Tom Cole’s ‘The Road Less Travelled’ is a showcase of some his newest self-penned material plus reworkings of a couple of songs that have been part of his gigs for several years. Tom is increasingly and deservedly well-known on the live acoustic music scene of Hastings and surrounding towns, and this new EP serves as an excellent showcase of what he can do.
I feel conflicted though in my responses on listening to it as I have heard him perform these songs either live (as in a bar) or live virtual (as in Covid-19). In some cases, I think they sound truer in those settings. In others the studio fleshes out the performances, bringing out the musical core of a number that can sometimes be lost when played solo in a pub setting. I had a similar feeling about his last EP, ‘Ramblin’ Man’.
This EP’s flagship song is ‘Sure (The Road Less Travelled)’. It kicks off the disc and provides a kind of mission statement of what Tom’s art is all about. The road that seems ‘sure’, the one it’s supposedly safe to take because it’s straight and true, in life and in music, is for ‘fools’. Tom prefers to plough a range of furrows. In consequence his music is an eclectic celebration of roots music, of Americana; call it what you will. When I first played the disc’s version of this number, I worried that the accomplished violinist that accompanies Tom on most of the EP (Henry Bristow, the EP’s producer) was here maybe sounding just a bit twee. Then I listened again and got a better appreciation of how he rounds off Tom’s understated but effective vocals and his country-style guitar picking.
The acid test for me though was how a studio reworking of ‘In My Time of Dyin’' would sound. I’ve long believed that Tom should release a live version of his interpretation of this Blues/Gospel standard as, solo and exposed, he’s always conveyed the emotional power at the heart of the song. What’s more, solo voice and acoustic guitar are wholly in this song’s tradition, and it’s precisely how another great interpreter of this African-American classic, Bob Dylan, chose to do it. To be honest, I still think the jury’s out on which method comes out best. However, this studio version preserves the raw power of Tom’s interpretation while adding a darker fiddle sound, a touch of keyboard, background vocals and some subtle vocal effects, to build a soundscape that’s highly atmospheric but without drowning the song’s central message: in the end we are alone, unless we have faith.
‘Push Me Out to Sea’ is a very personal song by Tom, written in tribute to his late father, who had worked as a fisherman off the Hastings coast. It’s simple and effective, with Henry’s fiddle and backing vocal adding an extra layer without obscuring the heartfelt sentiment. I imagine that the two of them doing this live is a crowd-pleaser indeed.
‘Old True Lover’ already has the air of an old classic, a lament for the bittersweet pain of love, the eternal message of songs the world over. ‘Think On You a While’ takes Tom’s sound back to basics: he accompanies himself, simply, on harmonica on a song that just doesn’t need anything more. ‘Long Way Home’ concludes the set in a rare up-tempo fashion. It’s a reinterpretation of one of his own songs that a few years ago he performed in the studio, with accompaniment, for a Hastings Friendship Group CD, 'The Circle of Trust'. This interpretation, featuring fiddle and keyboards, brings out the song’s undeniable catchiness even more effectively, and gives a sense of what The Tom Cole Band, his occasional musical vehicle, sounds like live.
In keeping with the times we’re living through, ‘The Road Less Travelled’ EP had its showcase live on Facebook just under a week ago. It can be heard in its entirety via Tom Cole’s website and can be purchased here via Bandcamp.