What does it sound like?:
Jules Maxwell is an enigma – a quixotic, intriguing, gentle, mischievous, profound and brilliant (and wryly hilarious) man who has made a quietly successful career by doing the polar opposite of self-promotion and perhaps sometimes making things rather more awkward for himself than they might be (an impenetrable website comes to mind). But first some context…
The 1990s in Belfast, musically, seem like a golden age of sorts. Maybe scenes always do when you were in the middle of them. From 1994 to early 2001 (though the last couple of years were detached, as I was focusing on a biography), I was writing for a regional newspaper in Northern Ireland about local musicians and organised a couple of mid-90s multi-artist live CDs designed to show off the abundance of talent.
A handful of the people involved in that scene went on to have ongoing careers – traditional songbird Cara Dillon, future Ivor Novello nominee Iain Archer (co-writer to the stars), his brother Paul Archer (whose new album with East Anglia-based Burning Codes, ‘Liberator’, is storming), soul man and future Ed Sheeran protégé Foy Vance, prolific troubadour Brian Houston (who popped by last week, off the plane from a Canadian tour, with his umpteenth album, ‘Hank’, a sterling tribute to Hank Williams), at least one member of Snow Patrol, and so forth. There were many others who may not have found a way to pursue music full-time in the world beyond NI but who remain either fondly remembered one- or two-album wonders at that dawn of the self-funded CD era or are still active in music on a part-time local level.
Jules Maxwell, back then, was a curious figure in several ways. For a start, he seemed to be outside the rock/pop world – making his living in theatre and ‘dance projects’, though few really had much idea of what any of this involved. He also scored, in that period, an Oscar-nominated short film – as you do. So, he was ‘arty’, he had lots of connections, he seemed to have a bit more money than anyone in bands playing the pub scene (loaning Brian Houston £100 to record his first album in 1993 – the start of Houston’s 25-year professional career).
He was also extraordinarily generous with his time and enthusiasm – in his delightfully soft-spoken way. He was drawn to the underdog like a moth to a flame. If you’d been thrown out of the last chance saloon, Jules would pick you up and give you a fiver and a slap on the back. It was all about the work – getting other people’s visions to come alive on record or onstage. Jules was always the one at the back, on organ or piano, avoiding the limelight. He played live and on record with, or mentored or produced or otherwise assisted, numerous young rockers and songwriters – Brian Houston, the Belfast Elvis; ace songwriter John Devlin’s North; Paul Archer’s psychedelic rockers Disraeli Gears; even the odd recording with me. I sneaked out a cassette album in that period, really just wanting to get some music out of my system but queasy about the then-stigma of being a journo who also made music. One or two local musos were negative; Jules was only disappointed I hadn’t done it on CD. Indeed, Jules himself made one of the era’s first CD albums locally – though the PR sheet from this new one seems unaware of that.
So much for Jules Maxwell’s ‘dark ages’. To the public at large, and readers of his PR sheet, Jules is an erstwhile member of Dead Can Dance who has scored numerous productions at the Globe Theatre and other such places and has recently had four songs on an album by La Mystere de Voix Bulgares. As you do. Or, rather, as almost nobody does.
I hooked up with my old pal last month for the first time in 10 or 15 years, giving the great man a lift from Belfast to Dublin on a rare Irish tour (he lives in Normandy these days) and seeing his mesmerising show that night with ambient Armenian/French band Deleyaman. On the road down, he talked about his plans for a musical based on the wives of road-racing motorcyclists. Who else would consider such a thing? And it might even work.
All that preamble was sort of relevant because ‘Songs from a Cultural Backwater’, the new Jules Maxwell album – the first, if you wish – seems to draw on reference points from his time back in the day in Northern Ireland, but then again some of it might refer to Normandy. Or a place of his imagination. It matters not – the album is a dozen beautifully constructed and executed miniatures of impressionism and glimpses of biography.
