Steve Elston is a Brighton-based Devonian singer-songwriter and guitarist with a modest collection of EPs and a fluent, original and mind-bendingly dextrous acoustic fingerpicking style.
His newest offering, Dear Em, is a collection of songs assembled over the past two years. And in contrast to his previous EPs, there’s more to it than one man and his guitar. The fresh, airy feel of Elston’s previous work has been retained, but be warned! Here be synthesisers, drones, percussion and, yes, even backing vocals.
It’s all applied with great subtlety, mind. Opener Climb Cloud Nine is warm, wistful and woozy, while the gentle patter of drums and handclaps add a certain panic to the gentle-frantic Marbles – “I don’t want to drink any more” sings Elston, in the troubled manner of someone who realises that it won’t make much difference now.
Elston, whose debut collection was entitled Reveries for Lost Dogs, has always had an affinity with our canine pals (which goes down well with the Folk Witness pups). Here he revisits the subject with Small Dogs, which at first appears to be a simple celebration of chihuahuas, but turns into something more oblique and contemplative. It also shows off Elston’s appealingly mournful, youthful croon.
There’s more of that to be had on the more upbeat, nostalgic title track, which features lyrics written by Sam Reader. The song features what might be Elston’s first-ever electric guitar solo; a smartly executed surprise. There’s a certain simple humanity to Call Centre – another Reader collaboration – which uncomplicatedly mourns the misery of the tedious day job.
Planxty Davis is a tune most closely associated with Nic Jones, and Elston has clearly been studying the master. Wisely, however, he chooses his own path, playing with a light touch that is inimitably his own, confidently allowing the tempo to fade and swell as he sees fit. Jones would surely approve.
The final track is a take on Cyril Tawney’s In the Sidings, learned from fellow Devonian Jim Causley. The song, written from the point of view of a railwayman victim of Dr Beeching’s regime, suits Elston’s peculiar blend of youthful nostalgia perfectly.
Elston’s is a rare talent: this is honest, modest and quietly moving music. And apart from anything else, it’s free! Download Dear Em at the Steve Elston Bandcamp page here.