MJ Hibbett - A Million Ukeleles
(Artists Against Success AAS057, limited CD or download via iTunes)
Seasoned readers of my reviews will recall how I enthused about MJ Hibbett and the Validators' album "We Validate" last year. Well, MJ hasn't exactly been slacking since the release of that and indeed the second single from said album: "The Lesson of the Smiths" earlier in the year. He's been working on the solo album for some time, and along with some new songs, some old songs he'd written a while back but finally got them as recorded versions during the creation of the album. Some of them I've even heard live a few months back, so that was rather nice.
Anyway, you know how indie fanzines used to be? When you'd get the fanzine with some kind of coloured in front cover and some hand typed font detailing the words inside with drawings et al? Well, the packaging for "A Million Ukeleles" is in this vein. The CDs (which are in a limited edition of 200) are all handmade, with the front cover drawing of some ukeleles coloured in with crayon (indeed mine had orange, brown and green crayon in there) and the front and back are stuck on rather nicely and well - with the track listing using a spectrum-esque font. When you open the sleeve, the inner right hand side folds open to reveal the CD, which is all very lovely, and the left has an opening for the lyric sheet, which is neat and tidy (although if you're short sighted, it might prove a little hard to read the words.) It all feels like a really nice little package and makes you appreciate the limited run just that little bit more.
So, the packaging's good, but I know what you're asking - what about the music? Well thankfully that's on excellent form, and that would always be the reason for me purchasing any album to be honest. MJ's strength is his observations and how moments can be turned into song and that strength is prevalent on many of the tracks here - and isn't that what it should be about when you're writing songs? Anyway, the album starts off with the title track "A Million Ukeleles", a lovely tale with some gorgeous mandolin playing that reminds me of all the best REM songs out there. The tale's basically of how someone took a chance buying some ukeleles to teach the kids at school and how because of the ease of use that it would grow until a million of them were in use. And the ukelele of course features rather well here, as you'd rightly expect.
"Pass It On" is something that was originally written with a cheesy advert commercial type thing in mind, as a result it's got a really simple and catchy chorus, played with the ukelele a lot, and it has that four track immediacy that just smacks of happy happy tune - even more so when you consider MJ's real life girlfriend sings the backing vocals. "Programming Is A Poetry For Our Time" tells it just like it is, with all the finer details of programming mentioned as how it can be used in so many ways and is the language that keeps the world going in a way that the likes of Wordsworth used to do right now. It's much rockier too, and has Emma Pattison of the Validators backing the vocals with some nice distorted range, which works really well in the context of the song. Hurrah to that I say.
"Down The Narborough Road" is wistful little tale with some lovely guitars, it's much more gentle and some nice use of spoken word vocals to emphasise just how you want to be back down that road, and how where you've been before doesn't feel like home. It gets rockier later but keeps the simplicity intact which is rather nice. "I Did A Gig In New York" is based on a completely true story, as he really did do a gig in New York, but as he was there during Thanksgiving it was pretty hard really. The story's really nice and there's a nice boudran instrument recorded as well which makes it sound like it was recorded at a friend's place just for the hell of it - not least the penny whistle. It all works rather well for the immediacy sake. Now I need to do a gig there!!
Anyway, moving on,we've got "Hey William" which was written for someone who's 14 months old, and how the world would be seen in the future by them. It's rather wistful and lovely with it, because of the gradual build up of all the nice subjects mentioned, and just ebbs and flows - with some rather nice violins from Tom McClure of the Validators at the end which just makes it much more of a nice little bedtime song for someone. And then, a real favourite already for me, "She Tastes Like Sugar". It reminds me of many early 1990s indie bands in so many good ways, the guitar's rather rocking and although made in mind for a soft drinks company, it could well be a nice little love song too if you wanted it to be - it's all summery too which at this time of year is what we all want isn't it? Next up, "Save A Meadow" which is a nice little ditty about how we appreciate the countryside in a different way when you live in a city, but it also shows that conservation isn't necessarily for just the hippy types either. Not too sure about how this develops, but that'd be me nit picking.
The next two tracks are my favourites, and deservedly so. "Hell On Earth" rightly describes the horrible place that is Birmingham New Street station and how your life just feels so depressing when you're there. Every single word uttered in this song is so true, and not since Roy Harper's "Watford Gap" has a song emnated such truth about a landmark place. It just sounds so happy and completely contradicts the whole dullness of New Street - "it makes Hades look like Leicester" and "It's hell on earth to go there, and I wish I never ever had.." - you get the idea. "Control Alt Delete" is just the archetypal song for anyone that works in IT (oops, that'll be ME then!) and it really does explain that those three buttons are usually the only ones that you need. It's played faster than I've sung along to it live, but it works really well and still brings forth the happiness and joy that the helpdesk brand of Zen can give you. Both these songs demonstrate the wit at its best here and they're both very catchy. I see single potential here!
"Born Yesterday" is rather an epic piece, and it has some lovely guitars, lovely backing vocals from Emma Pattison and the chorus is simple but effective and how if you were always looking forward then life can feel much more positive, and certainly it has that slight feel of being forward looking and not thinking backwards, which is something we all need to do now and then. "Chips and Cheese, Pint of Wine" is a jolly little end to the album which reminds many people of how it was the staple diet of many a University and Poly indie night goer, chips, cheese, wine and plenty of music, along with striped tights and DMs for the ladies, certainly for people of my age it remnates nicely. The combination of violin and ukelele works really well, unexpectedly so, and is good fun. Then there's some reprise of "A Million Ukeleles" at the end, which, to be honest, doesn't quite work as intended. It'd have probably been better to end with "Born Yesterday" as the epic end, but hey, that's just my opinion.
The main thing is here that you've got plenty of quality indie songs with some great song writing and wit that doesn't leave your conscience in a good way, and lots of nice use of ukelele here too thrown in. And along the way plenty of true words which have been spoken in such a warm and intelligent observational way that you can't help but enjoy it. If you love your indie music, buy the limited CD before it's too late - but if you miss out, download it and enjoy. It's just so nice to see that you can still make an album with limited budget and such like but still concentrate on the song writing and make it happen in such a nice way.
Warren's rating: 89%