MICKEY NEWBURY Looks Like Rain (Drag City)

Mickey Newbury was a country (and borderline country-rock) singer/songwriter most famous, if at all, for arranging “American Trilogy”, his compositions being covered by the likes of Pat Boone, Tom Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kenny Rogers, Andy Williams and Roger Miller, amongst many others. Restored to rightful critical, if not commercial, prominence by a reissue campaign, the three album he recorded at Tennessee’s Cinderella Sound studio between 1969 and 1973 are now available as part of a four CD box set or as separate vinyl issues; guess which option I chose…

“Looks Like Rain” is his second album, originally released in 1969. It almost sounds like a countrified version of Tim Buckley’s “Happy Sad”, albeit with a tighter grip on song structure. The persistent tinkle of wind chimes lies behind these songs, and the sound of falling rain and passing trains binds them together in if not a concept then at least a song cycle. ”San Francisco Mabel Joy” would arguably become his most famous composition; he titled his third album after it and re-recorded it for his fourth. Here it’s probably the album’s most straightforward linear plot. The production rejoices in the kind of unobtrusive lavishness accorded Simon & Garfunkel from “Bookends” onwards, and the band includes a handful of veterans from Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” sessions. If “Looks Like Rain” has a fault it’s that Newbury seems to get stuck in his default slow-gliding waltz setting, something that would be remedied in later releases.

Drag City have done a fine job with these reissues. They have thick, pasted-over cardboard sleeves, die-cut where appropriate, great sounding pressings that equal if not better the best I’ve heard from Sundazed and are full of era-appropriate detailing, right down to incorporating the company’s name into the original labels and logos.

MICKEY NEWBURY ‘Frisco Mabel Joy (Drag City)

Again, not (to my ears and brain, at least) quite the concept album some would claim it as, this 1971 release is far more cyclical than a random collection of songs, with interludes linking several tracks. Besides, Newbury manages a song cycle within a song with “American Trilogy”: an arrangement of Civil War-era songs “Dixie”, “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “All My Trials”, it manages to say some profound things about contemporary America. The album is made from songs about disappointment, disillusion, leaving, regret and the often false comfort of nostalgia, all rendered unblinkingly strange by the synthesisers woven through them.  

“Mobile Blue” might be a sly nod to Dylan getting stuck there with the Memphis blues again. On “Remember The Good” Newbury distils pure emotion into a weeping, hoarse falsetto, and appends a New Orleans-style marching band coda to “How I Love Them Old Songs”, almost as if ridiculing the protagonist’s desperate determination to cling onto the past. Representing a deepening of his cosmic country folk, both in content and presentation, on “’Frisco Mabel Joy” Newbury sounds almost like a Nashville Leonard Cohen.

MICKEY NEWBURY Heaven Help The Child (Drag City)

The opening title track of Newbury’s 1973 album “Heaven Help The Child” might be the apotheosis of these three reissues. It marries a tune as commercial as ants to the kind of big, sweeping chorus that his songs usually duck and a “Zelig”-like humanist travelogue through time and space, its knockout punch being a coda liberated, in Newbury’s patchwork style, from “Auld Lang Syne”. In any just and correct universe you’d be able to hum it already; in this one it’s more likely to be a delightful future discovery.

If nothing else matches it here, it doesn’t prevent “Heaven Help The Child” seeming like the most consistent, cohesive and fully realised of these three albums, no mean feat given that half of its eight songs are remakes of tunes Newbury had released previously. Its predecessors were hardly the work of a fickle, flighty talent, yet “Heaven Help The Child” seems to be imbued with a deep-grained maturity in comparison.

Throughout “Good Morning Dear” Newbury’s voice is hoarse and heavy, as if permanently on the verge of breaking. On “Sunshine” he sounds like a down-at-heel Joe South, not a bad thing to be, of course, but maybe lacking the heft of his finest moments. The character drawing and storytelling of “Cortelia Clark “is imbued with extra depth by being framed as an adult’s response to his childhood naivety. The album’s closing revisit to “San Francisco Mabel Joy” rises up from one of Newbury’s trademark sonic whorls, in which rainfall and wind chimes lap against a reverberant remembrance of “Write A Song A Song” from the “Looks Like Rain” album.

If your musical tastebuds are tickled by American singer/songwriting, and you’re not intolerant of country leanings in your listening, I think your life would be enriched by at least one of Mickey Newbury’s albums, if not all of these three.