An acoustic guitar is fingerpicking a lonely, melancholic chord sequence, a low bass plays a sparse melody and a slide guitar echoes a minor scale counterpoint. The effect is unsettling and creates a mood that could be described as cheerless or gloomy.
This is the world of Kete Bowers. Do not come here expecting uplifting songs or lyrics that are comprised of meaningless froth, but do come here if you want to listen to honest songs that examine a place we all know only too well, a world made up of heartache and disappointment.
All of this is by no means a criticism, some of the best music ever made has come about when people confront their demons and examine their life path from a point they never thought they would reach.
There is art in this kind of approach, where an artist lays out their thoughts, their disappointments and their shortcomings, there is an honesty that lifts the resulting music up and makes it seem empowering more than depressing.
Think of the lineage of Nick Cave, Tim Buckley and Simon Bonney, who have also managed to turn their dark thoughts into art. Bowers has a mighty lineage behind him as he opens his heart to us all.
First track Northern Town sets the scene with some delicate guitar work and a vocal line that initially recalls Patti Smith’s Free Money, which can only be a good thing. “I can count on the fingers of just one hand the number of times you treated me well” sings Bowers as he starts to examine his life. The slide guitar that appears places the song in alt-Country territory, but a million miles away from the more mainstream proponents of this genre.
There Was a Time sounds to these ears like the perfect song to soundtrack a tracking scene in a gritty Western, there is a sense of a story being told and a cinematic feel to his songs. Strings swell the sound, but Bowers remains centre stage. I imagine him sat on a stool in a smoky bar whilst the audience looks on in rapt silence, but that may just be me.
Although the next song is called Winner, this does not mean a burst of ill advised optimism is about to reveal itself. “I used to be a winner” he tells un, before adding “I guess I lost my turn” There is an Americana about Bowers music and his voice and his Liverpool roots are not immediately apparent, but his experiences growing up in an area of decline add to his lyrical canon.
Ghosts adds an organ to Paper Ships‘ sonic palette as Bowers sings “Only old ghosts walk behind you on that road” Again I am reminded of Simon Bonney’s solo work, but when I mentioned this to Bowers, he was unaware of these records, making him a like minded soul to one of my favourite artists of all time.
A Town With No Cheer is quiet and affecting, with Bowers’ voice high in the mix, giving a feeling of having him talk directly to you in a bar room confessional. With hints of Bob Dylan, perhaps this song is closer to what people are calling Dark Folk as a genre.
A Place By The River is an album highlight, a creepy feel again makes me think that Bowers would be well suited to soundtrack work, perhaps for some mid period David Lynch. A Fine Day To Leave is more pastoral and lighter in tone musically if not lyrically.
Northside sees Bowers look to his Liverpudlian childhood, telling us “I grew up on the North side of the river” and is lyrically evocative with images of rain soaked cobble streets and rows of houses all the same. Although he left Liverpool many years ago, the ghosts of his past “still call my name.”
You Stole My Joy is a delicate country song that brings Paper Ships to a close on a suitably down beat note. Not once has this album let its vision or quality slip. Paper Ships has navigated the terrain of Bower’s experiences and has documented these in an honest, open and sincere way.
It is a sad fact that a lot of good, credible music like this goes under the radar these days, while more lightweight, less intended music earns fortunes for the teams involved in its successful marketing. But then again, musicians like Bowers have always been denied a mainstream path, choosing the road that leads to heartfelt, genuine songs rather than commercial gain.
The mainstreams loss is our gain here, leaving us able to claim Bowers as one of our own.
To listen to Paper Ships is to be involved in another person’s life journey in the same way we do when we read a good book and become immersed in the lives of the main characters. With the lockdown again about to bite, maybe Paper Ships is the best journey we can currently take.
Kete Bowers’ Paper Ships can be bought at Bandcamp here.