Throughout a 45-year career, initially with The Prefects but predominantly with The Nightingales, Robert Lloyd has specialised in lyrically obtuse, spectacular Beefheartian, post-punk clatter of increasing complexity. However, during this time there have been a number of pleasing digressions such as his mid-1980s foray into Americana with ‘In The Good Old Country Way’ and a more pop oriented solo outing at the end of that decade as Robert Lloyd and the New Four Seasons. ‘Black Cat, Dark Horse’ represents another break with type consisting of a set of duets with Janet Beveridge-Bean of Freakwater who produce Appalachian folk music with a modern façade. 

Their crack musical ensemble also includes Mark Bedford (bassist with Madness), Pete Byrchmore (the foil for Lloyd’s solo album) and mystery Spanish drummer, Pablo Roda (although their live incarnation has Lindy Morrison, formerly of The Go-Betweens, on the drum stool which is a cause for great excitement to your humble scribe).

The opening title track sets the tone, the guitar offering a country twang, Lloyd’s voice deep, lugubrious and offering a debt to the Lee Hazelwood template, whilst Bean’s is clearer and wider ranging especially in a melodically lifting chorus, in a tale of love spurned. It is immediately apparent just how well the two voices blend, both in chorus and adjacent, the contrast delightful as Bean takes the “black cat” phrase, followed immediately by Lloyd’s boot-deep “dark horse”.

The album includes a few cover versions. A James Elkington composition, ‘Heavy Reckonings’, paints a vivid picture of a troubled soul “my tongue is black with flies / I’ve tried to keep the home fires burning / but my nature’s less discerning / You’d think a downcast soul is mine, but I’m an outcast by design”. Dion Di Mucci’s ‘Wake Up Baby’ sees Bean in bracing vocal form, the music a potent blend of guitar twang and rhythm shuffle. The Goffin and King song, ‘Take A Giant Step’, originally covered by The Monkees on the B side of ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ is a sprightly jaunty acknowledgement that “There’s no percentage in remembering the past” and exhorting “Come with me I’ll take you where the taste of life is green / And every day holds wonders to be seen”. ‘Tears Like Stars’ is written by Jon Langford, more in his later Mekons style than his work with The Three Johns, has moments where Lloyd’s voice is a catarrh-ridden rattle and there is an air of hope amidst the fatalism (“Grief like dawn must break”).

Intriguingly, on the three occasions when Lloyd or Bean has a solo writing credit, the other takes the lead or sole vocal. The Lloyd penned ‘Sweet Georgia Black’, a song of departure and stifled regret, is close to a traditional folk song and a vehicle to display the range of Bean’s voice. ‘Arc of a Smile’ is a Bean composition in which Lloyd takes prime vocal duties to the accompaniment of sparse, plucked guitar in a story of lovers’ fatal first gesture across a room. ‘One Shot’ has him in a semi-spoken husk telling a tale of addiction and the need for one more shot, pill, drink.

‘Eggs and Bacon’ could be taken from a musical with its wordplay referencing “the crack in my pretences” and Lloyd offering to “clean the scum from around your bath / Go arse over elbow just to make you laugh”, ending with his insouciant whistling. The slow burning ‘The True Lovers’ Knot and The Lie’, a song composed by Bean with Elkington, is brutal in its imagery (“Each lie is a bloodhound dismembering hares… Failed words and venomous vows / They rose me up once but bury me now”) and is a particular highlight. 

Tipping a nod to his Midlands roots, the brilliant closing epic ‘Black Country’ takes in sex, violence, boozing and getting “divorced from hope in the Black Country” to a soundtrack of twanging guitar, Bean’s full throttle singing complementing Lloyd’s drawl. It is a fittingly dramatic conclusion to an album that would make a worthy companion to the glorious Nancy and Lee duets.

Lloyd Bean: Black Cat, Dark Horse – Out 2nd June 2023 (Tiny Global Productions)

Lloyd Bean – Bandcamp

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.