Caught by the River

Duncan Browne – Duncan Browne

1st September 2013


Duncan Brown’s 1972 LP- appreciated by Jack Sellen.

A ‘bromide’, in the context of language, is an excessively used expression that suggests “insincerity or a lack of originality”. It exists in this context because, as a consequence of a speaker’s unimaginative repetition, a state of drowsiness is induced in the listener in the same manner as brought about by the saline sedative from which its name is lent. Phonica Records, for example, prescribe a weekly overdose of bromides in their mail-outs by describing every other release as ‘essential’ or ‘killer’. The overuse of the adjectives dilutes their impact and my interest nods off.

You’ve also got ‘hidden gem’, ‘forgotten masterpiece’, and ‘long-lost treasure’, other clichés so casually applied to re-releases. The very wonderful Sunbeam Records though, I trust them, for they administer them sparingly and appropriately to their excellent series of folky re-presses. Despite this of course, such descriptions still remain completely subjective. Dreaming with Alice by Mark Fry a forgotten masterpiece? Yes, certainly to some. Morgen’s Morgen? Not on your nelly.

I found out the above meaning of ‘bromide’ by means of one of those wikiwanders you inadvertently go on, hyperlink to hyperlink, topic to topic. Herr Sebald would have loved it. I take the same kind of journey through Spotify on occasion, as a result of the ‘Related Artists’ function. It’s an unromantic path to new music discovery, but it works and it’s great. And so we arrive at the banal circumstances under which I came across Duncan Browne’s exquisite eponymous album. With regret, no, I can’t pretend I had jacked open an old filing cabinet in a skip outside Mickie Most’s RAK studios in St. John’s Wood to reveal the pristine master tapes. [How fitting that would be, given that the label was apparently named after ‘rackjobbing’, the practice of selling records in unusual places – thanks Wikipedia]. Somebody else had unearthed the tapes, I suspect in a much less exciting way, sometime around the turn of the millennium.

I was surprised to learn that the Duncan Browne album on Spotify wasn’t actually a Sunbeam re-release as I’d unwittingly assumed, since its story fits the bill: talented babyboomer from unremarkable family and unremarkable town excels in classical musicianship; flourishes under guidance of guru; witnesses Dylan on TV and guitar takes precedence; releases couple of superb albums which flop thanks to label and are subsequently lost; years pass; musician dies far too young; cult audience grows; master tapes finally exhumed and album resurrected to quiet applause.

The first of his two records mentioned above, Give Me Take You, has fostered much respect as a high quality artefact of late-sixties baroque folk, for its comparisons with Astral Weeks, its associations with Andrew Loog Oldham and the Immediate label; but it didn’t resonate in me anything like the degree to which his second album has. Duncan Browne is the record I think I was missing. Cap in hand, I now beg your forgiveness in employing one of those bromides: the album is a forgotten masterpiece.

As another writer notes it is indeed a continuation of his first album, as demonstrated by its predominantly ‘singer-songwriter’ format – well-crafted songs, attractive voice, unique guitar work, added embellishments. The difference is however evident in the ‘seventies warmth’ and ultimately better quality of its production, and (tasteful) synth additions are also a giveaway as to its period.

Country Song struck first – a simple song, but accompanied by intricate finger work – by reigniting my repressed (and probably futile) dream of quitting my job, returning to Purbeck, wedding my beloved and rearing a hundred beautiful Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls: “Back in the city / they’re working from nine to five / but out here in the country / it’s easy to be alive”. Exotic Over The Reef, and rockier Journey (which was in fact an unusual hit), inspire travel to more distant isles.

A couple of tracks have a streak of charmingly odd humour through them that rouses curiosity. If fellow thespian Johnny Flynn had never heard engaging track The Martlet in his formative days I’ll eat my hat. The intriguing Babe Rainbow, with darker lyrics, chugs along in a menacing kind of way thanks to some jazzy keyboard. I can picture it as the soundtrack to a League of Gentlemen-esque tragi-comic puppet show for some uninvited reason.

Others exhibit a startling sense of what the Portuguese call saudade. My Old Friends, a sweet love-letter to male companionship, chimes with my own recent reflections on growing both up with and apart from my mates. Its yearning sentiment is reminiscent of another great platonic love song, Debris, soul man Ronnie Lane’s touching tribute to his pa.

Piano ballad Cast No Shadow, cosmic song of loss My Only Son and bonus track In a Mist, a tale of an early, doomed relationship, are patently emotive. The guitar in the latter two tracks clearly demonstrates how Browne’s classical influences and dexterity elevate his songs to a higher level. His performances are as assured as they are adroit.

“Winter here / is so severe / the birds have all dug holes”, reports Browne in The Martlet. So too felt that dark season for me this year. It affected me; got in me. I had arrived at a juncture at which I realised that that childlike invulnerability with which we have all been blessed had suddenly waned in me, as though the vim and the vigour had been spiked with their own heavy dose of bromide salts. The openness with which Browne airs his grievances on this record – his age at the time was about the same as mine now – has done much to brighten my spirits, though, time and again. It remains an antidote to those tranquillisers. It confides: “It’s okay to feel introspective or glum now and then pal, as long as you share how you’re feeling.” So that’s what I’ve done.

I’d put a mix together for my Mixcloud page to showcase the album alongside similar artists but it didn’t really work – why undermine it? The 2002 EMI release (with the bonus tracks) is available through all the most obvious channels, including of course here on Spotify. Hopefully Browne’s wife and son benefit from new purchases. Vinyl copies of the LP can be picked up from eBay or Discogs for a fair price now and again.