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Personal, political and powerful

Robb Johnson My Best Regards (Irregular Records) 5/5

ROBB JOHNSON’s new album has to be one of his very best.

A glorious celebration of his songwriting craft, he’s superbly accompanied on it by pianist Jenny Carr, bassist John Forrester and his son Arvin on drums.

Other outstanding musicians and vocalists add cello, clarinet, sax and violin to a perfectly produced collection of 13 new songs — three of them reprised in different versions — with Palestinian singer Reem Kelani giving an amazing performance on When the Tide Comes In.

A deeply affecting song about refugees, it might never save lives. But it challenges politically with the line: “Too late the child that breaks your heart”.

Yet, on first listen, this is a a deceptively happy, relaxed and deeply personal collection, with an evident sense of joy exuding from consummate musicians playing together.

The range of subject matter and the blend of folk, pop, rock, jazz and country are accessible but the politics and acute observation are never far away.

A Hollingdean Lullabye, which starts as a lighthearted and joyful celebration of birth, is transformed as Johnson blisteringly poses the question: “What’s the future looking like, these days for kids like these? Zero-hours contracts in run-for-profit care homes and nurseries.”

Such sentiments evidence the political edge typical of Johnson’s output. But he writes beautiful love songs too and his homage to his wife A Whole Lot Less is funny and intensely affectionate.

Johnson’s storytelling takes us on journeys to the Sidmouth promenade, Prague, Broadstairs, Babbacombe and a bus stop where “my son met Elvis last night” and there’s a similar quirkiness on That Mystery Beat where, eschewing 4/4 or 3/4 time signatures, he conjures an infectious triumph of rhythm and rhyme.

Opening track September 1939 reflects, post-Brexit, on the declaration of WWII while the retro-sounding Danoelectric has a bell-like tonality as chords and notes ring out like chimes as Johnson worries that “nothing will be spared of the world we fought so hard for.”

Closing track The Future Starts Here, also featuring the Hullabaloo Choir, had its first outing at a rally for Jeremy Corbyn in the summer of last year.

Hugely emotive, it’s even more relevant today. “Here on this street, here in this union, here in our hearts, here in our hands, the future starts here,” Johnson sings. An anthem, surely, for future generations.

My Best Regards will be released on September 29 and Robb Johnson is now on a nationwide tour to promote it, details: robbjohnson.co.uk

Bob Oram

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