Album review: RJ McKendree – Wallflower (Tom Cox’s ‘Villager’ soundtrack)

Source: album artwork

Words by Grey Malkin

The bestselling author Tom Cox is known to many from different aspects of his written work, be it his much loved My Sad Cat features, his autobiographical works such as 21st Century Yokel (which documents Cox’s life, perspectives and the natural world around his area) as well as, more recently, his stories of the supernatural. 2019’s Help the Witch was a critically acclaimed compendium of haunted and wyrd tales which also birthed an accompanying soundtrack album, featuring the esteemed likes of The Left Outsides, and Stick In The Wheel. In a similar vein, Cox’s new novel Villager weaves his love of folklore and life in rural England with the myths and mysteries inherent within his local landscape, with psychedelic folk providing a key ingredient.

His debut novel proper, it follows the passage of time between the arrival in the 1960s of a psych folk troubadour, Californian RJ McKendree, to a small, rustic village (where he composes a cult folk masterpiece that becomes an underground favourite), to the modern day where the area’s tranquillity and the inhabitants face the upheaval of unsympathetic development and superfast train corridors. Covering the intervening decades as both an empathic exploration of life within a village, as well as some of the more unusual or eerie occurrences that transpire over the decades (such as the finding of a body upon the local golf course, or the excavation of one-eyed dolls bricked up within the walls of one of the village houses), Villager promises to be a welcome addition to the bookshelf. As with the previously mentioned Help the Witch, there is a sister album for the novel, released by the wandering magus RJ McKendree himself, and written and recorded in the village portrayed in the book. Or, so the story goes (and it is a very fine story), as the album is actually a suitably wistful and spectral recording by Will Twynham (Dimorphodons) under the guise of McKendree.

The twist, if you will, as well as the joy of hearing Wallflower, is that it is every bit as transportive, creative and immersive as if it were recorded on pilgrimage in the halcyon days of the late 60s. An album that sits comfortably alongside such acid folk wyrd wonders as Perry Leopold’s Christian Lucifer and Mark Fry’s Dreaming With Alice, this is something that aficionados of such artists (and those of fellow wanderers such as Bill Fay, Skip Spence and Tom Rapp) will hold close to their hearts. For the purposes of this review, let us enter the narrative, the story itself, and imagine that this album is by the legendary RJ McKendree and we are discovering it anew.

Opening with cascading sitar and McKendree’s hushed, echoed vocals, ‘Cow of the Road’ establishes itself swiftly as a swirling psych gemstone, layer upon layer of vocal harmony propelled along on the hypnotic rhythm held by both tabla and tambourine. Flutes swoop into view like starlings, as the song reaches its gentle but quietly powerful finale. ‘Villager’, by turn, is a driven acoustic anthem, evoking a sense of travel and movement amongst its sunlit vocals, thundering piano lines and soaring organ. Haunting in its sepia tinged and wide-eyed gaze, it is reminiscent of both early Floyd and (1960s) Nirvana. ‘Bog Asphodel’ follows, a more introspective and melancholic offering, though still infused with a sense of wonder as gorgeous harpsichord lines pierce the reverbed and dreamlike reverie to come together in a perfect slice of baroque chamber folk.

Next, the intricate fingerpicking of ‘Clapper Bridge’ adds a Jack Rose hue to another piece of perfectly formed psych folk, this time with an implied, more ominous edge that is evocative of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and its hidden, ancient mythology; this is not your standard, middle of the road folk fare. The windswept guitar and languid vocal melodies in ‘Penny Marshwort’ drift pleasingly, within the acoustic thrum there lies a hint of a coming storm rolling down across the hills and the horizon. 

Whilst rooted strongly in the psych milieu and with colours borrowed from the heyday of acid folk, there is also a strong, tangible sense of the landscape conjured by the songs on ’Wallflower’, painting a picture of the village that McKendree wandered into in a creative frenzy decades ago. ‘Gods of Mist and Stone’ is a case in point, electric flashes of guitar and tom toms weave and web together in crescendo, forming something almost spiritual or ritualistic, a sense of the land and the magic contained therein. Mention must be made of how beautiful this album is too; without much in the way of conventional drums, there is instead a bewitching sense of drift or of floating along on the beds of guitars and reverberated vocals that becomes almost dreamlike; the inventiveness and sense of immersion created by McKendree is only equalled by the emotive control at play – we are taken from melancholy dusk hued vignettes to the celebratory and wild guitar of ‘Little Meg’, a veritable thunderstorm of a song. ‘Mrs Nicholas’ is a more delicate affair, guitars spiderweb behind McKendree’s plaintive vocals in a heart-breaking slice of melancholy rapture, whilst ‘Marsh Pennywort’s electric drone, descending harp and transcendent aura enters Wicker Man territory, albeit played by Popol Vuh. ‘Sad Portrait of a Dog’ is the most conventional track here, drums urging the flanged guitars and harmonies skywards in true exhilaration; if you came across this track on a Nuggets compilation you would utterly believe it was born from that same era (it also features the most stratospheric, freeform solo you will hear in a long while). The album closes with the nostalgic ‘Sea Cabbage’, where Bert Jansch meets Fleet Foxes meets Tim Buckley; it is the ideal finale to the overall narrative, equal parts yearning, hopeful and doomed. 

As an accompaniment to Tom Cox’s novel, this is the perfect listening companion. As an album in its own right, it is a hidden treasure. Whilst Wallflower takes inspiration from the more wayward and inspired folk/psych of the late 60s and early 70s, it then transforms this into entirely its own creature, one of great beauty, intrigue and addictive charm. This is an album you will return to again and again and find new, surprising details and allure. Step back in time, meet RJ McKendree in the village; you may never wish to leave.

Wallflower will be available from Hand of Glory Records on cassette, CD, vinyl and download from April 29th at www.rjmckendree.bandcamp.com

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