It’s only a matter of months since Pat Fish slipped out of life, and just the idea of that remains difficult to grasp. I’d been about to text my brother about this fellow doing The Thunderbolt on Thursday you should go and see, and suddenly ‘this fellow’ wasn’t here any more. I wondered then about the recordings; having seen Facebook postings about the sessions in the summer; and it seems both a near-miracle and a benison how quickly they’ve arrived with us.
The greater benison though is what an extraordinary record he has left behind. Across nine songs and thirty-five minutes there is so much variety, wit, and invention, together with quite splendid settings and virtuoso contributions. Both a musical and lyrical delight it captivates and entrances; as the songs become more familiar so too do the echoes they contain and the depths of meaning.
The Highest In The Land was recorded at Dulcitone Studios, a converted chapel in rural Northamptonshire. Lee Russell produced and played keyboards, joined by drummer Dave Morgan and bassist Tim Harries, and various guests including Pat’s longtime collaborator Max Eider. Pat had declared this to be his last recording, and some songs definitely confirm that, but this is anything but a quiet goodbye as I would confidently predict this album’s reputation will only gain stature over the coming weeks, months, and years.
Pat was a European – he’s pictured on the album cover having a quick fag outside the Gare du Nord – so it’s entirely fitting the opener, ‘Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar’ initially sets us down in a Parisian dive bar. The jaunty jazz swing however quickly dances us out of time and spins us a tall tale, or recounts a dream, in which a lilac Jaguar, which isn’t really a Jaguar, immolates on Formby Beach. There’s some delightful trumpet courtesy of Simon Taylor, some brief call and response, and an abiding suspicion of this being a shaggy dog story to cover an escape.
In real life that escape is only to one place and ‘Time’ addresses it; there’s auspiciousness in the title and its inevitable echo of the Bowie song. “My hair’s all wrong / My time ain’t long / Fishy go to Heaven, get along, get along” sung to a ticking-clock beat, is as stark as it gets anywhere; haunted, a mite unnerving, relentless yet restrained and a genuine anger – some quite angry guitar – about lithium mining, before the bravado of “one more shot for Davy Jones”.
Then reverie and near-nostalgia; ‘Sea Madness’ is something of a lament for a Turkish friend, to the memory of Ankara girls, to nights in Paris. The trumpet here carries a profound melancholy but it’s clearly not just personal as the title’s doing double-duty with its gentle punning; “sea madness in the middle of England’s sadness”; and is there, on an album not short of resonances, deep-down an emotional kinship to ‘A Song For Europe’? Echoes present too in ‘Never Give Up’; at the least David J and Bob Dylan have cameos in this delightful benediction, full of the questions we go on asking for a lifetime. Until perhaps that morning when it just seems as well to be off, drifting into a dreamy fantasia of an imagined past soundtracked by ‘Amalfi Coast May 1963’.
Except not yet while ‘Running On Fumes’ remains an option. To the tune of ‘Lily Rosemary And The Jack Of Hearts’ comes another lyrical tour de force; Lemmy and Bowie and Prince may all be gone but the Butcher remains and the words cascade brilliantly; “When I said we could be ghosts I didn’t mean for you to disappear on me/well I hope you’re feeling better, that your life is all you wanted it to be”; until they falter because you may be running on fumes but every so often you have to stop and catch your breath.
Fresh wind attained, the title track comes full of slightly detached braggadocio, as Pat becomes the East Midlands equivalent of a Chicago bluesman, delivering boasts, repetitions, and declarations; “Goin’ to read my bible/goin’ to study my Koran”; over a shuffle enhanced by haunting guitar and keyboards. Then ‘Sebastian’s Medication’ takes another turn, back to the seventies, and what suggests a cross between Syd Barrett and Squeeze, invoking Children Of The Stones and ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, but turns into a lambast of Brexiteer gammons and keyboard warriors accompanied by increasingly wild and mighty guitar from Joe Woolley.
“You ain’t goin’ to get me just yet”; but soon enough for he and Little Jake (like Black Raoul a cat) to be making a reckoning and set it down in the beautiful valedictory ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ where you sense this suave, slightly down-at-heel dandy having one last drag, remembering fondly “Museum Street on Halloween”, and noting finally that life comes down to wanting “to be handled softly, kissed and told we’re worth something”, before he signs off.
It’s sad we’ll now never hear these songs played live – he performs some of them on The Fishy Mansions Sessions viewable at jazzbutcher.com – but across the span of The Highest In The Land he remains so with us, and as these songs unfold, spurring ideas, spinning tangents, and simply delighting, a conversation continues. For any artist that’s no small legacy, and as good a consolation as we get to take.
The Highest In The Land is available now on Tapete Records. The in-studio photo was taken by Ruth Tidmarsh who also created the ‘Running On Fumes’ video.