Where to start? How to express the waves of emotion that hit me whilst listening to Blue Rose Code's new CD '....And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing'?
There is a quote by Aldous Huxley etched on a walkway in Nashville that might have been written for Blue Rose Code: 'After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.' For Ross Wilson, the Scots-born singer-songwriter who records and performs as Blue Rose Code, conveys rich emotions through music in a way that words alone cannot describe.
'....And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing' made me cry. No CD has had that effect before. Sadness yes, but not real tears whilst driving to work on a busy motorway! The catalyst was the heartfelt 'Pokesdown Waltz', Wilson's gravelly voice, accompanied by quiet piano and melodies that stayed in my head all day. Lyrics describing a deeply personal marriage break-up are all the more heart-breaking for listeners who have been following Wilson’s story and rooting for his happiness from his first CD, 'North Ten', in 2013. Wilson’s CDs should probably come with a health warning: if you start listening to Blue Rose Code, Wilson’s lyrics will bury deep into your head and your soul, and you will crave more, such is the addiction.
Although only three short years since Wilson's first CD was released, he has continually pushed and stretched his own musical boundaries. He has repeatedly been likened to John Martyn and Van Morrison - true comparisons (especially with Martyn’s own Danny Thompson playing bass on the CD), but these comparators over-simplify his very unique sound. At times,the latest CD brings to mind the feeling of John Coltrane's 'Ballads': Wilson's trademark guitar has been replaced in many tracks by piano, with Colin Steele on trumpet adding beautiful jazzy textures throughout.
Wilson brings a variety of stellar musicians to Blue Rose Code; like an extended family, they have become an integral part of the sound. Wrenne’s vocals accompany Wilson on the majority of tracks, providing angelic harmonies to contrast with Wilson’s Scottish grittiness. Wild Lyle Watt provides guitar, adding a gorgeous country flavour to ‘Rebecca’. ‘….And Lo!’ also brings some new voices, in the shape of the McCrary Sisters, who provide gospel-tinged harmonies throughout but notably on ‘Grateful’ and ‘In The Morning Part 3’. (My one, minor, disappointment with the CD is that it only includes a short abridged version of ‘Grateful’ and not the glorious full four-minute version (thankfully obtainable as a separate EP)). Another notable addition is Ewan McGregor (yes, that Ewan McGregor) on ‘Glasgow Rain’, one of my favourite tracks on the CD. McGregor has been vocal on social media about his love of Blue Rose Code, and his voice on 'Glasgow Rain' epitomises the atmosphere of Scotland’s grittiest city.
‘…And Lo!’ stands up to repeated listening, and after several weeks I am still discovering new layers and complexities to the tracks. The whole production is perfect, every instrument and voice perfectly chosen and placed, bringing to mind Norman MacCaig’s words ‘Not an ounce excessive, not an inch too little’, a poem that Wilson previously brought to life on ‘The Ballads of Peckham Rye’. Wilson’s lyrics are poetry in themselves, at times deceptively simple but conveying deeply complex feelings of pain, loss and guilt. In ‘Grateful’, the powerful refrain, echoed by the McCrary Sisters, of ‘I’ll never be cool, I’ll never be good looking……but Lord I am grateful’ is a heartfelt reflection of his difficult past. The themes of pain and fragility are echoed in Kirsty Whiten’s powerful cover artwork, suggesting suffocation and brevity of life. But Wilson’s words and music also express immense joy and optimism: ‘Come the springtime, I rise like a red balloon….’, ’I ran in the ocean in Christmas Day, and the fear in my heart was just washed away….’. Despite the painful experiences, Wilson shows no anger or resentment, only gentleness, compassion and hope.
Ultimately this is a CD that, despite the initial tears, leaves you feeling upbeat and positive….. grateful for Wilson’s immense talent and craving more. ‘…And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing’ confirms that Blue Rose Code is on a rapid upward trajectory and I already have no doubt that this CD will be will be amongst my top ten of 2016.