Greg Fleming: Working Poor Country (all main digital platforms)

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Move to the Side
Greg Fleming: Working Poor Country (all main digital platforms)

In a recent Facebook conversation I instigated, I questioned how little political comment there has been in New Zealand popular music. As expected, many people weighed in with particular songs . . . but my point was that these were largely one-offs.

Committed and consistently socio-political songwriters are thin on the ground, although we immediately acknowledge early Herbs, Moana Maniapoto, Upper Hutt Posse/Dean Hapeta/Te Kupu, the Eastern/Adam McGrath and a few others.

But they are so few we can name every one of them (just as we can quickly name political songs like Riot 111's 1981, Shona Laing's Soviet Snow and Neutral and Nuclear Free and so on).

Singer-songwriter Greg Fleming spent some time away from the game but since his return to the frontlines this decade – while working and with a family etc – he hasn't resiled from addressing the parlous state of this nation . . . and, like so many of us, he doesn't like what he sees.

His last album with his band the Working Poor, To Hell With These Streets, was an exceptional song cycle about those who, at best, are living on what politicians casually call “Struggle Street” and at worst are literally on the street.

This new album with his terrific band – Andrew Thorne and John Segovia (guitars), Nick Duirs (keyboards), bassist Mark Hughes and Wayne Bell (drums) – slightly ameliorates the on-going social comment with some alt.country songs about relationships (not all them happy) . . .  but it's hard not to deny the fundamental truths in songs like the abrasive title track about the desperation in trying to keep apace with the cost (literal and metaphorical) of living in an urban environment.

Or the exceptional, brooding, hip-hop influenced Move to the Side about a rapacious and emotionally damaged property developer buying up houses which comes with a spare arrangement ideally suited to the raw nerve ends and violence of character at its centre.

Or even in the character studies of Cash is King,

But elsewhere are the catchy, chipping and upbeat country-rock Nothin' 'Bout You (“that I don't like”); the sound of slippery slide guitar and handclap on the joyous Headlight (“the city's mine today”); the gently rollicking Last Names which celebrates the happy chaos of blended families (“our last names are almost the same”) and comes with a litany of the familiar mundane objects in households; the lonely emotional struggle on Memory and East. . . .

The flipside of course is always going to be evident in Fleming's insightful world: Go South (the arrangement compellingly and appropriately skeletal with the sound of an old upright piano) is a woman getting out of a bad relationship and heading off  . . . as so much New Zealand male escapist literature has from John Mulgan's Man Alone to Barry Crump's Sam Cash stories and the film Sleeping Dogs.

And there's the downtempo country ballad Flew In From Vegas which is also about broken love and alludes to a chance encounter in a departure lounge (drummer Bell delivering a terrific twanging guitar line) . . .

On album which feels coherent despite the emotional and lyrical diversity, there's also dry humour and everything closes with a lovely but sad with Only Girl (I've Ever Loved).

If that previous but damn fine album was a tough call for some, then this is a solid place to start a way into Greg Fleming's increasing expanding and impressive body of work.

There is a considerable amount of Greg Fleming at Elsewhere including album reviews, an interview and Greg writing about the recording of his earlier album Forget the past. Start here.

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