Caught by the River

Fair Lady London

Ian Preece | 19th January 2019

Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou’s fifth album Fair Lady London was released by the Maiden Voyage Recording Co. at the tail end of last year. Ian Preece reviews.

I can’t remember precisely what he said, but the last time I saw Trevor Moss, he was welcoming a sudden influx of folk into the Caught by the River tent at Port Eliot with a slightly barbed comment into the microphone about the unexpected turns life can take when you’re caught in a sharp downpour. (It made me laugh anyway.) Since then I imagine him reading John Braine and Shelagh Delaney and tearing along A-roads over the Sussex downs on an old Triumph Bonneville looking for hard-won truths and a decent beans on toast and cup of tea. On the back cover of the new LP there’s a great photo of Moss’s better half, Hannah-Lou, escorting him out of a rose garden in a seaside town – judging by the architecture: white-fronted flats, lots of glass and balconies – somewhere in England.

In truth the pair have, since that gig in the rain circa Expatriate, left London, moved to Hastings, brought a young son, Jesse, into the world, and recorded a new, stripped-back album of acoustic guitar and keyboard tunes, Fair Lady London. It’s easy, tempting and almost certainly too simplistic to read autobiographical details into the opening couple of songs: first, the title track with its wheezing vintage dulcitone and vaguely bitter lament about hard toil, broken dreams and promises – no more sun rising over Gypsy Hill, just an ever-fading memory of grey days from the pale and sunken city, home of the music industry. Then a gorgeous paean to their new surroundings, ‘When Spring Comes’, cormorants and herons flashing about in the ‘electric blue and ebony’, a beautiful guitar figure that sounds a bit like the Velvet Underground circa ‘Pale Blue Eyes’; a song to cling to for those of us who find the dark afternoons and long nights a trial. But as Bill Callahan once pointed out to an interviewer enquiring about the melancholy lives of all the characters in his sad songs: ‘They’re not all me, you know’ (or words to that effect). What Moss and Hannah-Lou excel at is short stories, fragments of lives glimpsed through a Super-8 lens. Later there’s ‘Johnny the Lightning’, struck down on his motorbike in a country lane, his fate seemingly sealed in a summer storm by the epithet sewn across the shoulders of his leather jacket by his mother’s own hand. Next time I look up when walking around London, glimpsing lonely lives in solitary lit windows at night, I’ll have ‘Minds on the Run’ looping round on the tape in my head. ‘Young man strides/With the confidence that comes/From knowing many things/Yet understanding none.’ You won’t find a better couplet offering such a fair summation of the mess of this world.

If you buy the record direct from the Anglophone Recording Company HQ on the south coast you get a DVD of Trevor Moss’s film of the making of the album: the Tascam 246 tape recorder–cum–portastudio being hauled in and out of Fairlight Hall in Hastings, all 14 takes of ‘Tie My Ribbons’ – which could be an ancient tale of woe from a modern-day No Roses – Moss playing the wrong chord, forgetting the words, hearing music upstairs, voices in the corridor, a helicopter and a lawnmower outside (Hannah, with masterful understatement and good naturedness says, ‘I’ll just pop outside. See where it’s coming from’), throwing his cap down in a rage, cusping on the edge of a cold, forgetting the words again, giving the album 4 out of 10 and explaining his thoughts on why he prefers to record in a room in a draughty-looking gothic Victorian mansion rather than a studio, everything captured in a breezy single take, where possible. (There’s also plenty of the nice stuff too: tea, cobs for lunch, Jesse in the car, great songs coming together, Dungeness in the misty distance, dogs wandering about, sharp editing.) All of which explains why Fair Lady London sounds more like the album before last, La Ferme de Fontenalle, recorded on the same 4-track tape recorder in a barn in Normandy, than its immediate predecessor, Expatriate. The music’s got a softer touch and is unadorned (Tom Clarkson supplies lovely double bass on a couple of tracks), but there’s still a great rawness and intimacy, all captured in the moment. The starkly beautiful ‘All in Good Time’ features Hannah mainly solo over electric piano/Dulcitone. It’s followed by ‘Tie My Ribbons’, and I think you can roll a tolley in a straight line back to classics of yore – ‘Allotment Song’, ‘England’, ‘These are Your Days’, ‘All Been for Nothing’, ‘Spin Me a Line’, ‘Feel at Ease’, ‘A Proud Surrender’ and ‘Arica Road’. ‘Everything You Need’ is a love song with a chilly denouement, Moss waking up alone in an empty bed ‘where I think I belong/Before you break free’, the listener reminded of the two old lovers in  ‘Two Strangers’ from La Ferme de Fontenalle sitting in silence in a café, ‘two cracks in the fading promenade’. But at the end of the day, despite all the hard work and fraught existential moments in Fairlight Hall (TM: ‘It’s only going to be heard by three people and a dog. What’s the point?’), Trevor sits on his front doorstep at the end and says, ‘It’s just a bunch of songs.’

At the launch party for Fair Lady London, on a boat on the Thames, Moss announced he’d written ‘I Could Break You’ for Hannah-Lou because he felt she wasn’t expressing herself enough! Everyone laughed. Hannah-Lou raised an eyebrow, threw him a look. 4 out of 10?! Serious contender for album of 2018, more like.