Over recent months I’ve become a big fan of Alan Furst’s entertainments. The series of stories set in and around the Second World War, Paris and what was known as middle Europe. They’re wonderfully romantic romps, filled with subterfuge, solitude, sabotage and espionage. Small people with big ideas, fighting back against the fascist threat, specifically, and the authoritarianism of the Russians, additionally. Unexpected bravery of everyday people. Stateless souls making small gestures.
One of the great things about Furst’s books is the attention to detail. His obvious passion for and knowledge of the era. He can picture him curled up, ploughing through another history of Rumanian diplomacy, soaking up the detail. And this all comes through in the writing. The oh so casual deliberateness of the references. A Joseph Roth mention here and there. The nod to Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. A wink in the direction of Sartre and Camus. I like that sort of thing. I like colour. I’m the sort of person who might freeze frame a film to study what’s on someone’s bookshelves or what records are piled up here and there.
I don’t know if this is specific, but I always sense Furst’s characters place special significance on small objects. The monogrammed hankie. The cigarette case salvaged from a fire. The leather bound book rescued while running from a room. That these objects evoke special things, people, moments. Like the old story of the deck of cards helping a soldier pray or meditate. And I was just thinking that if I grabbed that pile of CDs issued by the Numero Group I would have just about everything I could need to remind me what’s so special about music, and why this life can make you feel about ten mile high and as low as can be.
Since I guess 2004 the Numero Group has been steadily releasing a series of records that are, well, wonderfully romantic. In this they are far from unique. Where the Numero guys excel however is in the attention to detail. They are fans. They are collectors. They are passionate. And they understand that this thing we love is about more than the music. It’s about the feel of things, the look of things, the whole thing. The packaging, the sleeve notes, the little things that make a difference. Looking at the 15 Numero Group CDs on my shelf, they look good to me. If I saw 15 Numero Group CDs on someone’s shelf I would like that person. I would instinctively trust that person.
So what makes the Numero releases so special? Apart from the contagious zeal of missionaries and visionaries, well, there’s the context. The Numero folk, they’ve been running a series called Eccentric Soul. For that alone you have to love them. They have single handedly reclaimed the word eccentric. Freeing eccentricity from the world of whimsy and restoring the meaning of irregularity and off-centre. Left field. These eccentric soul stories are tales of chancers, lovers, dreamers, schemers, back in ‘60s/’70s America. But it’s a timeless tale, like the music. And then there’s the Cult Cargo series, giving a glimpse into how music is refracted as it travels the globe, and how each twist, each variation, adds something unique. Funk, calypso, reggae, soul. Whatever. To hell with purity. A creed the Numero guys firmly believe in. Their catalogue has some wonderful deviations beyond the funk and soul into folk, power pop, and what not. And yet if I was to pick a favourite it would have to be Glory Road by Fern Jones, a gorgeous slab of salvaged ‘50s gospel, hillbilly, rockabilly, swing, what you will. It’s the sort of thing I’ve been listening to a lot lately.
Looking at that row of 15 Numero Group CDs it’s hard to think of any other modern equivalents where things look so consistently right. I can’t recall collecting quite so avidly a label’s releases. And yet there are just 15 CDs in that row, ad that begs a question? What happened? What changed? Why the break? Why the change of heart? Why the end of a habit? Well, events drastically change lives. That comes up a lot in Alan Furst’s stories. Other things change as a result. That’s the way things are. Then when things like that happen, other things become more important, and matter all the more. Small gestures. Like someone unexpectedly saying thank you.
Once I wrote a few words, a pitifully few lines, about Fern Jones’ Glory Road, and her daughter got in touch to say thanks for writing about mum’s music. I thought that was lovely. It was also absurd. But it was a lovely gesture, and it got me thinking. We don’t say thank you often enough. I should have been the one saying thank you. To Fern’s family and particularly to the guys in the Numero Group; Tom Lunt, Rob Sevier, Ken Shipley and whoever is involved with the label. A huge thank you for making available rough and ready music which one hardly dared dream existed. Thank you for putting out these salvaged sounds in a form that is so beautifully right. It means a lot. Sitting looking at that line of CDs. Playing those CDs.
And, yeah, soon life will take another twist and turn, things will look up, and I’ll go out and get the rest of the Numero Group CDs, visit their website and take out a subscription. I need them. I want someone to look at my shelf and know I’m someone that’s gonna be alright. Because bad people do not get Eccentric Soul music. They don’t understand the beauty of those little CDs. What’s gone into them. The stories that they tell. The small gestures that have been made. The small gestures that matter so much.
Kevin Pearce, May 2008