Johnny 5th Wheel, The Cowards - Tales Of...

Owain Paciuszko 06/11/2010

Rating: 5/5

Opening with the woozy, sea shanty style instrumental Following the Wheel sets a delightful and evocative mood, hazy streaks of seasick violin taking us perfectly into the world of Johnny 5th Wheel before Brotherly Love turns things into an avant-garde number, with Johnny crooning 'I'm a bounder, I'm a cad, I'm a rouge, I'm a rake' over mandolin driven, lively gypsy-flavoured and buoyant pop melodies. His vocals have the semi-theatrical delivery of an 80's alternative rock star and marry with strange wonder to the creaky, jazzy antiquated musical backdrop.

The Illusionist is better yet, a slinky drumline and sneaky mandolins reverberating, and there's a distinctive flavour of The Magnetic Fields to the wry-lyricism ('You can blow your smoke and mirrors up your arse') and squidgy keys. For a moment O My Soul sounds like a 60s pop number, but as soon as the rowdy backroom chorus of vocals kicks in and the accordian sets out its syncopated rhythms you know your back out at sea, and it's a salty tune of the highest order that in its choruses rattles on with a cheeky smirk.

Like an offbeat Grimm fairytale sung by Donovan Little Red Hen transforms into a defiantly optimistc pop stomp, it takes a simple structure with animal imagery and instantly makes it connect with the listener in a bonkers and rose-tinted fashion as this Little Red Hen is turned down by various other critters in his wheat-gathering activities. The Matador takes a familiar Spanish-guitar line, throws in rat-a-tat drumming and curiously plucked mandolin, throws in a bit of bad-punning ('I'm a jealous matador and I don't take no bull from you.'); it tells the tale of an ex-lover observing covetously their ex-girlfriend, occasionally with violent fantasies, and to this extent it has the same kind of comedic angst as Those Gay Hippies marvellous As Long As He's Good To Her.

PIano driven supper-club crooning on Happy Families, garnished with the aching and romantic violin of Holland Franks which is a constant delight across the entire LP. Barbershop meets The Flamingos with a When I'm 64-esque lyrical-bent on The Twist, it encapsulates the band's ability to cobble together a number of familiar elements producing something wonderfully askew and original. A militaristic drum beat mingles with an ever expanding collage of sounds on I've Got A Secret, additional vocal tracks layered with muted trumpets and woozy, sun-kissed electric guitar, aptly suggesting the attitude of a mind carrying a pleasant little truth.

There's a menace to the rolling piano of Never Been In Love; 'You ask me when are my dark times? And I reply whenever the sun shines.' A alt-folk storm cloud covering the previous track's bright skies with fevered anguish and occasional puddles of solemnity, there are shades of Badly Drawn Boy at his most creative and story-driven. Man Who Ate Badgers flits between styles like Shockheaded Peter being scored by - at first - Tom Waits then Kate Bush, it's a deliciously quirky song, turning into a stirring finale as they cry 'Head for the outside world!' over and over. It's followed by Following The Wheel (Part II) which transforms the opening track into a dizzyingly silly piano-led swagger with kazoo-like buzzing, in the manner of a Misty's Big Adventure instrumental and forms a fittingly wonky coda to this absolutely impeccable record.

Manchester-based Johnny 5th Wheel & The Cowards have crafted one of the finest folk-pop records I've heard all year, stuffed with imagination in its careful construction of the familiar and the oddball into a consistent record of bittersweet, broken-hearted, stirring and occasionally rather funny songs that all compliment one another perfectly. It's the kind of record where, when I was listening to it for this review, my housemate wandered by and instantly walked in and asked what it was and could they have a copy. A charming, witty and superb album.