentals including two bluesy ones A Blues and Blind Willie McTell’s Mama It Ain’t Long (Blind Willie McTell), and acoustic solo versions of Queen Jane and Who’s Gonna… from Rooted and the wonderful Waenglapiau.
I almost forgot to mention the fine contributions of the other guests on the album, apart from the lovely strings on a number of songs, especially Andy Cutting on Melodeon and Accordion does deserve a mention here, as one Trails And Tribulations before, his contributions to Rooted play a big role in shaping the sound and making various of these songs as lovely as they are, like Simpson he’s a true master of his instrument.
As stated before I am not really familiar with his earlier work apart from Rooted‘s predecessor, but it’s safe to say that Martin Simpson clearly is on something of a roll right now, which I find all the more remarkable as he’s now at an age in which most other musicians have long surpassed their best work.
Just listen to that amazing guitar playing on Trouble Brought Me Here…