Billy Nicholls - Still Entwined - Southwest Records [SWCD008]

Still Entwined [Billy Nicholls]
There & Back Again [Billy Nicholls]
Keep On Dancing [Billy Nicholls & Susan Smith]
Only A Passing Show [Billy Nicholls + Ronnie Lane + Mickey Gallagher]
Ladies In Vogue [Billy Nicholls]
No Secrets At Ginos [Mike Nicholls & Billy Nicholls]
Catherine [Billy Nicholls]
Brake On My Heart [Mike Nicholls & Billy Nicholls]
Guardian Angel [Billy Nicholls]
Memory Lane [Morgan Nicholls & Billy Nicholls)]

The latest from Billy Nicholls is a wonderfully rich recording that echoes the music of the sixties, yet still sounds contemporary.  Billy has written ten catchy, original and distinctive songs that succeed in breathing new life into the classic pop structure.  He then takes these near-perfect songs and sings them perfectly.  There are no dull moments on ‘Still Entwined’.

Various family members help out with the writing, singing and playing - especially son Morgan [who also co-produces the album with Billy].  His guitar and Hammond organ work add interesting colours and textures but it’s his bass playing that holds everything together and is especially effective throughout.  Brother Mike, sister Susan and daughter Amy also contribute significantly to the proceedings, making this a true family affair.  The quality of the material is not hamstrung by nepotism though.  You see this is a very talented family.  Other musicians include Ian Thomas, Jody Linscott, Darren Berry, Peter Morgan, Stewart Curtis, Simon Gardner, Neil Sidwell, Paul Waller, Peter Howard and Echo. 

The title track “Still Entwined” begins with a stark acoustic guitar soon joined by a vocal from Billy using his ‘Dylan’ voice.  It’s recorded without any effects, giving it a very intimate sound.  At the end of the second and third verses there is a barely audible ghost-like harmony vocal that is both pleasing and chilling.  This haunting and understated gem makes a great opener.  

“There & Back Again” is closer to what we have come to expect from Billy; an instantly hum-able verse followed by an equally infectious chorus [with ‘Billy on Billy’ harmonies].  There is a short and sweet mellotron/flute solo, a brilliant touch.  The song ends with a taste of some great backgrounds guitar.  This record is definitely on a roll.

“Keep On Dancing” is a slower, moodier piece.  After several listens I can’t get the melody out of my head [and that’s a good thing].  The clarinet solo is an example of the thoughtful use of different instruments throughout the album.  Sister Susan co-wrote this one and there are some great lyrics here [like the rest of the album].  Here’s a taste:

“In an empty room,
You keep on dancing,
The music ended long ago.”


“And with your eyes closed to the world,
Just a young girl spinnin’ ‘round.”

The late great Ronnie Lane started writing a piece of music [with Mick Gallagher] but the later stages of multiple sclerosis overtook him so he was unable to finish it.  He gave it to his old friend Billy to work on and the result is “Only A Passing Show”.  I can picture Ronnie singing the opening verse, yet it suits Billy perfectly.  The strings on this track give it breadth and grandeur.  [By coincidence, there is a soon-to-be-completed documentary entitled ‘The Passing Show - the life and musical times of Ronnie Lane’ in the works and Billy is slated to film an interview.]

On “Ladies In Vogue” the trumpet and trombone bring to mind Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Forever Changes-era Love.  Not that the song sounds even remotely like either of those bands.  On second thought, the Love comparison does somewhat apply.  There are some great harmonies on the chorus and part of the melody during the middle eight is a tip of the hat to the chorus in “Penumbra Moon”.  Intentional or not, it’s a welcome reference to one of Billy’s best songs. 

There’s an uncredited piano track that “No Secrets At Ginos” is built upon [it’s actually brother Mike].  Trumpet and trombone are used again but the song has a different feel from the previous track, so the instruments do not sound repetitive at all.  The lead instrument is actually the harmonica, credited to Billy.  This is the first of two songs co-written with Mike. 

