With minimal outside contributions on drums, horns and backing voices, English singer/guitarist Clive Gregson (ex-Any Trouble/Richard Thompson band) made his solo debut on Strange Persuasions, a one-man show that plainly lays out its author’s heartbreak and pain. In “Summer Rain,” a deeply personal stunner actually based on a friend’s experiences, the former Any Trouble leader questions the wisdom of a court’s child custody decision; elsewhere, Gregson limns love lost and mistakes made with self-critical resignation. Over simple music that is attractive and effective, Gregson sings with pride and dignity, making this a deeply moving document of sincere, honest emotions set into song.
Gregson then formed a partnership with Isle of Man-born vocalist Christine Collister, a guest on Strange Persuasion who, like Gregson, has toured and recorded with Richard Thompson. The folky Home and Away — recorded at a handful of acoustic 1986 gigs and chez Gregson — handsomely blends her deep, strong voice with his on a broad assortment of originals (Any Trouble material like “Northern Soul” and “All the Time in the World,” as well as tunes from Strange Persuasion) and classics (Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox,” Larry Williams’ “Slow Down”) that is as warmly likable as it is unaffected.
Mischief fits the same heartfelt songwriting and rich singing into full-blown arrangements, many of them tastefully rocked up with drums (by Any Trouble alumnus Martin Hughes) and electric guitars. Gregson’s striking melodies and deeply incisive lyrics are more than adequate to the stronger environment; the duo’s voices rise to the occasion as well, making Mischief an easy record to like (except perhaps by crabby folk purist misled by the pair’s habit of performing with just Gregson’s acoustic guitar). Highlights: “Everybody Cheats on You,” the unflattering “I Specialise,” the mournfully romantic “We’re Not Over Yet” and the reluctantly happy “This Tender Trap.”
Gregson and Collister successfully raised their ambitions and widened their stylistic reach on A Change in the Weather, an even better collection of songs and settings. Joining their voices in more intricate harmonies and testing out more complex material, the duo soars through poignant essays on wife abuse (“This Is the Deal”), mortality (“How Weak I Am”), the hollowness of pop stars and culture (“Jumped Up Madam,” the CD-bonus “Temporary Sincerity”) and overdriven children (“Talent Will Out”). On a lighter note, Gregson reveals an abiding enthusiasm for Elvis Presley with the witty and personal “(Don’t Step in) My Blue Suede Shoes,” to which Collister adds a rocking rendition of the King’s own “Tryin’ to Get to You.” A tremendous record without one mediocre or ineffectual track.
Rather than build on A Change in the Weather, the duo next cut a simple acoustic collection of quiet cover versions with no outside assistance. From the delightfully surprising (10cc’s “Things We Do for Love”) to the solid (Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” Bruce Springsteen’s “One Step Up”) and the sappy (Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer”), Love Is a Strange Hotel has a quiet, casual charm but not much backbone. Many of the selections are far from standards (Aztec Camera’s “How Men Are,” Paul Carrack’s “Always Better with You,” the Boo Hewerdine/Darden Smith title tune), which leaves the unadorned demo-like performances to stand on their own, and they’re altogether too unprepossessing for that.
Released earlier in 1990, Welcome to the Workhouse provides a fine footnote to Gregson’s early career with ten previously unreleased demos and outtakes recorded alone or with simple accompaniment between 1980 and 1985. Any Trouble songs (“I’ll Be Your Man”) in drastically different form, band versions of “This Tender Trap” and “Standing in Your Shadow” (both now in the duo’s repertoire), an acoustic cover of Michael Jackson’s “She’s Out of My Life” and several otherwise unavailable Gregsongs make this a rich, significant collection.
One of those couples unfortunately obliged to do their parting in public, Gregson and Collister ended their personal and professional partnership with dignity on The Last Word, allowing only a few glimmers of anger and hurt to slip into the tender album’s abiding sadness. The fact that he wrote all the songs loads the deck of sympathy cards, but it’s not that simple. Without making it clear whose heart is being opened, Gregson — prone to vicious self-deprecation and gutsy revelation at the best of times — gives Collister lines to sing that acknowledge dishonesty, desperation, new love and various bad feelings; in his own voice, he admits cheating, lying and drinking until closing time. Finally, the two join voices and resolve to disagree with abiding regret in “I Don’t Want to Lose You,” a searing country lament that wets the eyes and dots the tears. “You called my bluff, you called my friends / But you never called to make amends / You wore me like a worn out shoe / But I don’t want to lose you.”
A decade after starting it with the powerful Strange Persuasions, Gregson — who relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, in ’93 — resumed his solo career with People & Places. A typically finespun (if mainstreamed) convocation of memorable writing, sterling musicianship and expressive singing, the economically arranged album demonstrates how easy it would be for Gregson to slide into the new country field. Instead, he folds the multiple folk and rock personalities of his past into an uncharacterizable blend, even steering clear of the adult alternative (AAA) drain. “My Eyes Gave the Game Away,” a self-excoriation addressed to a former lover, could be for Collister but offers no specific clues; the love tales of “Camden Town” and “Lily of the Valley” are clearly about other people.
Welcome to the Workhouse is a collection of early-’80s demos and outtakes, simply done with various musicians in Gregson’s circle. The all-acoustic and equally excellent Carousel of Noise, sold primarily by mail- order, is a fascinating 17-track footnote assembled from two ’94 solo shows and contemporaneous home recordings; among the highlights are a remake of Any Trouble’s “Second Choice,” the expatriate’s meteorological lament of “The Queen’s Head,” a Boo Hewerdine collaboration entitled “Dead Man’s Shoes” and Buddy Holly’s “Learning the Game,” sung without a trace of Lubbock pop bounce.
The inevitable “Starting All Over” is the only song Collister wrote alone for her solo debut, which is otherwise filled by an eclectic set of downcast borrowings from Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Randy Newman, k.d. lang, Leiber and Stoller, Elvis Presley and Willie Dixon. Recorded in concert on her native Isle of Man with a second acoustic guitarist and a fretless bassist, Live — notable for Collister’s distinctive voice and moving interpretations — is a small pleasure fans should definitely seek out.