This album has been a long time coming. I’ve been friends with Rob Wheaton for the best part of thirty years; and heard many of his songs – enough for a boxed set in fact! Yet apart from recording with various bands over the years, his remarkable solo work has been unfortunately largely unreleased until now.
A Dagenham lad, now based in Devon, Rob has a broad range of influences and enjoys playing many genres of music; including many forms of Folk, Rock, and Blues, etc. He has been a member of many bands over the years including Dragon’s Playground; Farrow; Trousers; and after moving to Devon a few years ago, Folk band Devonbird. He is now a member of a new Devon-based unit, Fairmile, who played their debut gig recently; and about whom I may write soon.
But it was high time that he got himself into the studio to lay down his own stuff; and that’s where producer Mark Tucker of The Green Room comes in. This is the man responsible for the two excellent Devonbird albums on which Rob played and contributed (see my review of their second album #71). And his work with Rob on his solo project has once again, been superb.
The album opens with the title track ‘Tomorrow’s World 1978’. It was written by Rob a few years ago, and I have had the pleasure of playing it with him a few times in acoustic clubs in Devon. It deals with the issue of what was predicted for the future back in ’78: ie, the optimism that largely hasn’t been realised today. He describes it as ‘a deeply ironic song… written from the perspective of someone back in 1978 who looks forward to a time, maybe four decades in the future, when the world will be a much better place’. Its a light rock song with a comprehensive lyric and a catchy chorus. There are some nice complimentary keyboards on this one with some fine rhythm guitar.
Next is ‘Valley Song’. Over two years ago I visited Rob at his place overlooking the beautiful Ax Valley in Devon. We sat on his deck on the warm summer evening, and he handed me a beer, picked up his Fylde acoustic and told me that he’d just written a new song. He began to play, and I could immediately see how and why ‘Valley Song’ had been conceived. As I listened, the song seemed to belong to the valley as much as it belonged to Rob himself. I’ve heard him play it live a few times and always enjoyed it; but I wasn’t prepared for the very high quality of the finished master track when I heard it. It has been expertly crafted by Rob and Mark. The Uilleann Pipes were totally unexpected; hitting me with their eerie primal sound, that just seems so perfectly appropriate. It is a beautiful song that you can really drift away to. It is lyrically highly personal to Rob of course – about him finally escaping ‘the clamour of the city’ and chilling out in the beautiful West Country ‘where I want to be’ – but anyone can relate to it; and that is one of its many strengths. It is musically very satisfying too, with a lot of very good interwoven layers of guitar work (as you’d expect from Rob) that enhances, but never dominates the sound. I love it – but it sets the bar very high for the rest of the album…
‘Stardust’ was one of only two songs in the collection that I hadn’t previously heard in anything like a finished form. Rob did send me a very early instrumental recording of the track some time ago which I thought was OK, but I was totally struck by the final master from the opening bars because it had morphed into something quite special. It is a Psychedelic number inspired both musically and lyrically by the wonders of the universe; and conceived when Rob was just doodling with his 12-string Ricky through a delay pedal – one of those unexpected songs that seem to write themselves I suppose. He describes it as ‘…a piece of psychedelic fun on a cosmic theme’. There are some lovely guitar FX on this one that really appeals to me. Great bass too.
‘One Night Stand’ is a song that Rob wrote some time ago but recently resurrected for the album. Again, I knew it, and thought it was good, but the finished master has shown it to be an exceptional piece of work. The addition of the melodeon (courtesy of none other than Jim Causley) has given it a Continental/Parisienne feel; and there are some tasty Blues licks going on in the background too, yet as in other songs on this album, the guitar does not dominate it. Lyrically, it is about the shallowness and dissatisfaction of a casual sexual encounter – something that many of us can relate to.
‘Essex Song’ is another favourite of Rob’s live set, and another that I’ve played with him. It’s a good rocker about Rob’s upbringing in a nameless town ‘by a big car factory on the banks of the Thames’ – you can guess where! But the title is something of a misnomer, as that town is now part of Greater London and I must say thankfully, doesn’t represent most of the county of Essex! Guitar driven, with atmospheric harmonica, but unusually with a twin harmonised fiddle solo by Sophia Colkin of Devonbird. Great stuff.
‘Paddington’ is the other song that I’d previously not heard – in any form at all. It is strange how life is full of coincidences. Rob moved to Devon some years ago without realising until recently that his great great grandfather was born and worked only a few miles from where he now lives. But whereas Rob was lured willingly to the county, his ancestor was forced by financial and social pressures to leave it, and go to live in London’s Paddington Green area. This song then is about the plight of rural workers moving to the squalor of the metropolis at the height of the Industrial revolution. It is a Folky song with a menacing vibe describing ‘the regimental beat of the hammer’. It is fairly short (cut down from an original longer version); lyrically poignant, and cleverly worded. Jim Causley plays on this one too.
‘Jonathan’s Song’ is probably one of the most beautifully sad songs that I’ve ever heard. Jonathan Turner was an old friend of Rob’s from way back. He was a fine musician and song-writer; and ran a recording studio in Wales. Unfortunately he’d been suffering from Muscular Dystrophy since the age of 13, and his health slowly declined until inevitably he passed away. Shortly before his death, Rob was playing with Devonbird quite near to Jon’s home, but he was at that time too ill to attend the gig. So the band went to Jon’s house to play just for him. Soon after this he passed away and Rob wrote this wonderful tribute to his dear friend. It is another song that although inspired by Rob’s highly personal feelings, would appeal to any listener – especially one who has lost a friend or loved one. It has a hauntingly beautiful keyboard-enhanced rhythm guitar part, complimented by a lovely solo on a classical acoustic.
‘Christmastide’ is perhaps a little ill-fitting with the rest of the album – being specifically seasonal. In fact Rob’s intention was to release the album before last Christmas, but unforeseen delays dictated otherwise. No matter anyway. Its a traditionally styled Folk song both musically and lyrically, but well arranged, and a joy to hear. Again, Sophia of Devonbird was the obvious choice to play fiddle on it. A nice touch is that she is mentioned in the lyric as well as Kath Bird (also of course of Devonbird). Rob tells me that it could be released as a single later in the year.
All of these songs are thoughtfully crafted; musically satisfying and lyrically thought provoking, with some innovative features and a few surprises. Vocals are good, with some well planned harmonies. I shouldn’t be surprised by Rob’s work because I know his musical abilities well, yet even so, I am often still pleasantly surprised with what he comes up. I suppose I should expect the unexpected!
The CD version comes in a standard Jewel Case with superb original cover art by Rob’s friend, artist Connor Sheehan. It illustrates the opening line of the chorus to the title track of course – ‘We’ll be driving round in hover cars’. It is reminiscent of 70s concept album cover art, so I warmed to it immediately! The booklet contains credits and thanks etc, but no lyrics – not a problem though, as Rob’s vocals are very clear throughout. It will be available at gigs or direct from Rob’s website (check for release date); and eventually from CD Baby and iTunes.
I can’t speak too highly of this album – but even if I didn’t know Rob personally I’d be singing its praises. My only disappointment is that with only eight songs it is rather too short – I can think of a good dozen or more of Rob’s songs that could easily have been included, but I know he is too highly critical of his own work – I’ve told him! In fact he told me that a ninth song was jettisoned at the last minute because he wasn’t totally happy with it. If you appreciate good song-writing; intelligent lyrics; innovative arrangements and great guitar work in a variety musical genres, then you’ll enjoy this album very much. Long overdue – yet well worth the wait! PTMQ