FRANK TURNER – The Third Three Years

FT ThirdFrank Turner is one of those artists who just never stops working. If he’s not recording a new album, he’s touring.  If he’s not touring, he’s recording radio sessions.  If he’s not recording radio sessions, he’s touring.  If he’s not touring, he’s recording extra material for b-sides or stand-alone EPs.  It’s no wonder that his solo career has spawned compilation discs of album length every three years.  This traditional taking stock resulted in a third compilation – predictably titled ‘The Third Three Years’ – in the autumn of 2014.  While this particular instalment of FT’s extra-curricular recordings is, perhaps, a little more reliant on covers and live/session material than the previous two anthologies, the twenty one track disc brings plenty of enjoyable material for the Turner fan.

Taken from the ‘Polaroid Picture EP, ‘Sweet Albion Blues’ is an instant classic. This high speed acoustic romp brings an autobiographical viewpoint of Turner’s seemingly never ending touring schedule, our protagonist hammering his guitar chords with ferocity, his folk-punk stance almost taking on an unstoppable Johnny Cash chick-a-boom freight train intensity as it motors along. The volume of the recording allows the buzzing of the guitar strings to be heard in places, thus adding to the energy of the performance.  ‘Hits & Mrs’ – a track originally featured on the ‘Losing Days EP’ – finds Turner lamenting on his idea of that fantasy relationship set against an acoustic backdrop, peppered with mandolin.  While stylistically similar to 2012’s ‘Tape Deck Heart’, its almost fairytale viewpoint is very much at odds with the parent album’s themes of breakups and heartbreak. A strong vocal adds to the general air of looking forward, resulting in something very enjoyable.

A leftover from an album of duets with Jon Snodgrass, ‘Happy New Year’ discusses the difference between UK and US holiday dates and is rather fun but nothing more, while the acoustic ‘Riot Song’ – dealing with thoughts of London unrest in the summer of 2011 – is an absolute treat. Firmly in the protest song mould [“…fuck the cops, forget the thieves, step up defend your own community / tomorrow we stand together”], this is angry yet poignant and still relevant – although peaceful protest is always the best way, stand for our beliefs we must.  Like the earlier ‘Thatcher Fucked The Kids’, this is Turner at his most outspoken, the basic musical arrangement only serving to deliver his message in a harder way.   A number dating back further than most, ‘Dan’s Song’ originally saw release as an acoustic-based recording on the 2009 release ‘Poetry of the Deed’.  A previously unheard recording is featured here – recorded with The Sleeping Souls at some point on the ‘Tape Deck Heart’ tour – with everyone going absolutely crazy.  The acoustic premise is all but forgotten as the band tear through a full electric, punked up rendition of the fan favourite complete with shouty vocals; the kind of full throttle performance that leaves audiences pumped. Even hearing this just recorded for posterity, it still sounds pretty exciting.

Better than the various off-cuts and b-sides are three tracks recorded for an iTunes session.  ‘Tell Tale Signs’ and ‘The Way I Tend To Be’ (already a couple of standouts from ‘Tape Deck Heart’), sound so fantastic in a stripped down setting.  Turner’s lyrics of a broken relationship during ‘Tell Tale Signs’ cut like shards of glass when left to stand so naked, while shorn of drums and bass, hit single ‘The Way I Tend To Be’ feels more spacious with a rolling piano providing superb accompaniment to its distinctive mandolin riff.  It’s a reminder – if one were needed – of what a well-rounded, mature, open and frighteningly honest record ‘Tape Deck Heart’ was upon release…and still is.  In terms of sheer balls, FT gets a double thumbs-up-for attempting to reproduce the hugely bombastic ‘Live & Let Die’ with mandolin and acoustic guitars.  Obviously, none of the vocals come with the sheen of McCartney’s masterwork, but the fact they’ve even pulled this off at all in a live setting should be applauded.  The mandolin shreds, the acoustic guitars hammer, FT nearly blows his voice out on the huge climax.  They’ve even disguised the cod-reggae interlude to make it less jarring… This is the sound of musicians brimming with confidence…and if it doesn’t raise a smile, nothing will.

‘Live & Let Die’ is just one of many covers recorded during these ‘Third Three Years’. Excellent though that may be, FT has something better up his sleeve.  The best of the covers is a gentle finger picked version of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho & Lefty’ (recorded with Spoon’s Jim Eno), showcasing the more tuneful side of Frank’s guitar playing.  Fans of acoustic folk will find plenty to love with each passing note and a very reflective vocal performance is very respectful of the beautiful arrangement.   Rougher around the edges, Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl’ also fares very well in an acoustic format.  A song covered by so many, it’s a pleasure to hear this classic tackled in a different fashion – the stripped back performance allows the lyrics to shine through and the home demo recording brings a very natural performance, complete with a couple of vocal wobbles.  A recording of Noel Coward’s ‘There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner’ takes a similar musical stance as ‘Sweet Albion Blues’ – those who love acoustic guitars being hammered at full pelt are guaranteed a thrill – thus giving Turner’s louder vocal approach and English accent the perfect opportunity to take centre stage.   Among other things, this shows Turner to be an artist who gains his influences from a much broader palate than some would ever expect.

For many fans, the big draw on this comp will be a cover of the Queen classic ‘Somebody To Love’, originally issued as an impossible to find 7” on Record Store Day, 2012.  A brave move to take on a tune not only so well loved, but a tune with such a grandiose arrangement.  Obviously, FT and his friends can’t match the huge pomp of Freddie and company in their grandiose prime, but they give their all.  The backing vocals are bravely attempted, the waltzing piano part is played with enthusiasm and Turner – obviously always going to be the one out front and centre tackles every line with glee and gusto.  It’s clearly a song he really loves…and while some Queen fans are likely to sneer at these results in their superior fashion, there’s no denying FT and his band had a superb time recording this.  Just as ‘The Second Years’ paid homage to Springsteen with an acoustic rendition of ‘Thunder Road’, this release is home to a take on the classic ‘Born To Run’.  Tacked in a similarly stripped down fashion – just voice and guitar – and stripped of its Spector-obsessed bravado, the song sounds more like a cry for help from a soul who really feels trapped in his surroundings and the downbeat arrangement really hits home the need for escape.  As with the recording of ‘Thunder Road’, this places Frank in a fairly stark setting, clearly having identified with the lyric at some point on his journey through life. Without the bells, whistles and bellowing, it’s the perfect opportunity to think about what a fantastic lyricist Mr. Springsteen is.

Sadly, the bonus tracks from the special edition of ‘Tape Deck Heart’ may be conspicuous by their absence, but there’s some great stuff to be heard among this grab-bag of shiny nuggets and rusty trinkets.  Despite the varying sources and “left-over” nature of some of the material, it’s twenty one cuts combine to make a disc that’s almost filler free. For Frank Turner’s fans, it’s another unmissable offering…while for the merely curious, ‘The Third Three Years’ may just be worth picking up for the iTunes Session tracks and that Townes Van Zandt cover alone.

[A review of FT’s 2014 release with Mongol Horde can be found here.]

November 2014