Fidelity!

JP, Chrissie & The Fairground Boys

La Mina, 2010

http://www.jpchrissie.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/02/2010

This is an album that is one with its backstory.

The story—already slipping into the category of urban legend—goes something like this.  One night in 2008, unknown young Welsh singer-songwriter JP Jones was drinking at a London art opening when he spotted a famous face at the bar.  Where others might have slunk away, the combination of curiosity and alcohol spurred JP to strike up a conversation with the one and only Chrissie Hynde, of Pretenders fame. 

Where the conversation that followed between 32-year-old Jones and 59-year-old Hynde eventually led isn’t entirely clear; the pair avoid direct answers and drop sometimes-contradictory hints about the personal dimension of their relationship, which included a spring 2009 sojourn to Cuba, where most of these songs were written.  Regardless, all available evidence suggests that there was an immediate creative and romantic spark, but that the latter element of the relationship was doomed from the start by their age difference, resulting in an album full of songs about perfectly matched lovers fated only to pine for one another.

Leadoff cut “Perfect Lover” immediately etches a new entry in the book of classic songs about star-crossed lovers, a composition with genuine kick-you-in-the-gut power, exceptionally poignant and magnificently executed.  “I found my perfect lover but he’s only half my age / He was learning to stand when I was wearing my first wedding band / I found my perfect lover but I have to turn the page / But I want him in my kitchen and standing on my stage.”  Hynde’s longing on this track is real enough to send shivers up your spine. 

Jones, who provides support and counterpoints to Hynde’s lead vocals on “Perfect Lover,” takes the next lead and attacks the topic at hand with all the intrepid urgency of youth, insisting in the anthemic “If You Let Me” that “I’m gonna make you love me / If you let me, if you let me, if you let me.”  This billowing emotion is set to a driving beat, with expansive Van Morrison-y guitars and piano and choruses that get bigger and bigger.

If it isn’t obvious yet, listening to this album is both thrilling and unsettling.  Thrilling because the emotion is so raw and genuine, and unsettling for exactly the same reason; these songs are so intimate the listener feels almost like a voyeur.  Take “Australia,” which seems to narrate the pair’s first meeting—except here she goes home with him, whereas in “Perfect Lover” she’s already declared that “he’ll never share my bed.”  It’s a bittersweet contradiction that blurs the boundaries between what’s real and what’s fiction.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Many of these songs feature Jones and Hynde either dueting or trading verses, and the remainder generally feature one prominently supporting the other in a sort of running dialogue.  There are two exceptions.  “Misty Valleys” is a pure Hynde lead vocal, and well it should be; the way she massages the melody like a lover, slipping into falsetto at exactly the right syllable, is nothing short of magic.  Jones’ vocals are an interesting contrast, as you’re reminded when he takes the lead on “Courage.”  He’s got a rough, breathy, rather Springsteenesque voice that speaks easily of hard living.   (“Under the railway bridge we’ll hide” –doesn’t that just sound like a Springsteen line?)   “Leave Me if You Must” showcases Jones’ weariest tones, letting a little anger creep in around the edges.    

Notions of fairness and balance aside, realistically, Hynde is the lead attraction here, and shows once again why “the legendary” increasingly precedes her name in print.  She had a remarkable voice 30 years ago; one of the most amazing parts of this album is to hear her singing today as well as she ever has, in a voice as powerful and subtle and enthralling as it’s ever been.  The vulnerability she conveys in songs like the wistful “Meanwhile” is incredible—and her ability to follow it with the insouciance and steeliness of a song like “Your Fairground,” amazing. 

Another of those things you do when you’re falling in love with someone is bend a little in their direction, to try to meet them halfway.  You actually get to hear that happening when Jones tries to match Hynde’s upper-register vocals on “Never Drink Again” by using his own falsetto; it almost feels like it could be a reflection of their relationship, because he’s trying so hard, and you feel for the guy that much more hearing him strain to match a woman who’s literally out of reach.

The album finishes with “Fidelity!” a song that’s a bit of a puzzle.  “I can see that you’re itching, you’re young and you’re able to love / Lord above save me from my misery”—that’s clear enough.  But the chorus of “It’s life, you’ve got a little girl, fidelity!”… is the little girl the child Jones has acknowledged in interviews that he wants to father one day?  In other words, is the fidelity Hynde is urging to Jones’ desire to be a father?  Or is it fidelity to the truth of their lives, i.e. the difference in their ages?  Or are those really one and the same thing?

I could offer caveats and quibbles here and there—the acquired taste that Jones’ rough-edged voice represents, the occasional samey-ness of the mid-tempo arrangements—but those are insignificant footnotes to what is an undeniably terrific album.  For songwriting, vocal collaboration and pure artistic courage, Fidelity! is close to as good as it gets.

Rating: A-

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© 2010 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of La Mina, and is used for informational purposes only.