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1 December 2017

Simon Joyner ‎– 'The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll' (Sing, Eunuchs!)

My copy actually has a white sleeve, but it's so much easier to steal these images than to scan them. I hope that this brief excursion into early Simon Joyner records is as rewarding to read about as it is for me to listen to; this is an intensely beautiful body of work from a gifted songwriter whose talent only further expanded over the subsequent two decades, though for some reason I only have his early ones. The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll is a nice hybrid of the ragged approach found on his Iffy cassette and the somewhat most contemplative singer-songwriter vibe of the subsequent Room Temperature cassette. This is his first LP release and it's spread across different sounds and styles, with some band work and scarring electric guitar playing, perhaps by Joyner or perhaps with a band - no one else is credited but I'd guess Chris Deden is the drummer. Joyner is a natural with an acoustic guitar but over his career he has resisted attempts to pigeonhole him into the coffeeshop/open-mic genre. Here, electricity brings a darker cadence, especially on songs like '747', 'August (Die She Must)' and 'Fallen Man'. There's a lot of personal pronoun work here, and it's neither intensely soul-baring nor character work, which is maybe one of the reasons that Joyner's never found major commercial success. Instead, he writes songs that are rich in imagery, oblique enough to have an air of mystery, and relatable in fleeting passages. 'Appendix' is a long and somewhat surreal travelogue, which is quite compelling in it's manic strumming; it's the acoustic mirror of side one's 'I Went to the Lady of Perpetual Healing', which seems to describe a mystical experience but is maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek. These are great, ragged indie rock accompaniments, Omaha style, and they perfectly complement Joyner's unorthodox voice; the scratchy violin on 'Cole Porter' can act as a symbol of the whole scene he came from at this time, which stretched to the West Coast to include the Shrimper label and artists like Refrigerator and the Mountain Goats, who Joyner shares an obvious musical affinity with. It comes to a head with the final track, 'Joy Division' (where have we heard that name before?), which is an electric guitar and voice tune, sung to a father and with the same sense of mild desperation that rings through the whole album. It crescendos into a brief moment of cathartic rocking out, before ending with a tape splice. It's sudden, but suddenly moving as well, and there's still a glimmer of teen angst despite the more sophisticated approach to lyric writing. This style of arrangements is right up my alley but it set these artists aside from more commercially-minded songwriters; I clicked with it as an adolescent in the mid-90s because it felt intimate, homemade, and inviting. If the songwriting is pure then there should be no need for big studio production, and I think I still believe that today.

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