Joe Martin - Empty Passenger Seat
In some ways Joe Martin is the Paul Weller of UK Americana - he left his band Fitzwallace when they were at their peak, They may not have written "Going Underground" but they were a live band that never disappointed and the easy option would have been to continue playing with them. Instead Joe set off down a different path entirely, one that his former colleagues were probably not equipped to follow and if further proof were needed it comes in the shape of his debut studio album "Empty Passenger Seat"
It's an album that is the culmination of five years worth of effort - some of these songs have been squirrelled away for some time, waiting for their day in the sun and that day has well and truly arrived.
It is the title track that opens the album which is very much about the journey which Joe has embarked on
Opening to a strumming acoustic guitar, with some electric guitar adding to the background sound, the unseen day to day grind is laid out bare
"Big city lights are shining down on me
Different ones from yesterday
And although they don't spell my name
I know that they will some day"
A simple 4 line set up that establishes a great deal of character detail about who this song is about before we have barely started.
A short loud flourish on the guitar then introduces one of the prominent sounds on the whole record - a drum sound that seems to defy all expectations, one that will power its way through, to drive the song on relentlessly.
"Drinking all the backstage beer - trying to drown out your tears
Now its been a long time since I been home, God it feels like a years
Forgive me for my confusion - I got so the rock 'n' roll delusion
Now its taken its toll and it's catching up with me"
A further four lines and our opening sketch is filled out further - the travelling musician looking for the break, starting to live the lifestyle which includes being young free and single - leaving a relationship behind.
It gets to the point that doubt starts to creep in.
"Got my foot to the floor going nowhere fast
Don't see how I can make this last
Was convinced that my life be complete - beside an empty passenger seat."
Compared to normal, Joe's voice is perhaps at the lower end of its usual spectrum - the reasons for this become demonstrably clear as things develop.The second verse sees the sound ramp up considerably and Joe's vocals move up the scale- the lifestyle now seems ever less glamorous
"Another service stop - another train to hop"
and the decisions of earlier on are looking a little hasty and ill conceived.
"But I think of you to try to keep me sane"
The chorus this time round as mentioned earlier sees the the word "Seat" elongated and sung at volume to almost lung busting proportions. After a short return to a more acoustic sound for what seems to be an effective apology / confession that he has been wrong - Joe masterfully brings things full circle - with the lead character making a realisation
"Now I know my life won't be complete - with an empty passenger seat". - the journey only being worthwhile if you have someone to share it with.
"High Gravity" is exhilarating, it has a punchy driving drum beat, joined by an array of jangly guitars that gives this slice of Americana a distinctly British pop feel to it. Joe's vocal on this track reminds us a little of a latter day Nick Heyward, and the attention to detail on the backing vocals are signs of a man who is steeped in pop history.
Very much set the day after the night before with Joe in a somewhat dazed state, though clearly after a good night out.
"Empty bottle on my floor - a number written on my hand
I don't know who the numbers for, and I won't try to pretend"
The "High Gravity" of the song referring to the strength of the beer that had put him into this state and doubling up to describe that hangover feeling
"I don't know why I do the things I do to me
It's like I'm glued to the bed - hearing voices in my head
Saying it's always one too many rounds
Now that high gravity keeps holding me down"
Many will fully concur with the sensations described in the second verse, the price to be paid for a good night!
"Broken sunlight through the blinds
When did night turn into day?
Memories like shattered pieces in my mind
I could put them back together but it won't matter anyway"
Things slow down in pace for "Born To Die Young" - but if anything the intensity is ramped up - it may be all acoustic guitars to start with and Joe's vocal are quite softly sung but the subject matter is quite heavy
"What a way to say goodbye
You went out like a star in a blue sunrise
So fast so soon but it was no surprise
Cause you were fighting the devil that you kept inside"
Many of Joe's songs may be a songwriters fictional twist on actual events however this one is rooted in reality - the chorus spells it out - Joe all but fires out each line with a high level of passion in his vocals - a mixture of frustration tinged with the understanding that this was a tragedy always destined to happen
""You were born to live fast and die young
Wild and free having fun
You'd sing a song to make 'em cry
Make 'em believe almost any lie
Crazy heart aiming high
You always drank the bottle dry
I tell myself when I wonder what went wrong
You were born to die young"
Punchy yet at the same time incredibly tender - one of many stand out performances on the record.
The "Way I Need You" is written in such a way that it almost feels like we are eavesdropping by even listening to it. There are elements that are universal though - with Joe's narrator expressing his frustration that he cannot provide the lifestyle that he would like for his partner.
"Sorry ain't enough - You can't pay the bills with love"
Once again it contains fantastic inventive drumming while Joe's ever rising vocals alone are spectacular.
