I think many in the ukulele world were rather delighted to see Ian Emmerson appear on stage again with his old partner in crime Phil Doleman. Well, they've taken it a step further and I've been lucky enough to have an early copy of their forthcoming EP to have a listen to. "Can't Get Enough Of That Stuff".
I believe this is the first commercial release of the two as a duo since their 2013 album 'Turn'. But it's a release with a slight difference. This one isn't a pure ukulele album. Phil is not just using a ukulele but also returning to an instrument he has been playing even longer and Ian is not playing ukulele at all... People who understand my dislike of the 'it's ukulele or nothing' brigade will understand my excitement. What matters to me is the quality of the music rather than what it is played on it. Of course, being two people forever associated with the uke, and with Phil playing uke on some tracks (his Argapa resonator I believe), it's absolutely right to feature on Got A Ukulele.
So after a long period of jamming together in this new guise, putting out the occasional video and performing the occasional show as a pair, they have delivered a brand new EP of six songs. Performed with Phil on either ukulele or tenor banjo and Ian on acoustic guitar it also represents a change of sound and dynamic from what they have produced before. Recorded in a truly traditional fashion, they recorded all of these tracks as a pair into a single condenser microphone with no overdubs or meddling. I like that.
We open with 'Wild Man Blues', a song credited to both Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and you get an idea of the feel of the EP. Jazzy blues banjo picking by Phil together with his old timey vocal and rhythm backing from Ian on guitar.
'Police Dog Blues' is up next and a favourite of mine from this selection. A song penned by 'Blind Man' Phelps and covered by all sorts of people (including Hugh Laurie) it shows off Phil's impeccable finger picking style.
Another song from Jelly Roll Morton in 'Winin' Boy'. It's as laid back and smooth as you like. For me it's the only one of these that I've heard performed by others on ukulele before now so immediately caught my attention as I know the song quite well.
'Fine Artiste Blues' is a cracker and sees Phil back to banjo and Ian joining on backing vocals. It's one of those songs that sounds older than it is - it's actually from the 1970's and was originally released by and outfit called R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders. (The R. Crumb being Robert Crumb, the US cartoonist). It's funny, whimsical and a track that you cannot help tapping the foot to. The are fine artistes indeed. I will leave it to others to decide if they deserve to be kissed... (only joking - the song is a dig at the expectations of grandeur from certain 'artistes' - not something that I think could be levelled at either of these two).
Title track 'Can't Get Enough Of That Stuff' is one I've heard them play before as it is one of the first videos they put out in the ukulele / guitar guise a few months back. Little did we know then that there was an EP coming. Originally by Tom Dorsey and The Famous Hokum Boys, it fits the mood of the EP perfectly, bounces along well and has a lovely melodic repeating riff from Phil on the ukulele throughout.
Closing track, the Big Bill Broonzy penned 'Trouble In Mind' is my favourite without a doubt. Phil on banjo, Ian on guitar, sublime harmonies in the vocals. It's got a feel of old Hank Williams songs, or the earliest Beatles / Quarrymen track 'In Spite Of All The Danger'. It's laid back yet pretty and comes complete with a nice guitar solo from Ian in the middle. I think it's the harmonies that just wrap the EP up perfectly. A couple of great musicians and great friends doing what they love to do. Close and in tune with each other on both the instruments and on the vocals.
So those are the tracks. But what do I really think? Well I genuinely think it's a superb set of performances that I've loved to leave playing. Listening to it through genuinely had me smiling. Few people will know that I have a long standing love for this kind of music that takes me back to my childhood. Sure, it's old time jazzy and bluesy, but I get a kind of old time folky country feel from it (hence my mention of Hank Williams above). Not sure if that is what they were going for, (I doubt it) but there you go. Either way, it reminds me of weekend afternoons at an Uncles house who had the largest collection of old US records I have ever seen. This would have fitted in to that soundtrack perfectly. It's a collection that feels warmly familiar despite me not having heard them perform all of these before. Surely that's the mark of something that is hitting the spot?
As for the recording sound - that single mic has worked brilliantly. It sounds like Phil and Ian are sitting in your living room with their instruments and playing for you personally. And aside from the fact that Ian would probably complain you were not making him enough cups of tea, I can assure you - that is something that you would want to happen.
Readers will know I have been a fan of Phil's solo work and their works a pair before that for some time, so this may come as no surprise. But there is a new twist here. The addition of Ian on guitar really fattens and broadens the sound in a good way. That's not a criticism of Phil's earlier solo releases, but you know - one man, one ukulele - it's always going to sound thinner. But then, remember that this ISN'T a ukulele album - it just features a uke on some of it. And for me, who likes to encourage a breadth of musical instrument playing rather than rigidly devoting yourself to just one, this is a very good thing.
Can't Get Enough Of That Stuff will be available to purchase from the Phil Doleman website at the beginning of March (possibly earlier!). Head over to his site to have a listen to some excerpts from the EP now. You can also see them performing as a duo again at this years Grand Northern Ukulele Festival amongst other venues.
© Barry Maz