Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Stephen Cummings "Happiest Man Alive" (4*)

Having spotted The Sports Fair Game EP when it appeared as NME's Record Of The Week in 1977 I've been watching Stephen Cummings' career over the intervening thirty-five years with considerable interest. While The Sports attained a reasonably high profile, after the band broke up in 1981 Cummings went, more or less into stealth mode, releasing albums at regular intervals and maintaining an increasingly lower profile.

Sure, he had a habit of turning up on Channel Nine's Sunday program when there was a new album out, and there was, at one point, a social media presence that provided interesting reading as Cummings mused on various matters but that went belly up a while back (though he was back blogging at earlier this year), and I only learned of his most recent album (Reverse Psychology) in a passing reference.

Situations like that produce a visit to iTunes, and while you're there you tend to have a look at what else is there with a view to filling in any gaps in the collection, which is how I ended up catching Happiest Man Alive which had slipped by undetected or forgotten in 2008.

As his fourteenth collection of new material since 1984's Senso, Happiest Man Alive sees Cummings in what I'm inclined to refer to as cottage industry mode, cutting the tracks more or less on the fly over two days with long-term associates Bill McDonald and Billy Miller (The Ferrets) with a third day devoted to mixing the ten tracks.

There’s the usual Cummings acoustic philosophy on Love Is Space And Time, This Song Can Save You and What A Joy It Is To Dance And Sing (with the latter doing a bit of Brazilian samba) and Oh To Be Loved, a bit of a cynical snarl about the decline in political and economic integrity on Sick Comedian (What’s that? A television for a head) and You Know It All By Heart (But you don’t have a heart), the requisite literary references (Raymond Chandler and Edward Hopper, The Ballad Of Henry Miller) and by Straight To Your Arms and Don't You Ever Listen To Me? long term listeners will be in totally familiar territory. Lowlights and Trick Mirrors sounds like a reasonably upbeat way to wind things up until you take a listen to the words and come to the conclusion that it’s Cummings operating in his regular territory.

Acoustic guitar throughout, handclaps rather than drums (what was that line about everything sounding better with ‘em?) delivers a natural feel, as if you’ve got the outfit in the living room, and there’s a warmth to the performance that underlines Cummings’ standing as one of the better songsmiths out there.

Live performance, from what I can ascertain from third party sources, might be hit and miss, but whack him in a studio with a sheaf of material and a couple of players who know the way he works and in a day or two you’ve got  an intuitive observation of the world he meanders through.

Cummings is inclined towards regular announcements that his current recording will be the last (he followed this with Reverse Psychology, so I’m not suggesting he did so with this one four years back) and while that’s eventually going to come true, as long as he’s recording I’ll be queueing up to buy the results.

Provided, of course, I find out the latest one’s out there.

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