Paul McClure has a bit of a reputation as a joker live, so anyone picking this up at a gig might be in for a surprise. The opening track, The Morning My Love, is a weighty, doleful piano ballad. The opening notes have the quality of a film soundtrack, and McClure pushes his voice towards similar musicality. We find the narrator at a crossroads, hoping a long-standing, possibly long-distance, relationship will survive: “where Venus finds no place to lay her head and loneliness poisons the passion in our hearts…as long as you stay true I will find a way to you.”
The album’s title track, Market Town, has a driving beat and a hook reminiscent of a late ’90s Manic Street Preachers radio-friendly hit, mixed with a sprinkle of Lightning Seeds. It’s a more nuanced take on the archetypal ‘home’ song, but treads the same path of finding comfort in a familiar place: “I wish myself here in this market town…just a market town with nothing going down.”
Fittingly, Chicago Sky opens with a touch of blues harmonica. Rhiannon Payne’s vocal adds to the depth of sound, with chord progressions and vocal delivery reminiscent of ’70s classics, lending an air of instant familiarity. It’s about urging a far-away lover to come back: “When you know, you know you’ve had enough/take my love and let it guide you.”
Daddy Will You Hold My Hand? is about the little moments in parenthood that mean the world. On the face of it, it’s about the simple act of a daughter asking her father for help crossing the street. The significance of the act transcends the scale: “I never felt like someone’s hero before/like there was no-one in this whole world whom she could safely trust.” The music echoes this, with slide guitar played by Ally McErlaine (Texas, Red Sky July) lifting the scene. The narrator’s daughter will grow up and become independent all too soon, but that moment is captured forever.
Sing To The Stars is again reminiscent of troubadour singer-songwriters of the 1970s, here sharing the story of a working man who wears his body out with nothing to show for it: “it’s hard to see the stars with your nose down in the dirt and you can feel the boss’ heel in your back.” He finds brief escape in music while, conversely, performing also keeps him connected to the friends and relatives he hardly gets to see otherwise. The strongest lyric of the album sums it up perfectly: “he heard his children grow until it was time they up and go/but he didn’t know them.”
How Do You Know? is another tender ballad that hints about an unexpected, illicit relationship that’s tinged with guilt and poetry: “she had the prettiest eyes I’ve ever seen cry…she had the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen anyone hide…the softest voice I’ve ever heard say goodbye.” The narrator is racked with longing and shaken by the ease with which she can walk away and pretend there’s no connection.
The harmonica returns for This Must Be What They Mean (When They Sing About The Blues). It sounds like a group of friends jamming after listening to The Kinks. The recording captures a chuckle in the vocal while singing, followed by Beach Boy harmonies and expressive keys.
A Long Long Time Ago is a ukulele tune that’s strongly reminiscent of I’m Yours era Jason Mraz, complete with a similar tempo and harmonies. McClure’s pretty ditty is about growing up, finding love and being happy at home.
Sing With Me has a surprisingly deep, intriguing vocal with another interesting lyric that could stand more exploring: “don’t sit by the phone unless you want to be alone.” The song is anchored by a Dean Owens singalong style ‘sing with me’ chorus which seems designed for the live set and likely to overshadow the nuance within. It seems as if there’s the potential for two strong songs that have been combined into a single track exceeding eight minutes.
Grandad’s Pants evokes the jaunty, playful tone of McClure’s stand-up style live show, to balance out the rest of the record that is tonally more sombre.
Market Town feels like a series of snapshots, moments of day-to-day life captured for posterity. That is done well, but sometimes we miss a sense of wider context or resolution; intriguing ideas become hooks rather than deep foundations. To be clear, there is evidence of real songwriting skill. Sing To The Stars – as well as songs like Moments Lost from 2014’s Smiling From The Floor Up – shows that McClure has the potential to be a Springsteen-style cradle-to-grave songwriter, turning well-observed vignettes into universal, relatable epics.
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