The closing chorus contains a magnificent vocal performance.
"I want to be the man you're proud of in the end
So I'm never letting go and I need you to know
I've never needed someone - More than the way I need you now"
The next song "Want You To Stay" is one of the most unique tunes of recent times, co written with Lisa T & Gary Quinn each has played it live, which is a testament to how good they think it is - and strangely each seem have their own slightly different vision of who the characters involved are. Played out to a classic country ballad tune, with a prominent organ sound, some of the facts are irrefutable. Two people are in a bar, a drink or two has been taken, there is a certain frisson in the air and the decisions made in the upcoming minutes could have profound effects on the rest of their lives.
"It's getting late - what are we doing here?
Each shot we shoot down - is slowly bringing me round
To seeing things way more clear"
The chorus beautifully spells things out
"One careless word is all it will take
We both know the rules, both know what's at stake
So please turn away,
Cause I can feel myself losing control
I want you to stay
So I'm gonna need you to go"
The song fits a number of scenarios which explains why each of it's writers may have a slightly different interpretation of the characters involved - the masterstroke is that the tension is wratcheted up to almost unbearable levels - the taxi outside is waiting and a decision must be made
"Missed calls on your phone - your taxi's outside
Are you going home or staying the night?"
However we are left on a cliffhanger and will never know - full kudos all round to all involved on one of the finest songs that UK Americana has produced in recent years.
"Fell For A Dream" is duet sung with it's co writer Harriet. where we get two sides of a relationship clearly not working.
First we hear from Joe
"To think of all the love I've Iost and all the years that I gave to you
The price I paid's not worth the cost, the flowers I bring you they never bloom"
Then from Harriet
"It's getting later every time - I stay up waiting for the night to end
No idea where you've been or who you've seen - But I give in again"
Both agree "This was never how it was it was meant to be"
"Smoking & Crying" is another duet this time with Katy Hurt who helps the listener perfectly visualise the person Joe is singing about. It is the one song on the record not written in any way by Joe however the strong narrative makes it an ideal companion piece. The song has Joe as the observer of events, watching teetering on the edge of becoming involved yet ultimately deciding against it. It's a tragedy plausibly being played out in many small towns across America.
"She don't have to go too far to figure out that she's dying"
Sound wise it feels instinctively as if it is just Joe and his guitar along with Katy, so compelling is the narrative while equally so subtle and effective is the additional backing tat it seamlessly adds the atmosphere without you even noticing.
"Money For The Needy" is something that Joe simply excels at - it's a circular song of sorts that takes us on a spiralling journey of one man's descent all plausibly presented. Beginning with Joe as the narrator being confronted by a homeless man
"Money for the needy - you need to hear my story - I was a man like you not too long ago"
He is quickly brushed off "I didn't need to give more kindness to be happy" thinks Joe.
How quickly a persons life can unravel is very realistically brought home, first his job goes, then the family, then the house gradually slip through his fingers as alcohol becomes his only crutch.
Joe holds the listeners attention with the story and his acoustic guitar however there is a wailing pedal steel and sympathetic percussion that provide atmospheric support. This really is top class songwriting of the highest degree.
"Crocodile Tears" once again shows how well Joe's releases are lyrically crafted, there is always likely to be a moment where you have to stand back and admire his work
"She'll lecture me on how to live my life
Then stab me with that "moral-high-ground-knife"
To watch me bleed with a hypocritical smile"
is not the sort of eloquence you come to expect in any three minute song.
The song finds Joe in a quandary - he would see his needs as relatively simple
"I don't need too much in a woman - just someone who cares to love me - like they should do
Oh I need her in my arms, instead I find myself alone and lately I've been talking to her answerphone"
yet the object of those affections is less than ideal.
"Oh her high maintenance keeps wearing me down
And her lies, about who she's seeing around this town
Causes me to wonder why, I ain't already said "goodbye"
and keep falling for those Crocodile Tears she cries"
It is that dilemma that drives the song - the internal battle between knowing you are being mistreated and abused and hating feeling that way, against the stark reality of having no-one at all - and so even when he does protest - it is done with the knowledge that he will once again cave, if she starts to cry.
"Oh let me tell you something baby
I ain't standing for the way you been treating me lately
Oh her eye are staring into someone elses now
and she tries to deny it when I ask her"
Musically this is pure Americana, a solid drum beat joins Joe's acoustic guitar however it is CJ Hillman's pedal steel that is loudest and proudest at the front of the mix that drives and really rocks this tune.
This is an album that showcases perfectly Joe Martins writing and performing talents, "Empty Passenger Seat" stands alongside and in many cases above, much hitting our inbox out of Nashville at present - it deserves your attention.