Prolific singer-songwriter and underground folk legend Michael Chapman decided to celebrate 50 years working in the music industry on his latest album. Starting out as a guitarist in jazz bands, Chapman went on to pursue a career as a folk singer in 1967. Taking the typical route of performing in small folk clubs, Chapman found himself playing the same circuits as the likes of many of his influences, such as John Martyn, Ralph McTell, Roy Harper and John Renbourn, and played with a similar style of acoustic fingerpicking. At around this time, key players in the British folk were developing a unique style of folk guitar music by blending a traditional blues style of fingerpicking, with a constant damped bass played in the thumb whilst one or two fingers would pick upwards, and the American East coast style of playing which was more based on ragtime music and featured an alternating bass. Seminal guitarists such as Davy Graham and Bert Jansch undoubtedly had a profound influence on Michael Chapman, but Chapman stood out as being amongst the singer-songwriters playing British folk clubs who were keen to incorporate jazzy elements into their music, along with the likes of John Martyn and Nick Drake, who played a number of shows in Hull, where Chapman also often operated, and both Drake and Chapman released their respective debut albums in 1969. Chapman’s first flurry of albums were met with great critical acclaim, and for good reason. Chapman’s interesting approach to folk fingerpicking and songwriting was brought out to its full potential by producer Gus Dudgeon, known for having worked with legends like David Bowie and Elton John. The dazzling string arrangements that appeared on some of Chapman’s early albums added an entirely new layer of sound to his work that yielded great results and further acclaim from critics. These arrangements came as courtesy of Paul Buckmaster, another important figure in the music industry at the time, having also worked with David Bowie and Elton John, as well as everyone from Leonard Cohen to The Rolling Stones to Miles Davis. Chapman clearly had a very promising start to his career, and the fact that he is still releasing critically acclaimed folk records 50 years and 40 albums later demonstrates just how at home he is in the industry. Even now, on his last handful of releases, Chapman is still playing his familiar style of folksy fingerpicking but with rather different arrangements, making use of more indulgent instrumentation. 50 continues this trend in some ways, but not entirely as I expected.
A press release accompanied the release of this new album, in which 50 was described as an “American album” and this certainly shines through with a sound on some tracks reminiscent of Americana and even bluegrass at times. What’s more, Chapman’s playing is less prominent in the mix on this album that what is usual. His acoustic guitar is worked into the group sound a lot more subtly and it seems that the sound that producer and guitarist on this album, Steve Gunn, was striving for was a more diverse band sound than what longtime fans of Chapman may be used to. The fact that the band on this album is comprised of a wide array of musicians spanning across many genres reflects this. Also, the fact that the majority of songs on this album are reimaginations of songs previously recorded by Chapman perhaps demonstrates that this album seeks to bring Chapman’s work into a new context, whilst also reflecting the celebratory spirit of an album released to mark an artist’s 50 years of service for the music industry.
The first song on 50, A Spanish Incident (Ramón and Durango), gets the album off to a great start with a tinge of that bluegrass sound that I mentioned earlier, largely as a result of the duelling acoustic guitar and banjo that kick the track off. When the drums and electric bass kick in, the song takes on a more Americana feel and sounds more in the vein of what one would expect a full-band Michael Chapman song to sound like. Chapman’s vocals stand out in the mix and have an aged, gruff sound to them that complement the Americana style very nicely, sounding perfectly at home. The softer backing vocals that appear on the refrain pair well with Chapman’s vocals, providing some nice light and shade to the song’s sound, and the instrumentation throughout the rest of the track, particularly the banjo embellishments, sound generally really good. Whilst Chapman’s guitar is largely chord-based for this composition, some picked moments appear here and there, but are used in rather a different fashion than Chapman’s usual work. Rather than Chapman playing finger-picked guitar lines that provide the foundation of the composition whilst also being at the forefront of the mix, the picked guitar lines that turn up on this song are simply part of the general band sound, and it comes off quite well, although I would have liked to have heard Chapman’s guitar playing as a more prominent feature on an album celebrating his work in the music business.
With regards to the previously-recorded Chapman songs that were reworked into a full-band format on this record, whilst these are nice alternative versions that suit a celebratory album, they don’t necessarily live up to the unique sound of their original recordings. The original recording of The Mallard, which first featured on Chapman’s 1995 release, Navigation, features some simple but effective fingerpicking from the singer-songwriter and the general sound of the acoustic guitar paired with Chapman’s voice feels warm and comforting. The version that appears on 50 features the same fingerpicked guitar pattern, but played on a steel string guitar, which works to give the reimagined version an Americana spin. The rich electric guitar sound from Gunn captures some of the warm feelings of the original recording. Nonetheless, although the track is a lovely Americana reworking of the song with some nice details, the original still triumphs over this version thanks to its undeniable Chapman charm. Also, whilst Chapman’s voice is quite complementary to the overall sound of the record, on this track, especially when compared to the original recording, his rough vocals don’t fit the gentleness of the song quite as well as they do the original tracks on this record.
Overall, 50 is a welcomed addition to Chapman’s extensive discography. The original tracks, to me personally, stand out above the re-recordings. I feel that for such a reworking of Chapman’s sound, this project would have benefited from an entirely original line-up of songs, giving Chapman and Gunn a blank canvas around which they could more successfully build this American-tinged sound. Despite this, the reimagined songs don’t feel wasted and provide a refreshing new perspective on some of Chapman’s great compositions, even if they don’t quite live up to the original recordings. Not a moment of this record feels wasted, and I’m sure it will satisfy fans of Michael Chapman’s work, even if it is a slightly unexpected change of pace. I’m certainly a fan of much of Chapman’s previous work and, despite the slight reservations I have for this project, it is nonetheless a strong release that can, at the very least, be appreciated for the respectful commemoration of Chapman’s contribution to British folk music in the past half a century.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7/10