I can’t think of an artist as under-appreciated as Leeds, UK’s Michael Chapman, a veteran singer-songwriter with over thirty albums under his belt and a past that includes work with Mick Ronson and Rick Kemp and concert slots alongside luminaries such as Roy Harper and John Martyn. John Peel was a champion of his (of course) and albums such as his début Rainmaker and it’s follow-up Fully Qualified Survivor should rightfully find their place in anyone’s list of great British albums. Fusing folk, rock, proto-glam and country, Chapman is a true hero of mine and I find it astonishing (and a little bit refreshing) that he isn’t playing to packed arenas in 2012. Now, at the ripe old age of 71, Chapman finally receives some of the recognition he deserves in the shape of a covers compilation on the venerable Tompkins Square label featuring collaborators like the Black Twig Pickers, Thurston Moore, Hiss Golden Messenger and the aforementioned Rick Kemp.
Legend has it that Chapman started playing music to pay his way into a Cornwall pub he was too penniless to drink in. Whether it’s true or not, there has always been an endearing element of the vagabond about his music. Song titles like ‘Expressway In The Rain’, ‘On My Way Again’ and ‘Postcards of Scarborough’ all hint at travel and unrest and the downbeat, rueful tone in Chapman’s voice speaks of the kind of stretched longing only suffered by those forced to move away by a broken heart. Chapman’s itinerant side is well represented here, with ‘You Say’, ‘It Didn’t Work Out’ and ‘The Prospector’ all chosen to guide the listener into his world. Thurston Moore’s take on ‘It Didn’t Work Out’ – always one of Chapman’s noisier tracks – dispenses with the guitar snarls of the original and replaces them with the type of scrapes immediately recognisable as being from the hands of a member of Sonic Youth. In Trees Outside The Academy mode, Moore easily brings together classic Chapman and his own roughly-hewn heartbreak.
Elsewhere people play it pretty straight. Black Twig Pickers do what they do best but can’t really go anywhere too drastic with ‘Life On The Ceiling’, a slinky instrumental that shows off Chapman’s skills as a finger picker. There are artists on here that I wouldn’t normally consider listening to. Lucinda Williams, who takes on the lengthy ‘Expressway In The Rain’, is one of these, and she does take it a little too close to the middle of the road for my own personal liking. Two Wings’ harmonised spin on ‘You Say’ is ever so slightly saccharine, slowed down to expose the beautifully sparse guitar work but a little too twee to carry off the force Chapman commanded.
The real revelation is Hiss Golden Messenger’s loose and heavy version of ‘Fennario’. Taken from 1974′s oft-overlooked Wrecked Again, it always has been a favourite of mine, but HGM – who recently brought out the super Poor Moon album on Tompkins Square – lend it proper weight. Backed by a female gospel sway, their grungy chain-gang trudge falls somewhere between recent Dylan and Bill Callahan’s hangdog grit, and it raises the track onto another level.
I hope Oh Michael… wins Chapman some new fans. If you’re not already enamoured with him, then please go and buy Rainmaker and work up from there. If you are, then this album will provide you with a much needed fix for the time being and raise some interesting points of comparison. Tompkins Square should be applauded for the attention they’ve given the Yorkshireman. As a fellow product of the most beautiful county on God’s green earth it makes my heart swell with pride that a label in San Francisco has taken Chapman to heart and gathered so many artists to pay tribute to him. I hope to see them all at Kork’s Piano Bar in the near future. Come on Thurston, let’s have a night out…