High or low, voices that hit extremes are exhilarating. There is a thrill to vocals that soar stratospherically, such as Billy McKenzie or Roy Orbison, but there is a contrasting engagement with singing that appears to emerge from the soles of hobnail boots. One of my earliest musical memories was making ludicrous attempts at singing along to Lee Marvin’s growling ‘Wand’rin’ Star’ well before my voice had broken. 

Listening to the Golden Dregs, the immediate talking point is Benjamin Woods’ voice. Rather than the love-drenched baritone of Barry White or the gravel-soaked rasp of Tom Waits, its trip to the bowels of the earth most resembles Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner or the Silver Jews’ David Berman. The presence of a track ‘Lee and Nancy’ on his previous album, ‘Hope for the Hopeless’, suggests another heavy-throated influence. However, like those artists, ‘On Grace and Dignity’ has far more to recommend it than a distinctive voice. It is an album inspired by place, Truro, and is so detailed in its visualisation that Woods asked Edie Lawrence to construct an eight by four-foot model Cornish village containing a viaduct, estuary, supermarket, houses and industrial buildings. All the album’s songs are set in specific locations within these confines and are vignettes taking their cue from the short stories of Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis.

Musically, the brief ‘Intro’ led by stately piano gives an appetising taster of what is to follow. It flows into ‘American Airlines’ as the narrator, bored with his locale, “Check(s) the papers for familiar names / Spare a thought for mothers burying their sons” while fantasising about becoming his “best self” on holiday. It reflects the idea of people waiting for holidays rather than enjoying their lives. 

Gentrification is a significant issue for Cornwall and the attempt to address it with so-called affordable housing is referenced in ‘How It Starts’ (“Rows and rows of houses / Brick and mortar graves / Nothing ever happens”). The theme is revisited in ‘Vista’, inspired by the Graham Greene short story, ‘The Destructors’ (“Put red bricks through the windows and kicked down the doors / With smoke and fire, celebrated life upturned / For no better reason than to watch the burning world”), the acts a metaphor for Woods’ frustrations. ‘Before We Fell From Grace’ has him noting, “Isn’t it bliss here? Just skimming rocks in eden… And try as I might, can’t help but feeling somewhat out of place now” before the song takes a dark turn.

While the album only has small changes of pace, it never seems a weakness due to the arrangements and subtle twists. ‘Before We Fell From Grace’ illustrates this with its organ, sister Hannah’s mournful sax and backing vocals offering a range-expanding contrast to Woods’ tones. ‘Vista’ is especially glorious, guitars at varying stages chiming and twanging, rolling piano shining like dappled sunlight. ‘Sundown Lake’ even breaks into a bass and horn funk groove. The guitar line of ‘Not Even The Rain’ conjures a mysterious stranger as strings and choir-like backing vocals add heft to the chorus (No one saw us leave the scene / Cause there was nobody about / There was nothing we could do / Not even the rain could put the fire out”). While the story in ‘Josephine’ has a dark tone (“We’ve not enough bodies to fill the holes / And I’m digging on my own”), the phlegmy quality to his voice contrasts with the simple beauty of the piano melody.

‘Eulogy’ gives the album its title with its reference “We have known an honest man / Blessed with grace and dignity”. A church organ and hum of background chatter introduces the final track, ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt’, which sees Woods questioning whether he is broken and asking, “Do you think of me when you’re not softened by drink / Like I think of you”. It is a fitting end to an excellent album with a strong sense of place, an individual voice and compelling arrangements.

The Golden Dregs: On Grace and Dignity – Out 10th February 2023 (4AD)

I was editor of the long-running fanzine, Plane Truth, and have subsequently written for a number of publications. While the zine was known for championing the most angular independent sounds, performing in recent years with a community samba percussion band helped to broaden my tastes so that in 2021 I am far more likely to be celebrating an eclectic mix of sounds and enthusing about Made Kuti, Anthony Joseph, Little Simz and the Soul Jazz Cuban compilations as well as Pom Poko and Richard Dawson.