Maddisons Thread Maddisons Thread Album Cover as reviewed on The Phantom TollboothMaddison’s Thread is a strong, mature debut: an old soul wrapped in deceptively modern packaging.

Maddison’s Thread
Artist: Maddison’s Thread
Label: independent
Time: 11 tracks / 47:00 minutes

Folk music is unique in its ability to employ minor tonality and dark themes, remain melancholy to the uttermost, and yet still manage to be hook-based and gratifying.  The label “whimsical ballad” could rightly apply to the majority of the genre’s content – and that includes material written by Maddison’s Thread, the project of self-taught singer, guitarist, and songwriter, Lee Maddison, a native of Hartlepool, UK.  That is not in any way to imply that all Lee’s music sounds the same, or to be dismissive of the genre as a whole.  In fact, Lee Maddison’s brand of singer/songwriter, modern-pop-structure folk is especially powerful in its ability to tell universal stories in singable, anthemic fashion.

Joining Lee as Thread’s adjoining strands are Nigel Spaven (bass), Stewart Hardy (fiddle), Michael Kitching (drums), and Sue Ferris (flute/saxophone).  Drum work on the album, however, was done by Shayne Fontayne.  This is a talented and well-suited compliment of musicians who simply “get” the music their frontman has composed.  The group’s self-titled debut album will be officially released in digital and physical formats next week on 4 August.  In a thematic sense, the songs do possess a “common thread,” though it was not intentionally woven into their fabric during the writing process.  Lee points to the fact that there is a lot of “questing and soul-searching [on the album] for the idyllic  – a better place or state of mind to be, with the occasional allusion and observation to a place where I don’t want to be.”

For a man from the UK, this is a very American sensibility.

Thread begins with “The Viking’s Daughter” (the first of the whimsical ballads), a piece that Lee partially attributes to an etching hanging in his living room.  This lush, mid-tempo piece, based on a simple chord progression, addresses the foolhardiness of lustfulness and war’s futility – “Man is a fool who lives by the sword.”  There’s also a lot of honest vulnerability behind this notion: the one who holds this perspective is also the one who has been burned through experience.  Fontayne’s percussion is tight and complimentary, and Hardy’s fiddle adds the flavor of a shanty song.

Until its first refrain, “Where Eagles Fly” consists of nothing but gently plucked acoustic guitar and Lee’s voice.  Finally, he is joined by backing vocals and Fontayne’s steady percussion.  The first break is the bed for Sue Ferris’ extended flute solo, a breathy whisper that is well-suited to this pastoral song.

“Come the Springtime” is a tune about longing for the thawing of winter, personifying Mother Nature once again as a timeless spirit who cannot long be contained by prisons of snow.  Though minor in tonality, the chorus hook is memorable, and features well-orchestrated vocals.  I especially appreciate Lee’s work on the guitar on this piece, as well as the back-and-forth harmonies created by Ferris’ flute and Hardy’s fiddle – each with additional, overdubbed layers on subsequent refrains.

After the opening trio of more ponderous tunes, “Making the Morning Last” is light-hearted and simplistic.  Hardy’s playful fiddle and Spaven’s meandering bass characterize this gentle hoedown while Lee’s lyrics reveal the song’s innocent heart: “precious moments like these soon become the past.”

“Wonderful Day’s” minor tonality belies its positive lyrics, suggesting that the speaker’s words – “It’s a beautiful day / Don’t go painting it gray” – are perhaps addressed to himself, and that this piece is an attempt to self-console.  Layers of strings accompany Lee’s guitar in addition to a lilting accordion.  Spaven’s bass work is solid, as usual, but is somewhat buried in the mix until it takes a more prominent position on the final verse/refrain.

With its steady tempo and stops, “The Country Song” feels like 12-bar blues without the typical I-IV-V dominant 7th progression.  A harmonica insert furthers this comparison, and also nods in the direction of Bob Dylan compositions.  Lee’s lyrics are a lament of modern-era-style living – being “in overdrive too long” – and begging for some peace and stillness. 

“Don’t Care About Tomorrow” features strong piano undergirding as well as Thread’s only extended guitar solo – a bluesy, high bridge pickup kind of lead that channels Eric Clapton and Jackson Browne.  This song is thematically akin to “Making the Morning Last” – both songs are rich with enjoy-the-moment and savor-the-simple-things sentiments.

The electric and acoustic guitar work on “Night Circus” is nicely orchestrated.  The song is based on a sequence of bluesy chords – 9’s and Maj7’s – as well as a strong bass undercurrent and gospel-style backing vocals.  In other words, this is the perfect composition for Sue Ferris’ jazzy saxophone work.  Furthermore, it’s not often you hear the lyric “The crack of the whip in the hands of a loon / Looks like a penguin on steroids / God help the baboon who gets under his skin” in a song and can still take it seriously.

If there’s a song on Thread that especially channels a James Taylor vibe, it’s “Misty Morning Blues.”  Gentle, reverent, and spacious, the track leaves plenty of room for another of Ferris’ gorgeous flute performances.  Fontayne’s tasteful percussion and Hardy’s fiddle once again compliment the overall orchestration.

The tension created by “One Day’s” dissonant chord progression echoes the pins-and-needles sensation of restored circulation – of remembering how to feel.  This is perhaps the darkest track on the album, as well as the sparsest in terms of instrumentation.  However, it also carries the distinct notion of hope – of one day overcoming the numbness and being restored.

Thread’s final song, “A Crooked Mile Home,” has a meandering, lilting pace, appropriate for the tale of a stumbling, inebriated journey home.  Accordion creates a nice textural backdrop, and trombone adds the flavor of stupor.  Though the song might specifically recount a blurry hangover, it also seems to communicate a bit about Lee’s musical endeavor: a figuring it out along the way mentality.  As Lee attests (in self-deprecating manner), he just throws “musical paint at the creative canvas” and hopes that it works.

Fortunately for him, it does.  Whether or not Thread is an explorative first endeavor, “busy” and “overly ambitious” are not words I would use to describe this release.  Even though Lee confesses that he simply “wanted to play with all of the musical toys available,” he has a defined sense of appropriate instrumentation, which simply means that the band’s “auxiliary” instruments (violin, flute, saxophone) carry the compositions as much as its “primary” instruments do.  My only complaint is that Spaven’s quality performance on the bass is often obscured in the mix and could perhaps use a little boost when the album’s second pressings are ordered.

Overall, Maddison’s Thread is the right combination of all the right elements.  Lee’s voice has a throaty, high nasal character like that of Joey Eppard (3), Bob Dylan, and James Taylor, and not unlike those greats, he also possesses a knack for writing clever, intelligent lyrics that communicate to diverse generations.  That strong grasp of wordplay is a huge highlight for me.  Well-written music with thematic substance is a scarce commodity in the modern entertainment era, and Maddison’s Thread is refreshingly original in that regard.  Together, all of these qualities make this album a strong, mature debut: an old soul wrapped in deceptively modern packaging.

Justin Carlton