The album is chock-full of nostalgic memories, and it is simply achingly real …The most profound trick is how easily we are drawn into it as well, perhaps even looking back at our own ‘two rivers’, and how our environments have shaped us.
Many people (most, if we’re honest, at least among the rock fraternity) will know the name of John Sloman from his brief spell fronting Uriah Heep, and possibly also from his time with Lone Star before that. But those days were over four decades ago and, to use an appropriate metaphor, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge in that time. Having spent time in several other rock acts of varying profile over the years, John has quietly recorded and released a significant amount of solo material under his own name. All of which, to my shame, has passed me by without my notice until now. Indeed, I freely admit that my interest in this one was piqued initially by those long-ago days when he was part of the soundtrack to my oft-misspent late teenage years – but that initial pull of recognition-cum-nostalgia is of limited relevance on considering this record, as it is a very different beast indeed. For this is to all intents and purposes an entirely acoustic recording, with everything written, played and sung by Sloman himself. It is also a concept album – and we all love one of those, don’t we? So let’s find out what this is all about…
The title Two Rivers refers to the two actual rivers, the Thames and the Taff, in London and Cardiff respectively. It also forms a framework for John to look back over his life, which has been spent in two major ‘homes’ – first in South Wales and later in London, where he moved as an adult to base himself for his musical career. The opening title track sets this basic conceptual touchstone out for the listener, with the 14 tracks here all looking at different pen-portraits relating to one or both of those places, accompanied by regular references to those twin waterways. This is all drawn from experience, with, for example, Caerdydd (City On The River) directly addressing his childhood connection with Cardiff, and its castle in particular (this is referred to in the short spoken word introduction to the song, a feature which all of these tracks share, and which proves to be a stroke of genius in terms of engaging the listener in the whole concept and preventing the mind from wandering). Scenes From An Old Biscuit Tin looks back in very effective fashion at his memory of an actual old tin in his childhood home, which bore a romanticised historical painting of a London which existed long ago (if at all) and fired his young imagination.
The album is chock-full of these nostalgic memories, and it is simply achingly real. It would take an astonishing imagination to invent these places and characters, and one can be assured that all of this is directly lifted from the pool of his own recollections. The most profound trick is how easily we are drawn into it as well, perhaps even looking back at our own ‘two rivers’, and how our environments have shaped us. There are pieces set directly in the London of John’s younger adult life (Londinium, Charing Cross Moon), while others celebrate Cardiff, and how he is drawn back to it in later life (Walking Along The Taff and the Welsh Male Voice Choir-feel of The Last Coalminer), and lyrically the album is a complete delight.
Musically also there is more variation going on than the idea of the self-recorded acoustic album might have you believe. There are songs here which are acoustic guitar-based (though accompanied by percussion to fill out the sound, and also some strings which may be electronically generated) which at times have the touch of the folkier material on Led Zeppelin III, while elsewhere conjuring up more of an Incredible String Band feel, all psychedelically-infused slightly off-kilter folk and the like. Other songs see John accompanying himself on piano, and the whole thing succeeds in sidestepping the trap of acoustic ‘sameyness’ which always looms large as a trap for the unwary when this sort of thing is attempted. The packaging is also very nice, with a poster included featuring song lyrics and accompanying, quite impressionistic, artwork.
It isn’t a faultless album – to be honest at 14 tracks it is perhaps three or so too long, and there could be some editing. Considering the nature of the record and the instrumental palette employed, however, it is remarkable that it engages and retains the interest and attention as well as it does. It’s an enjoyable listen which becomes profoundly more so if you do your part and allow your own nostalgic imagination to be fired along with it. It is also the perfect fit for Sloman’s voice as well, as he manages to communicate an almost fireside-intimacy to proceedings, as if he is sitting with you and reminiscing over a pint of real ale, either of London or South Wales origin. For someone who made his name in highly amplified heavy rock bands, this may be the best fit for his voice that he has ever managed to employ.
This may not be the album to most excite and energise you this year, but it is most certainly one which will live in your mind after many other more brash and immediate offerings have faded. And that’s something there is always room for, as life becomes more and more about immediate gratification of the moment. Check this one out, and spend a little time with it. You may just be very glad you did.