Thursday, September 10, 2009

Keep Singing Out

The BBC has greatly improved its coverage of music festivals, but for some reason has not yet worked out that nobody watching wants the music to be interrupted by intensely irritating hosts either telling us what we’ve just seen or informing us what they are about to broadcast. However, it is still worth enduring their inane conversation and cheesy grins, as now and again a new artist comes along and forces people to sit up and take notice. Such was the case with the Reading Festival two years ago when Get Cape Wear Cape Fly delivered a life changing set of fresh, vibrant songs.

Get Cape Wear Cape Fly is not a band, just a young singer-songwriter of immense talent called Sam Duckworth. The somewhat cumbersome, but rather brilliant, name was taken from an article in a computer magazine. The name was deliberately eye-catching, combining the innocence and enthusiasm of youth with the probability of dashed dreams, but according to Duckworth was also “about breaking out of the preconceptions of the broken-hearted songwriter vibe”. With a moniker taken from a computer game, as you might expect, Duckworth is very much a modern social commentator, leading a charge against consumerism, racism and other injustices.

"Suits you, sir"

He certainly isn’t a songwriter that sticks to a standard formula and isn’t easy to pin down to one genre, as his music is an eclectic mix of folk, indie, emo and electronica – folktronica, if you will. He comes across like a modern day troubadour, armed with an acoustic guitar and a trusty laptop to provide the backing sounds. As homemade electronic beats pour out of his Mac, Duckworth furiously strums his guitar, successfully combining classical folk music with modern technology. His computer also provides added instrumentation of strings, keyboards and even a trumpet, helping to give each song a separate identity. It’s amazing how the addition of some subtle keyboards or a drum and bass breakbeat can turn a good composition into a great one.

The resulting songs are confident, even abrasive, as if he has a full band behind him. This might not be what you would expect from one man with an acoustic guitar, but it makes total sense once you realise that Duckworth’s roots lie in punk. For him, the influence of the punk scene is strong in terms of its social ethics, empowerment and attitude. The music might not have the punk sound, but it has the same “have a go” approach: “I don’t really know how the music happens. I just fumble around until it sounds good”. However he does it, the music is somehow mixed together in an original and refreshing way to produce something very special – an astonishing blend of the raw and the cooked.

"You say you want a revolution"

Fuelled by more than his fair share of teenage angst, his lyrics are largely heartfelt socio-political commentary, documenting the ills of ignorance, apathy and prejudice, which has resulted in the rather trite tag of “protest singer”. This caped crusader’s songs might not change the world, but he would “like to be remembered for making people aware that you can make a difference”. He is no old-fashioned folk polemicist, though Woody Guthrie’s famous guitar sticker, “This machine kills fascists”, would somehow be just as appropriate on Duckworth’s laptop. No, he is just as likely to write songs about being a reckless teenager, mixing intimate reflections with lighthearted humour.

Inevitably, comparisons have been made to 80s music legend, Billy Bragg, given they both play folk-influenced indie music and share a delight in articulate, passionate lyrics. Desperate to put wrongs right, they both still bring together the political and the personal. They have an Essex background in common, but their approach is more like a generic English brand of introspection - an everyman spirit with good intentions. Duckworth’s rasping vocals do have a very (southern) English sound that bears a passing resemblance to Bragg, but for me his voice is also a bit like the young Paul Weller. At times his intonation has the untrained, busker-like quality of Badly Drawn Boy, but that only adds to the overall appeal.

"Put your hands up for Southend"

Certainly, Get Cape’s debut album Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager contains enough social conscience to bring a smile to Bragg’s face, such as the anti-consumerism diatribe about the threat of globalisation in the eponymous track “Get Cape Wear Cape Fly”, which is hardly surprising coming from a Fairtrade supporter: “And you decide/If it's worth having their blood on your hands/Just to wear the latest Nikes/Open your eyes/As you don't need to buy it”. A similarly beguiling effort on the same theme is “Whitewash is Brainwash”, again rich in thought-provoking lyrics wrapped in a gentle melody, a rant about reality television and global corporations: “I went to Ikea today/It didn't change my life/Yet everyone in my street is going Scandinavian”. Duckworth rams the message home by shouting into a tiny megaphone (yes, I know, but trust me – it works). In “Call Me Ishmael”, he bemoans the soul-destroying, 9 to 5 existence of many tedious jobs, urging people to follow their dreams, perhaps inspired by the wandering sailor in Moby Dick: “You are not your job/And you are not the clothes you wear/You are the words that leave your mouth/So speak up, speak up loud”.

