Greg Fleming & The Trains – Edge Of The City (Luca Discs) CD REVIEW

October 9, 2014

WHEN GREG FLEMING’S 2010 album, Taken, turned up in my review pile I listened to it repeatedly. I faced a disquieting personal disjunction, however: here was an excellent piece of work (two albums’-worth of excellent work, actually) that just wasn’t my bag.
As a long-distance reviewer, you learn how be dispassionate, and to appreciate that which is good and great in work, even when it doesn’t yank your personal crank. Over the years I’ve given hundreds – maybe even thousands – of five-star reviews to records that have ended up being passed on to those who will enjoy them more than myself. Appreciate/enjoy: so close, so far.
There are limits, however. I’ve been generous about Elvis Costello albums that I could only ever muster a professional appreciation for, and once the review was written, were quickly dispensed with. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, is a giant bane of contention. To me, at his best, Costello writes cleverly, both lyrically and musically, and sometimes there’s real heart buried in there as well. But Springsteen, who is perhaps the ultimate example of American heart-on-sleeve pumped-up folk music, doesn’t write or sing in a way that I find at all compelling; there’s no nuance, no sonic detailing that keeps me coming back for more, it all sounds like cliché and obvious metaphor. In short, I just don’t get it, and I know that the great force of respected critical opinion is against me on this. Who am I to argue the toss?
Greg Fleming is an Auckland-based singer-songwriter/bandleader who is squarely in the tradition of heart-on-sleeve American folk-rock demigods like Springsteen, as well as the organic roots rock of groups like The Band, but there’s also something of the rock’n’roll rebel in him, a little of that naughty narcotic grind of the Rolling Stones or even our own Hello Sailor. That slight degeneracy came through more strongly on Taken, while his new album, Edge Of The City, is a more artful collection of roots rock geared very much to telling stories.
And it turns out that it is largely distilled and reduced from a novel Fleming was working on. He’s done a bit of a haiku on his long-form work and pruned it back to miniatures, and he’s done good.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I ended up writing copious notes for my review of that last album, and feeling all churned up about the fact that I just couldn’t quite reconcile my dispassionate views of the recorded work with the reality – that it’s not the sort of thing, out of choice, that I would ever, ever listen to. At the same time, I did derive some aural satisfaction from it: Fleming is a former hi-fi reviewer who knows a thing or two about acoustics, and it was a mighty fine sounding recording. Ultimately, though, it went into my ‘too hard’ basket.
And here we are, the follow-up, and once again, the same dilemma. But somehow, I’m less torn. Maybe that’s because Taken seemed soaked in the kind of drugged and drunken mythology alt-country singer-songwriters like Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt specialise in, while Edge Of The City seems much less enamoured of loser lifestyles, one step removed and able to clearly narrate its tales; tales that really do resonate about lives lived in the inner suburbs of Auckland and, in one case, a potboiler involving a familial intervention way up north.
The opening gambit, ‘More Time’, is probably my least favourite, with its straight-down-the-line Springsteen-style rock: even Dominic Blaazer’s piano lines sound E-Streetish. Luckily, Fleming’s vocals are less of the throaty everyman and more of a reedy Reed or a Keith Richards doing his solo routine, with a bit of Dylan-pitch around the edges.
My favourite is ‘Recent Hire’, but not so much for its story about a dishonest employee absconding with the cash and the boss’s daughter, but because it’s got a lovingly drawn-out, repetitive groove at the end that I could quite happily listen to for 20 minutes, or more. The Trains really are a great band. (I should point out that there’s a bit of musical chairs going on throughout the album, but it’s mostly Fleming on vocals and guitar, John Segovia on electric guitar, Earl Robinson on drums, Andrew B. White on bass, and the aforementioned D. Blaazer on keyboards. On ‘Recent Hire’, Nick Gaffaney does the drum duties).
I made the mistake of listening to a recent Gobetweens compilation while I was also sampling Edge Of The City, and there’s nothing here to touch that group’s one slice of genius, ‘Cattle & Cane’. But it’s also true that Fleming has fashioned a pretty consistently good album’s-worth of carefully crafted observations, and there’s enough variety in the music itself to keep things buoyant. For instance, ‘Thinking It Through’ is a poignant acoustic piece about love and boredom and the need, sometimes, to kill it (and ruminations thereof) and that’s followed by a really boisterous country rocker about working several jobs at the same time.
There are things here I really don’t like – the way the female backing vocalists coo on ‘More Time’, and just sound out of place, and the screechy Dylan harmonica on ‘Cut Man’. But for every misstep there’s something great, too, like the vivid imagery of ‘Elijah’ or ‘Sonny Jim’, in which a lapsed alcoholic is welcomed back into the comforting but dangerous embrace of his old stomping ground, from which most of his troubled friends have departed.
Nah, Edge Of The City isn’t my cup of poison, but it’s an emulsion that some will find very satisfying, and it’s a record that brings a certain tradition of popular songwriting, and peoples it with New Zealanders, and that’s got to be good for us.
And hey, for all of us sound freaks, there’s even a song called ‘Hi-fi Blues’!GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5/5
Sound = 4/5

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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