Robert James Selby: Scrap-Book Ballads, Vol 1
Robert James Selby
This debut album from London-based but Yorkshire-born Robert James Selby reveals that this ragamuffin-poet has so much charm, along with some sweet, addictive melodies, that it’s hard to resist being impressed by the sound that he produces.
For no reason that you can actually pinpoint the work of early Marc Bolan (especially, although Bolan had yet to find his talent for writing catchy tunes back in his troubadour days), Wreckless Eric, Friends Again and Orange Juice loom heavily over many of these twelve original songs by Selby. But there are enough little twists and turns scattered through each song to make them essential listening. It’s certainly not a case of ‘heard it all before’.
‘Ballad Of Thomas Chatterton’ starts off and is surely autobiographical. “Packing up your paper and pens, heading across England/ Only seventeen with a head full of sweet dreams” is Selby’s story, no doubt about that. The later “Now they’re calling you the boy poet” is also a nod from those who have already fallen under his spell.
There’s a ramshackle feel to the production that suits these songs. It’s not lo-fi by any means but you get the feeling that Selby and his gang of musicians had a great deal of fun during the recording and, while the touches of mandolin on the opening song, ‘Hard Love’ (clocking in at just two minutes, and a perfect warm invitation into Selby’s slightly strange world) and violin enhance many of the songs, it’s Selby’s vocals that create that carefree, inviting sound that is hard to ignore.
It’s been some time since a whole album’s worth of songs such as those that make up ‘Scrap-Book Ballads Vol 1’ has been heard around these parts. At times it feels that not since Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance heyday has such an album captured the spirit of the troubadour so perfectly. That the songs were written while Selby was traveling around Europe is no great surprise, and is evident in the loose but still immensely appealing way each song was recorded. Selby has already received praise for his lyrics, but his talent for framing each song in such engaging melodies has often been overlooked.
There’s a lot going on here. The organ on ‘Bigger Than Life’, coupled with some soulful background vocals from an un-credited female plus Selby showing off his electric guitar skills, is an undoubted highlight here, as is the following song, ‘Song To Soho’, where Selby shows his skill at bringing his poetry to life. To transport the listener to the place an artist is singing about is no mean feat but Selby does it with ease on this track.
Selby is definitely an artist to watch and has already caught the attention of such musicians as Jarvis Cocker and Carl Barat (he supported The Libertines and has also supported Dirty Pretty Things, which in many ways seems a natural thing for Selby to have done). Carl’s sister Lucie also lends backing vocals to a couple of songs here, most notably to ‘Woman’s Coming Home’ which also, once again, shows Selby’s skill on electric guitar.
The slide guitar on the closing song, ‘On The Road (Too Long)’ adds a blues flavour to the song without alienating it from the songs that precede it; the whole album flows naturally and by closing it this way Selby leaves you wanting more. Just as it should be.