Jackie Leven is the closest the UK is ever likely to get to Johnny Cash, and if you haven’t fallen prey to his charms yet, it’s about time you did. He’s the sound of dark folk clubs, the final measure of whiskey in the bottom of the bottle as the door closes on the last vestige of hope.
He might not be an oil painting, but his career has left a trail of under-appreciated, under-rated gems, from Celt punks Doll By Doll, through a vicious street attack that nearly left him unable to speak, to heroin addiction, to a solo career that has been ludicrously prolific even without the many additional fan club-only releases.
There are no surprises on Lovers At The Gun Club, Leven’s 14th official solo studio release, but when you’ve got a following as loyal as his, there’s no reason for any. He’s found his formula and what he does (dark, gravely, dirty folk) he does very, very well.
Recorded in Snowdonia rather than his native Scotland, this would be a fabulous album to listen to in the wilderness of any country. Vocals on the title track are sung by his ‘absinthe-drinking pal’ Johnny O’Dowd, who also helps out on Dent In The Fender And The Wheel Of Fate; Leven describes the opening song as’a psychosexual voodoo redneck tale’ – a description that would carry well over the whole album.
What follows is truly beautiful collection of songs, with Dent In The Fender… sparkling even brighter than normal amid the rough diamonds. Languid and dark, suffused with midnight weariness but impossible to ignore, it’s the type of music that might fool you into thinking it can be put on in the background but, once it’s there, will grab your attention and refuse to let go.
Tracks such as My Old Home should be all you need in life, if you’ve got any soul at all, while the delicate fragility of Woman In A Car defies anyone not to fall in love with it.
Long since freed from the need to make music for anyone other than himself and the loyal band of followers who want exactly what he’s peddling, Leven is free to indulge himself in such personal projects as To Whom It May Concern, a setting to music of the words of the late American beat poet Kenneth Patchen. He then hands the final track of the album over to another friend, David Childers, as a sampler of Childers’ own album, Called Or Not Called, The Gods Are Present.
All in all, the themes of Lovers At The Gun Club seem overtly American at times, swimming with US folk influences from the style of the music to the themes of the songs, despite references to such unmistakeable Britishness as Somerfield carrier bags and Sunderland fans. This enhances rather than diminishes it, though, enabling Lovers At The Gun Club to be held up and measured against the hardest, roughest-edged folk blues and heartfelt alt.folk you can name. Don’t worry: it more than holds its own.