The press for ‘Seeds Of A Dandelion’ talks about Jono McCleery being one of the UK’s “Best kept secrets”, a position which – whilst it’s undoubtedly true – when you’re trying to put food on your own table is less of a romantic notion for musicians than it sounds.
The Londoner certainly deserves more recognition than he’s earned so far off the back of three fine albums – 2008’s fan-funded ‘The Darkest Light’, 2011’s ‘There Is’ and ‘Pagodes’, released four years later. Each have showcased a distinctive, soul-indebted voice and the artisanal mix of jazz, folk and MPC skitter, along with an ability to interpret other’s music cleverly and with respect (‘There Is’ featured an austere version of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’, ‘Pagodes’ a dazzlingly intuitive take on Robert Wyatt’s ‘Age of Self’).
With this understood, an album of covers represents a logical, if brave, choice given how straightforward such a task can be to undertake in theory but also how hard it is to escape the original’s shadow. McCleery’s certainly can’t be accused of easy choices as the selections, from Beyonce’s room shaking ballad ‘Halo’ to Billie Holiday standard ‘God Bless the Child’ – along with material originally by Tim Buckley, Rufus Wainright and Scott Walker – are held as dear by fans as they appear ripe for new horizons.
One person’s hot new take on a familiar apple is of course another’s outrageous liberty, but whilst the uber-cynic might look at ‘Seeds of a Dandelion’ and dismiss it as very high-end karaoke, there’s no doubting the deconstructive zest in opener ‘Gabriel’, originally a minimalist 90s house gospel tract by Roy Davies, Jr. Setting the tone, here McCleery simply throws a few guitar chords over the orchestration of the Iskra String Quartet, revitalising it into a tumbling act of faith.
Stalking down these paths less trodden brings predictably mixed outcomes; a bossa-strong version of the Cocteau Twins’ ‘Know Who You Are at Every Age’ is interesting rather than strictly essential, but the stripping back of flamboyant American Wainright’s ‘Dinner at Eight’ reveals a new vulnerability buried under the original’s gloss. This elemental sketching is, claims McCleery, entirely deliberate; a focussing on the song and not the performer with whom it’s synonymous and an immersive way of being inside the rendition. One of ways this approach manifests itself was achieved by using rough vocal takes rather than allowing the luxury of refinement; it’s the master stroke which elevates ‘Seeds of A Dandelion’ from vanity project into a more serious work.
Few artists of any stature would choose to bring together such a diverse collection under one banner; closer ‘La Ritournelle’ slows Sebastien Tellier’s disco-schmaltz to an almost complete halt and then truncates its dedications into a vignette, a melancholic dart at Nina Simone’s ‘Wild Is The Wind’ is bound to divide opinion, whilst the sultry take on Tim Buckley’s ‘Dream Letter’ replicates the mood if not the gravity of the doomed singer’s original.
Throughout, the singer shows masterful self-control by not simply reverting to type, but when this almost dogmatic mask slips, a little magic happens; his reedy, accordion led take on Atoms For Peace lacklustre art-Moog Ingenue allowing that voice to soar into a heart-lifting falsetto, fastening pop to the introvert lapels of the source and inking in what the real boundaries of this mandate could’ve been. ‘Seeds of a Dandelion’ is almost certainly the most ambitious collection of interpretations you’ll come across this year. That it even exceeds marks-for-effort status is testimony to McCleery’s dedication and respect for his choices. Perhaps now we can all agree that the secret’s out.