“Catherine” is one of those songs that Billy has made his stock-in-trade.  He’s a master at crafting songs such as this.  At first the melody doesn’t go where you’d expect it to, but upon repeated listens, it sounds like it is going exactly where it should.  It’s such a pure and easy tune that it gets me to believing Billy can knock out songs as good as this in his sleep - utterly beautiful.  Brother Mike lays down a melodic and very tasteful electric guitar solo.

“Brake On My Heart” is another piano based track, this time properly credited to Mike, who again co-writes.  Daughter Amy sings the answer vocal “broken hearted”.  It’s a cool play-on-words allusion to the title.

On “Guardian Angel” the ‘Dylan’ voice jumps into the higher ‘Billy’ voice [it’s really the same voice].  The melody sounds both new and familiar.  How can Billy continue to write songs as good as this and still not be a big star?  There is a very effective use of lap/pedal steel near the end of the song. 

Co-written by Billy and Morgan, “Memory Lane” harkens back to 1967/68.  The addition of strings, mellotron, clarinet, dogs barking, plus various special effects on the vocals and instruments gives this song a genuine psych-pop feel.  There is a short section of the string part that is suddenly reminiscent of the Beatles’ circa “A Day In The Life”, while the extended finale sounds like a cross between the “Hey Jude” coda and the Who during a power chord ending.  Other parts are reminiscent of Billy’s own obscure classic “White Lightning” [from 1974] and there’s a nifty tie-in on the fade where Billy sings the line “Forever Is No Time At All”, a reference to his 1972 song “Forever’s No Time At All” [Pete Townshend included Billy’s recording of the song on his first solo album ‘Who Came First’].  At six and a half minutes, “Memory Lane” is a real tour-de-force.

Billy Nicholls has been operating under the radar for most of his career, rarely if ever performing live as a solo act.  His previous albums have been released to instant cult status.  A few of his songs have managed to become well known.  “Without Your Love” was a hit for Roger Daltrey in 1980 and Leo Sayer and Phil Collins both hit big with covers of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” in 1978 and 2002 respectively. 

However, Billy’s obscurity may soon be a thing of the past with the release of the following up-and-coming product: 

[1] Sanctuary/Castle has released a two-disc set called ‘Forever's No Time At All: The Anthology 1967-2004’ on May 23, 2005.   [Click
here for Track listing.]

[2] The Tsunami relief CD single Mod Aid 20 "Watcha Gonna Do 'Bout It ?" c/w "Afterglow" on Biff Bang Pow.  Billy is involved along with P. P. Arnold, Chris Farlowe, Ron Wood, Mike Evans [The Action], Molly Marriott, Jimmy Winston [original organist for The Small Faces], Roger Dunbar [The Untamed], Andy Ellison [John's Children, Reg Presley [The Troggs], along with a bunch of new generation Mods. 

www.modaid20.org or http://www.biffbangpow.org.uk/modaid.htm

[3] The Steve Marriott Tribute Show - One More Time For The Ol Tosser - a new 2005 3CD set on Wapping Wharf Records - the whole show - Recorded in London April 20th 2001.  Billy is in the house band. http://www.wappingwharf.com/3cd.htm

[4] This is plans for Sanctuary/Castle to release another two-disc set - an extended 'Would You Believe' and 'Snapshot' bringing all of Billy’s sixties/Immediate label material together in one place. 

[5] Morgan Nicholls is currently trawling through Billy’s tape archives to compile another CD of unreleased demos. 

[6] There is a Billy Nicholls DVD in the works.

[7] Finally, there will be the above-mentioned documentary ‘The Passing Show - the life and musical times of Ronnie Lane’ which will probably air first on British T. V. and then come out on DVD [when it's ready]. 

With all this impending activity, I don’t think it’s overly optimistic to say that 2005 could be Billy’s breakout year. 

Visit Billy’s official website where you can purchase his back catalogue on digitally remastered CDs.

Also, I invite you to visit and join my Yahoo! Group dedicated to the music and career of Billy Nicholls. http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/billynicholls/

- Mike Griffiths [thanks to Brian Schofield for saying the phrases 'breathing new life' and 'no dull moments' in his comments to me regarding the album.]