Even before a note was heard it is fair to say we were fascinated with the idea and story behind The Birthday Poems, the recent new album from Chris Connelly and Monica Queen. It is a collection of tracks creating the fictionalized account of the romance between celebrated Scottish poet and author George Mackay Brown and his muse Stella Cartwright and also embracing her friendship with Edinburgh born poet Stanley Roger Green; a story spanning three decades until Stella’s tragic and untimely death in 1985. It is also a release offering up songs that as firmly captured the imagination in sound, diversity and enterprise as the album did in theme and poetic word.
The record sees the ever adventurous creativity of Connelly who from his early days with FiniTribe has crafted a host of solo encounters and collaborated with the likes of Ministry, The Revolting Cocks, Pigface, Cocksure and The Joy Thieves uniting with the inimitable vocal presence of Queen who fronted 90s band Thrum and released 2 introspective albums with partner John Smillie as Tenement & Temple. Within The Birthday Poems she gives a voice to Stella across certain tracks, bringing greater drama and beguilement to music and invention which alone made the record a swiftly enthralling incitement.
Produced by 30-year Connelly collaborator Chris Bruce (Meshell Ndegeocello) and featuring strings by Dave Eggar and sax by Levon Henry, as well as contributions by Blake Collins and Phil Faconti, The Birthday Poems is rich in historical captivation and intrigue to the lives it explores. Indeed it took a couple of listens to fully absorb the richness of the release, so much to absorb in sound and word simultaneously as well. Even now play after play offers up fresh nuances and insights into the people involved in story and creation, the moments of lone words and poetry as provocative as the multi-flavoured songs around them.
My Father Took Me Everywhere opens up the exploration, the track immediately enticing keen attention with its rhythmic shuffle and swarthy melodic sighs. With a darker edge added by the bass and a seductive melancholic hue resonating around Queen’s magnetic presence, the song captivated in swift time, the organic drama of voice and music ensuring a tightening of captivation and imagination.
The stunning start is just as potently followed by the jazzy noir lit reflections of Stella, Stan & Dostoevsky, Connelly as descriptive in lyric of the album’s female protagonist as the animated sounds around him are of her artistic appetite and those of whom she was instinctively pulled towards. It is a piece of avant-garde enterprise already revealing the array of sounds and invention within the walls of The Birthday Poems, adventure further pushed by the rhythmically skittish, indie pop/post punk sculpted A Minor Hoolie and in turn, after the evocative prose of Cigarettes At Dawn, the folk punk/post punk majestic A Maze Amongst The Tenements. The first is an irresistible lure of contagion and creative dexterity and the last a triumphant roar of passion and sound with a PiL-esque confrontation. Both tracks gripped the passions yet between them the expressive words and breath of Queen stood as enthralling in presence and narrative.
The folk/pop swing of Tae The Poets ensured attention was as firmly held as ever, it too bearing a punkish, slight Skids like hue at times before the atmospheric poetry and surrounding haunted sounds of What Strangeness Of Light & Dark courted thought and contemplation and The Lowland Fulcrum caressed the senses with its twin musing between Connelly and Queen within an equally cerebrate sound, one with a definite Bowie like seduction at times and a bass saunter to devour.
From the fifties crooner flirting A Rain Soaked Idyll, the emotive drama of A Phantom Marriage with its gripping strings and haunting breath, and the even more atmospherically and emotively stirring O Blessed Saint Magnus, the album took us even deeper into the relationship and pure intensity of the relationships behind its inspirations. Similarly the likes of The Poet Herself with its theatrical bearing and plaintive cry and the beautifully dolorous A Desolate Spell only added greater depth to story and fascination not forgetting pleasure.
Being eighteen tracks thick we may have expected moments to slip by without making a particularly strong impression in relation to other tracks but such void never came; Let Us Be Hushed a vocal echo of the written word and the love that soaked its ink and the following My Heart Is A Plough On This Wilderness Field a weave of descriptive verse bringing stark land, cold atmosphere and honest heart to bear on ears. Both simply seized the moment and senses, success as ably sprung by the alluringly tenebrific Smiler Wi’ A Knife and the album’s title track, a final letter in love and reflection for Stella which draws all the drama, power and emotion of the album into one striking moment.
With From A Dreamer’s Shore completing the spellbinding exploration, The Birthday Poems is an experience of sound and rumination all should consider. It is a history lesson on lives we should know more about in a tapestry of sound, imagination and craft echoing the world they lived in as well as a spotlight on the same within Chris Connelly and Monica Queen and their creative individuality.
The Birthday Poems is out now via Jnana Records; available @ https://chrisconnellyjnana.bandcamp.com/album/the-birthday-poems
Pete RingMaster 09/09/2021
Copyright RingMaster Review