Jude Cowan singing Doodlebug Alley, the title track from her new album
When I was13, I was a producer for a day. Armed with my trusty Phillips cassette recorder (dodgy mic lead but it worked if you held it in a certain position), I persuaded my seven-year-old sister Isabel to make a record with me. We spent a busy hour extemporising. I know we reached far and wide for our cultural allusions but for some reason only the films of Joan Crawford (there was a Saturday afternoon season on television) and Clark Gable, and sexy underwear (always worth a childish giggle) linger in the memory after all this time.
We came up with some basic tunes, beat the rhythms on a pile of books and, making it up as she went along, Isabel plucked her own lyrics out of thin air with a facility beyond her years. Before we ran out of steam, we had a whole C60 side of material – enough for a whole album – and armed with scissors, a couple of photographs and a black felt tip, I quickly rustled up a cover. I can still see it. Bella, it was called. And I know the words “Includes the hit single…” appeared somewhere, together with my all-important producer’s credit. It must still be around somewhere at the back of a cupboard.
What prompted this flood of reminiscence? A few spins of Jude Cowan’s new album, Doodlebug Alley. Not that I’m suggesting Cowan is stranded in early adolescence or that there is anything remotely childish about the production or concept, or her stridently poetic lyrics. But the overall effect is of a similarly chaotic, random clash of references and influences – and yes, more than a hint of the precocity that makes me wince slightly as I look back down the corridor of years.
Doodlebug Alley is nothing if not experimental and uncompromising. But it’s telling that the first time I grabbed the sleeve for more information was midway through “She Sits at the Window” – itself a nostalgic treat, as it conjured hours of listening to obscure Radio 4 afternoon dramatisations during the afternoon ‘rests’ of childhood – and discovered that the eerie beauty of the piano solo was down to composer Nicky Bendix rather than Cowan herself.
Easy listening, this is not, and Bendix’s interlude provides a welcome respite from Cowan’s acerbic and jagged adventure across a rich landscape of folklore, literature and, in the title track, popular history, in which she mainly accompanies herself on her disconcertingly cheerful ukelele.
The publicity blurb generated high expectations: John Gay meets Hogarth, say, they bump into Brecht and Brel, and the essence of their artistic collaboration is channelled by Cowan as a latter-day Agnes Bernelle. And occasionally, there is the real prospect of those expectations being met – particularly in the visceral bleakness of “Remember Sinners” (an homage to the French poet François Villon), with Tom Fawcett contributing a grim guest appearance, disturbingly bringing the first-hand gallows experience to life (and death). “Jolly Roger” takes a long, hard look at unwanted pregnancy, finding a rare dark humour in the depths of experience. There is some fine, topical, satire too in the vicious “Naughty Daddy”, a timely anti-capitalist swipe.
But the high points are undermined by moments of startling banality particularly in the title track, which is supposed to evoke the live-for-the-moment intensity of London during the Blitz. The awkward rhythmic shifts, a burst of finger-clicking, the rhyming of arse with St Pancreas, and a bzzzz more reminiscent of a dying bluebottle than the drone of an approaching V1, had me glaring at the speakers in disbelief and instead, brought my old Phillips days vividly to life.
I wanted to love Doodlebug Alley (note to PRs: Please stop comparing any hard-to-categorise female artists with Kate Bush. It’s a tired old cliché these days, and rarely flatters either party). But despite its sardonic darkness, it’s left me frustrated. Jude Cowan, a cultural historian, clearly has genuinely original talents to be reckoned with. I’d like to see them harnessed with more discipline and a clearer vision next time round.