Champion Things – Decline of the Adventure Playground
Contains strong language
Review by Paul Kane Sept 2019
I’ve been listening to and following Scream Blue Murmur for a many years. I tried to get to see them when I could live and liked them so much that I’ve booked them for live shows several times. I’ve also reviewed some of their previous recorded work including the instrumental album, one from a period of instrumental works, ‘Shankill Graveyard’.
I was interested in how this latest work would pan out. Effectively this is a new incarnation using the core of ‘Scream’, Gordon Hewitt aided and abetted by Wallace Gibson on sax and EWI, with Vic Bronzini Fulton offering a few additional instruments as well as co-producing. The material was recorded at Earth Music Studios.
On first listening, (then re-listening) I felt this was a return to the spoken word format I used to be familiar with in work from earlier years. Perhaps the reduction in musical personnel has freed Gordon Hewitt, given him some space to work his lyrics into. Perhaps he has more to talk about, more to say and to comment on. His themes and issues are of vital importance and they come wrapped up in a dub groove and augmented Middle Eastern rhythms and dystopian minor solos. T
There is a lot to talk about these days and not too many people are saying much of consequence, so I donned my headphones a third time to get the most out of this new work.
I do consider how this new format will play out in a live scenario, but that’s for a live review.
This album feels tighter than previous work, possibly as there is less instrumental work going on and a lot more freedom for rhythms to develop.
There are injected vocal arpeggios acting like musical breathers or musical commas, semi colons or full periods and therefore spoken word now plays a greater role.
Lyrics come in the form of the main vocal with backing vocals, sometimes dovetailing, sometimes providing additional musical interludes. Narration and observation play a key role in the scenarios with individual story lines acting as backdrops for larger and more complex issues.
Dust Bowl Children opens with honking sax and glistening guitar, breaking down to allow space for the spoken word narrative.
This could be about children all over the world, but for me it sang clearly of Syria initially, with the backing vocals ringing out like a call to prayer from a minaret. It might be equally valid for people from Latin and Central America working their way up to what they feel might be a new life in the US.
‘This little murder Gang’, Gordon sings lightly but with a weighty message of Child Soldiers. I see prepubescent youngsters with bullet belts and well worn Kalashnikov’s being railroaded into a loss of childhood and a life of horrific crime.
The title of course is reminiscent of the drought in the late 20’s and 30’s in the US where migrating working farmers suffered xenophobia (ironically they were all Americans!) and horrendous violence simply by trying to find a better life.
Opening up with a long intro into a punchy vocal riff then a secondary sax solo, lyrically it begins with a female protagonist and her life, its seems a life of close proximity, of claustrophobia.
I had initially thought this might have been about Selma or some of the other southern States in the 60’s but the reference to Dexy’s Midnight Runners puts us in the late 70’s and 80’s. Could it be Brixton? It could be anywhere in working class UK or Europe.
Vocals alongside backing vocals work as question and answer scenarios, reverbs and rhythms and delays act as memory signifiers, shifting in and out of past and present.
‘Sometimes you just to have to make that break’, the theme of leaving and moving is used here in a seemingly unrequited love scenario. This might be real or aspirational, we don’t know, but it motivates the sense of needing to move.
Although there are many different rhythms here, vocally it does remind me of a Gregorian chant blended with Sufi overtones, an almost transcendental form which is not unpleasant.
No Celebration (Life)
Taking time out, this lighter reggae dub intro leads us into the first time we here the main vocal singing. Without taking away from the vocal I did want this track to move somewhere musically, the static nature of the one key is understandable, possibly even measured to trap us and make us want a sense of movement as the title suggests.
We do a get a little breakdown almost right at the end, but it somehow feels too little too late. Perhaps it’s the musical metaphor for life.
Sun Brown King (Definitive Version)
I will be honest, when I saw 08.53 time frame, I was not sure what to expect.
We hear a dreamy vocal and sax combo, which feels self indulgent and lengthy and we hit almost a minute and a half before the vocal kicks in.
I try to get underneath this and work out what is going on; is this a story of social mobility? Is boxing, a way out of a ghetto? But the big players in the ring are not saying enough about the places they came from? Why not? What’s going on?
I feel like we’ve gone the full 12 rounds on this, is the ethereal vocal our fighter on the canvas looking up deliriously at the lights willing a flying towel to come visit? Or is it us.
Then it kicks in – life outside the ring is segregated, its hatred, its dehumanising. Time is struggle, its hard work but it’s for nothing, a smoke and mirrors celebrity which makes everyone else rich but the Boxer. He is seen in his later years in a wheel chair signing autographs for a dollar in Las Vegas.
‘I can see the Sun, feel it burn’.
Her Morning Walks
One of the more pop orientated tracks, it has some psychedelic overtones of Pink Floyd with striking eerie keyboard solos replacing previous sax work.
Its placement in the album does offer a sense of relief to some of the more meaty issues we’ve already been listening to.
No Celebration (Work) This second instalment of the trilogy starts with a solo bassline taking us into a haunting sax solo. This belies the lyrics which lament working zero hour contracts and feeling worthless, ‘They break your back against the stones, they make you feel like rag and bone’.
At 02.30, counter point solos of sax and trumpet eek out a similar musical conversation of loss and lack of love and eventually come together to sing the same tune. They seem in a camaraderie of drudgery.
All this against the relentless machine of the guitar and drums, the industrial machine ever turning, never resting, never caring.
The rimshot is like the ticking of a clock, marking time – this is indeed ‘no celebration, feels like I’m lacking love…’ its ends in what might be a death throe, with discordant key changes.
Her Morning Walks (Spoken Word Version)
This version takes on a Kate Bush feel evoking the track ‘Waking up the Witch’, not musically but in its use of spoken words and phrases to nudge listener along.
No Celebration (Play)
A contemplative and reflective piece, which, allowed me to look back on the album as a whole. The use of keys on solos, that helped with both the dynamic range of sounds but also felt more relaxed and less urgent. When the sax does come in its less harsh and filled with gentle reverbs and soft delays.
My only criticism is that I would have preferred lead vocals a little higher in the mix, I could be (and probably am, my hearing is not great, 35 years of playing in some heavy bands will do that) struggling at times to hear Gordon’s inflection as he machine gunned out a few lyrics.
As noted previously I would like to hear how this will be performed live, I always enjoyed the dynamism of a large number of musicians on stage, but I was always aware that from a cost, sound engineering and quite frankly space issue this was always going to be difficult to maintain.
I liked this work, it made me think. It married hooky musical lines with hard hitting words. I was glad to hear more of Hewitt’s spoken word, although at times not an easy listen, but that’s the point for me. These are not easy subjects and should not be swept away or easily forgotten.
In a time of stark political polarisation the poor always get poorer, and the marginalised become irrelevant. The time is right for work like this, but like its subject matter this album might too be made to take second place and may reach only those people who are already doing something about tackling the issues covered in the recording.
Thematically, it was about movement or lack of it. Movement of people, time, place and potentially, after listening, perspective. Well worth a listen.
The recording can be found at the link below