If an artist of the nature of Craig Davies were to surface today, he would earn superlative plaudits for his eclecticism and genuine verve. As it was, he emerged into the flashing strobes of the late '80s, when you couldn't give singer/songwriters away. Everything that didn't begin with an 'e' was passe, hedonism was all, and introspection was a dirty habit best indulged in behind closed doors. His two Rough Trade albums are rare escapades, forays of excellence into enduringly unique territory.
Bedsitter maladies with attitude and vigor. His earnest efforts didn't trouble the charts. Possessed of a strangely flexible and beguiling voice, a troubadour out of time, and a far from conventional one, he was akin to Johnny Ray on a Bolan/Bowie turn, with New Orleans Blues and a liberal sprinkling of Tom Waits. He didn't have a niche, whereas he'd these days garner the same respect as the Devendras, Antonys, and Wainwrights of both gender. As it was, he gathered polite disinterest. Like Narcissus, his debut, features the talents of Ben Watt (Everything But the Girl) as guitarist, and Pentangle legend Danny Thompson on double bass. It is as unusual as such a pairing implies. Part Beefheart, at times Screaming Jay Hawkins, it casts strangely widening shadows of reference. Superbly executed but not exactly commercial, it is a record which remains rewarding to those who'll locate a copy, if only to luxuriate in the stunning delight that is "Jennifer Holliday." A major classic of refined longing, and an attempt to understate the intensity of a new love's stirring, the song has a timeless classicism and stands as one of the most dignified singles of any era. Cross Jobriath's masterpiece "Inside" with Japan's achingly spooked "Ghosts" and you're almost home, enveloped in piano, cello and a certain eloquence.
"I would love to know you Jennifer / What's your favorite word, / I like Ocelot, Lilly and Nectarine, first, second and third. / My you look so goddamn pretty / You set my butterflies free / I love you Jennifer Holliday / Won't you love me. "
Thanked on the inner sleeve is one Damon Gough, then not (as now) a Badly Drawn Boy, but the runner at the studio who made the tea and sandwiches. Davies was teaching him guitar. At a gig at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall some years ago, Gough covered one of Davies's songs. He remembers that he got the words wrong, but a compliment it remains, and an example of how the world stumbles along, strange and unpredictable. Groovin' on a Shaft Cycle, his second album, released in 1990, was the perfect backdrop to Davies and his songcraft. Produced by Gareth Sager (of the Pop Group, Rip Rig & Panic, and Head), it is a deft masterstroke from beginning to end.
The selection kicks off with the swaggering, slithering "Angelica Divine," which wears elements of Orange Juice with a breathlessly impassioned vocal of which the late Billy MacKenzie would have been justifiably pleased. "Chrome Sweet Chrome" sounds like campfire Bowie a la Hunky Dory, but with the title track's arrival one has a dollop of pure dirty glam-funk. It prowls from the speakers like some angry eloquent beast with ears to claim. "The Only Rose on Marigold Street" is seemingly a Smiths song by another's hand, delivered with all the romantic, quavering passion Davies can muster. A lovely and very melancholy baby. His voice has a deliciously unique yelp, and ensnares the listener in a world of impassioned sorrows. "Another Rock 'n' Roll Song" suggests vintage Bolan in posthumous collaboration with Devendra Banhart, whilst "Waltz" is one of those sad country wanders so latterly mastered by the late Elliott Smith.
"Boogie?" is like the Rolling Stones in "Start It Up" vein with a T.Rex vibe and Steve Harley vocal, a dizzyingly collision of inferences. It screams out to be a single, but here it lies. On "Since You Touched My Heart," Davies displays all his vocal sensibilities over a beautifully understated violin track. An exercise in simplicity, sophistication and subtlety, it packs an eloquent punch. "Sugar Cane and Seas" comes over as an achingly louche affair, Bowie meets Patrick Wolf, but "I'll Be With You" is almost FM rock; near phantoms of Lynyrd Skynyrd boogie prevail, but the warm sophistry of the vocal pulls it in another direction. On "Gladhill," a delightful, pure sketch of a song, Costello and Sylvian in suburbia, where they bemoan their mutual lots of loss in this timeless shard of sublimated melancholia.
Proceedings are all too soon brought to a curtain fall with the dramatic finale of Brel's "Amsterdam." On this Davies displays the real power and range of his exceptional voice. It throws into sharp relief the fact that the rest of the album has been a perfect essay in restraint, dramatic and brooding; it is only here he gives full sail to his dramatic tones. Few artists could have resisted such a temptation in the course of a record. Groovin' on a Shaft Cycle is a collection that leaves you in need of a second helping. Sadly Davies fell victim to Rough Trade's much publicized financial miseries of the time. He wasn't dropped, more forgotten about as other problems ensued. Things improved, but his eclecticism was even more out of fashion than when they'd first signed him, and the relationship ebbed. That they permitted him to record when his efforts went so obviously against the grain of the time shows a rare integrity. Lucinda Williams stands as another example of the label's long-sightedness in talent over trends.
About a decade ago, Davies surfaced once more in the short-lived Pan, a band who could have taught Suede more then they ever knew about harnessing Bowie references. They seemed destined for greatness, but things fell apart, and it is only recently that Davies has returned to the studio. He has lost none of his considerable prowess, and that difficult third album now looms deliciously near. He recalls doing an impromptu duet at a record label bash with fellow Rough Trade maverick Victoria Williams. He decided upon"'The Circle Game'," a song he was surprised to find that she didn't know. An impromptu rehearsal gave scant reference to the hurried nature of their collaboration. It remains a shame they never took their collaboration to a recorded level. Craig Davies is ready for another sojourn and deserves wider recognition this time around. Given the poise of "Dancing the Overkill," there seems little, apart from the rotten-ness of luck, to suggest that he won't find finer favor. In rare voice, he no longer sounds at odds with prevailing trends, and his talent remains bold, romantic, and unique, a source of honest pleasure. There are no happy endings, only new beginnings to old stories. Sit back and enjoy the gradual unveiling of these sure and special tales.