Vulnerable but hard as steel, stalwarts of British rhythm-and-blues bring it on home and take their bow with a lot of grace.
When THE PRETTY THINGS left the stage after their last concert in December 2018, everyone knew that was the end of the road: singer Phil May and guitarist Dick Taylor, two of the band’s founding members who soldiered on for decades, had health issues which made it impossible to continue delivering the goods. The more surprising, then, is this album – a parting gift without a whiff of a party but with a profound sense of ultimate achievement, so the record’s return-to-the-roots concept loomed much larger from the off, and the “unplugged” philosophy, fueled by the inclusion of a couple cuts from the ensemble’s acoustic performances and taken further, made the full circle a perfect figure.
There’s also an air of impending doom to this record, yet its gloom is often slightly lifted thanks to the elegance with which the veterans treat both stone-cold classics, heated by their slowly burning passion, and contemporary material, given an impressive patina. While it was planned as Taylor and May’s farewell, the rather boisterous finale of “I’m Ready” fails to exude an air of surrender, and the album’s soft opener “Can’t Be Satisfied” – another number from Muddy Waters’ repertoire, relocated from Chicago to Dartford Delta – suggests the duo’s appetite would be difficult to appease if not for their will to retire. Still, stripped to the essentials, a pair of Robert Johnson’s tracks – “Love In Vain” and “Come Into My Kitchen” – demonstrate a jagged edge, exposing gravity where regret used to be, as Dick’s ringing strings, added and abetted with fiddle and harp courtesy of friends, ignite Phil’s supple vocals.
That’s how the Brits lay the groundwork for their reading of Russ Taff’s “Ain’t No Grave” and turn the piece’s familiar plea into defiant abandon before letting go of it and plunging into the emotional depths of Sheryl Crow’s “Redemption Day” and Gillian Welch’s “The Devil Had A Hold Of Me” – drenched in the intimacy only one’s sunset years are able to reveal. Thus they set a gleeful filigree in place of remorse after BRMC’s “Faultline” has fleshed out an a cappella intro with a gritty twang whose rawness contrasts the deliberately deadpan voice to a great effect, as it does on “Black Girl” in a manner Lead Belly would approve. And that’s how the previously unseen dusk of “Bright As Blood” and the dawn of “Another World” – penned, respectively, by the group’s latter-day bassist George Woosey and their associate Pete Harlen – come into play, fathoming eternity from a folksy point of view and refracting English tradition through bluesy lens.
The veterans’ delivery of Will Varley’s “To Build A Wall” seems to break the mold with its lighter perspective of hope and parting of the ways, yet subsequent listens help locate the logic in the inclusion of this cut: it’s the statement of legacy amidst the album’s overall gloom. Tragically, Phil passed away in May 2020, but even if all THE PRETTY THINGS remained alive, there’d be no better opportunity to stop, look back with a sad smile and exit in style. Here’s their last milestone.