April 1997 – album reviews – Ramshackle’s ‘Chin On the Kerb’ (“rocking and poised on the balls of their heels, preparing to take the blow and meet the challenge whenever it snakes out of nowhere to catch them”)

21 Apr

Ramshackle: 'Chin On the Kerb'

Ramshackle: ‘Chin On the Kerb’

Ramshackle‘s second album amply displays the fact that they’re stars in waiting. Or straining at the starting gate, perhaps; as ‘Chin On the Kerb’ feels like someone pacing in anticipation, winding up in order to lash out, someone containing so much but unsure of their moment.

Steve Roberts, Johnson Somerset and Ben Chapman make up Ramshackle. With their previous album ‘Depthology’ they sent admiring ripples through the midground of the blues and soul scene, yet so far they’ve eclipsed by the Bristol superstars on one hand and the steamroller marketing of American R&B on the other. A pity – because the longer you listen to this album the more impressive Ramshackle sound. Compare it to the successive waves of smug, self-satisfied vocal stars that carpet-bomb our soul shelves. It’s like the difference between listening to the shouts of a bandstanding actor and eavesdropping on an intense conversation in the corner of a bar. This band are smooth, but they never sound like they’re big-E Entertainment paste.

The central axis is Roberts’ British/Caribbean voice, bowled in somewhere between the edgy sweetness of Horace Andy, Austin Howard’s lushly muscular prowl and the testifying tenor roar of Doug Pinnick. And Ramshackle seem to have their initial foundations on whatever boundary lines there may be between Massive Attack, On-U Sound and Ellis, Beggs & Howard, but let themselves roam a good deal further. The ranked and sussed electro-acoustic instrumentation touches on trip-hop, on U2 Big Music rock and on techno, on soul and R&B, on church singing, Jamaica dub-juice and slow funk shakedown. Ramshackle are letting it all come to them, nourished by the convergence of those rich streams similar to the all-embracing muse of their Brit-soul contemporary Lewis Taylor, or – in intent, if not manner – to the Prince of The Cross or Symbol.

Certainly they’ve sheathed their black-pop instincts in richly crafted clothing. From My Mind emerges from cloudy electronic shapes to a sweet spartan R&B groove and tiny, intent piano kisses. Works of Devotion lounges on the dubbier ingredient of padded bass, high echoing Jericho trumpet flickers and bouncy toasting; Roberts blazes with quiet righteousness, balancing out the snaky threat of the industrial synth that slides through the song like the worm in the apple. And they’ve got a knack with uplifting ballad pop. The acoustic strum and sweet-rocking sway of Don’t Turn Me Away; the bluesy plaint of (What About) Tomorrow with its hip-hop beats and train-whistle wastelands; the joyous, sunny gospel sighs and carnival brass that ripple through the blissed-out single, Freshly Rained-On Grass; or Eden’s gospelly piano’n’beats, laden with dangling glittery sounds like harmonica memories and a family of chorus vocals.


 
But ‘Chin On the Kerb’ is shadowed by palpable alarm – “Let me tell you / I smell blood in the water.” Even when they’re taking the air and laughing into the sunlight on Freshly Rained-On Grass, there’s a sense of Ramshackle rocking and poised on the balls of their heels, preparing to take the blow and meet the challenge whenever it snakes out of nowhere to catch them. Granted, it’s no ‘Mezzanine’ – it lacks the spookiness, the seductive alienation, the naked rage Massive Attack are allowing themselves. And what darkness exists in this album happens to Roberts’ protagonists, it’s not of them. But there’s a religious sense of right and wrong driving this, which sets up a particular tension in Ramshackle’s tales of life on the rough edge. Just as Roberts can flick lightly between street-sly patois and preacher pomp, Ramshackle’s moods are volatile beneath the smoothness.

If there’s anything you take away from the album, it’s the impression of a hot-headed and contrary man paying a loyal personal tribute to the resilience of the beleaguered black experience. The pomp-rock-tinged Temple – piano and bass from house music meeting a Tackhead-style forcefulness, Roberts’ voice fracturing into sweet choruses and torn-up foreboding roars – warns of hostile worlds outside the church doors. No Touchi”s tales of a crime-ridden community on the last scraps of its pride (“I see less clearly in these advancing years.. / No touchi’ rock, combat bad intentions”) touch on Gaye’s Inner City Blues, ragga inflections dodging the drilling whine of synth and the discreet knife-play of scratching.

Though the above is mild compared to the vengeful slash at brotherhood betrayed on Broken Soul. Or to the vipers-nest atmosphere of the album’s loping title track, where the guitars clot and loom like hangovers, and the synths gleam like yellowed morning-after teeth: “The Judas kiss / of cold glass to my lips / tells me I’m gonna keep doing this all of the time.” Roberts sounds as if he’s washed up against a pissed-on wall, torn pants fouled and down round bruised thighs, surfacing into one of those horrible moments of absolute truth when there’s nothing between you and the raddled wound that you called your soul before you got lost on the dirty side.

Still, even while lying in the gutter, the old line about looking at the stars still applies. In the end, it’s about the determination of faith-under-fire, as in the hymnal, luscious-as-tears Let Em Go and in the way the devotional vision in Lament bears as much witness to the devastation of black communities by alcoholism and self-hating violence as it does to the landscape of promised redemption; Roberts’ voice embracing all of this.

The closer, Safe (with its unexpected crest of sumptuous weeping violas), is a soldier’s song. Fraternal and distressing as a lost harmonica left on a torn battlefield, and acknowledging the brutalisation of young boys into fighting men – “and when I met the enemy / it was just a boy’s eyes, cold and distant. / Such savagery / coming from a man like me.” But when the last words come, they aren’t just a plea for support, but a resolution to find one’s way back to truth: “I wish to be safe in the arms of the Lord / I want to be faithful in deeds and words.”

They might believe that love will triumph over rage, but they don’t treat that rage lightly. Ramshackle? Anything but. Rich and rewarding.

Ramshackle: ‘Chin On the Kerb’
Edel UK Records/Whatever… Records, EDEL 098602WHE (4009880986028)
CD-only album
Released:
18th April 1997
Get it from: (2020 update) Best obtained second-hand.
Ramshackle online:
Last FM Amazon Music
 

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