Having been racially attacked in a pub by a supporter of the BNP for the "crime" of being half-Burmese, Duckworth became an avid supporter of the Love Music Hate Racism campaign, writing “Glass Houses” about the experience: “You say/Go find yourself a new home/But isn’t it infantile/To consider yourself the judge/Of someone's rights/To start a better life today?” As he says, everyone in Britain is from immigrant blood at some stage, so prejudice is a ridiculous concept. The music on this track is particularly affecting with soft, almost African harmonies overlaying a tasteful piano intro before making way for shuffling beats and a rising chorus.

"I could build you a tower"

Much of this debut chronicles the last two years of Duckworth’s life when he gigged extensively around Britain, writing songs on buses and trains, getting drunk with new friends and crashing on their floors: “the whole feel of the album was songs I’d been playing on the road, songs I’d been writing on a laptop just trying to capture a moment and an energy”. One of the hardest working musicians around, Duckworth at least lived up to his stage name with his superhuman will to get to any show, which he refers to in “Chronicles of a Bohemian Teenager”, partly with weariness, but ultimately with friendship in his heart: ”You made us feel at home/We broke our backs on floors of stone/And yet I'd rather wake there any day/Than wake up here alone”.

In a similar vein, Duckworth reveals what the past year has been like for him, “And in the last twelve months/I've felt like a stopgap/And a punch bag and a doormat/But I'm better than that”, though the depressing words are lightened by the sense of humour exhibited in the song title, “If I Had A Pound For Every Stale Song Title I'd Be Thirty Short Of Getting Out Of This Mess”.

"You can call them chronicles"

The highlight of the album and strident roof-raiser is the extraordinarily catchy, yet meaningful, “I-Spy”, which kicks off with an acoustic guitar riff and the plaintive line, “I spy with my little eye something that begins with I Don't Care”, before unfolding into something far more expansive and effervescent with the memorable chorus: “Face in the crowd/If you don't care/then why are you singing out?” It’s a song with a “simple tune”, but powerful lyrics and an aching vocal that are mightily effective.

The album moves into the overtly personal with the beautiful “War of the Worlds”, where Duckworth is not afraid to unveil his private emotions. This heartfelt, bitter lament about a broken relationship is ironically a real crowd-pleaser during Get Cape’s live show, “But we haven't spoke in days/Yeah, in fact it's been a matter of weeks/And so the next time that you need me, don't expect a call”.

However, unlike many records of teenage disaffection, the melodies on Chronicles are mostly upbeat and almost always infused with an electronic flourish that cheers the soul. The opening track “Once More with Feeling” is a particularly uplifting statement of intent and call to arms, “Don't let the people make you think/That just because you're young, you're useless”. The next track, the jazzy “An Oak Tree” strikes a similar positive note, “I guess another set back is/Just another lesson learnt”.

"Put your back into it"

Recorded mostly in his bedroom, it’s difficult to believe that such an accomplished album was self-produced without the benefit of a major studio, but Duckworth clearly possesses a maturity beyond his years, even though in many ways he’s your typical teenager. “Lighthouse Keeper” talks of an angry young man’s desire to escape from his Southend home (“Get out of this place!”), but at the same time admits that “it’s good to be home from time to time”.

Often wearing Clark Kent spectacles, Sam Duckworth is an unassuming hero for the iPod generation, but he is far more interesting than the average singer-songwriter (or teenager). His passion is infectious and only the deepest cynic could fail to be moved by his poignant, yet compelling songs. This astounding debut album doesn’t just fly – it soars.

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