Jules has a way of spinning tales that seem rooted in actual events or places but only occasionally – ‘Lizzie Graham’, ‘Give Up the Band’ – can they be firmly placed. The latter might be a real story or merely a sprightly metaphor for a troubled city. Opening track ‘Blowtorch’, for which he has had several interpretive videos made, may appear to be autobiographical – the singer constantly telling the listener that ‘My family need to know…’ a series of odd incidents that suggest a troubled mind (‘dragging a chicken round town on a dog lead’, ‘burning the leaves off the trees with a blowtorch’, etc.) – but reveals itself, obliquely, as a montage of reported incidents about others that come together as a rather profound thing, with a melancholic chamber music vibe, celebrating ‘devastating beauty’ that is ‘locked up in a box’.
One song, ‘Last Train to Limerick’, features Louise Wallace and was actually recorded in Belfast in the 90s. Louise was the great white hope of the Belfast music scene back then – she got a development deal with Epic, recorded bits with David Holmes but quickly gave it up for a PhD in art. She lectures at a local college now. I draw there, of course, on personal knowledge – because Jules being Jules, bar ‘featuring Louise Wallace’ there is no other information on the album’s personnel whatsoever (unless it is buried somewhere in that unnavigable website) and no recording dates.
That isn’t a criticism. Jules is clearly setting everything up so that the music does all the talking – no context, no blurb, just 12 songs. There are string quartets, bassists, drummers, gospel-tinged backing vocalists… but all are in service of the songs, delicately arranged, with Jules’ voice to the fore – characterful, tuneful, slightly crackly – and his piano/keyboard parts always sublimely restrained. Not one note is wasted, nothing is pushed to the fore. It’s a brilliant exercise in minimalist vignettes – minimalist yet full of warmth and heart.
‘The Wilderness of Lorine’, like ‘Blowtorch’, presents a first-person narrative of statements and metaphors with a B-section that ascribes further metaphorical perspectives on a person unnamed. It’s a love song of sorts, with a ravishing accompaniment of piano, double bass, eventual drums and a sparsely used wind quintet. It sounds like the best 1970s TV theme you’ve never heard – in the ballpark of the themes from ‘Budgie’ and ‘Butterflies’.
‘Same Mistakes’ sounds like Serge Gainsbourg or Charles Aznavour or some other chansonnier, confessing repeatedly that he’s ‘making the same mistakes all over again’ to an exquisite string arrangement in the area of ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Lest everything seem too wistful, there’s plenty of fun in the pop-ska-like groove of ‘Good Ghost’ (with a sax solo that brings to mind Saxa from the Beat), the throwaway nonsense of ‘Sycamore’ (built on little else than a fascination with the word) and the languorous funk of ‘Hole in the Head’, with a programmed keyboard groove very closely related to the Who’s ‘Eminence Front’ and a crowd of black backing vocalists getting down with the message that ‘life isn’t easy at all’.
The PR blurb informs us that one of Jules’ biggest influences is Jimmy Webb – and one can hear that here and there, especially ‘The Boy Who Cried for the World’ and ‘Flowers Grow’ – but to me the best comparison is Randy Newman. Not only in terms of the piano/vocal-based sound world but in the deft touch in crafting quirky, memorable tunes and story-telling vignettes with slightly offbeat subject matter or from a perspective that suggests a canny observer of the maelstrom rather than one in its churn. Jules has all of Randy’s mischief but none of Jimmy’s angst.
I’m a huge fan of this album – and would be regardless of knowing the author. It’s 42 minutes of wonderful, intriguing, gently hook-laden songs from an artist emerging momentarily from the shadows to tell a few tales. He might never do it again, he might disappear into the shadows of the Globe Theatre or wherever – or he might have a follow-up out next year. You just never know with Jules. He’s exactly the kind of fellow the Afterword should love. I hope I’m right!
What does it all *mean*?
Who can say? But whatever it is, it sounds fascinating…
Goes well with…
Being your own person, championing the underdog, visiting Bangor, County Down, curling up in front of a log fire with a glass of port…
Might suit people who like…
Randy Newman, Jimmy Webb, singular singer-songwriters, things with a French frisson…