Album Review: Stephen Armstrong- Fred and the Two Cities by Aidan Cross
Manchester has always been a city proud of its heritage and its industrial beginnings, and this is something reflected in the music of many of the countless bands and artists to emerge from the city. In an era where cultural reverence of Manchester spawns endless over-idealization, and the city’s identity risks disappearing amidst a sea of gentrification, corporatization and hipster culture, Manchester Nu-Folk troubadour Stephen Armstrong is unafraid to sing out from the very heart of the city; that yearning voice of the oppressed underclass. In his new release, the concept album Fred and the Two Cities, Armstrong conveys a striking and captivating image of the disaffected working man of Manchester’s streets, awake to the problems and imperfections of Manchester beyond the glossy exterior, the grittiness and squalor both exposed and affectionately embraced. There’s a sense of longing here, a touch of cynicism, but also a wry good humour and a profound sense of love for the city of Manchester. This album is ultimately a celebration of Manchester’s true spirit, of the ties that bind Mancunians together, from someone who loves the city for all its flaws and recognizes the plight of the working man amidst the hierarchy of modern culture.
Fred and the Two Cities could easily be the soundtrack to a musical, a wistful comedy that takes a sudden turn for the darker and more emotional after the halfway mark. The album itself follows the storyline of a day in the life of Fred, an ordinary supermarket worker from the suburb of Lower Broughton. The album is divided into two acts; the first establishing the protagonist, his everyday life, his job, his daily struggles and his love life, and his journey to town. Act Two delves deeper into the heart of Manchester and takes some surprising turns and twists that are certain to intrigue and captivate the listener as Fred experiences some of the rougher sides of the city, with a heavy emphasis on the exploitation of Manchester’s music culture.
A skilled multi-instrumentalist who has dabbled in multiple genres of music, Armstrong brings out a whole spectrum of musical styles and influences in his exploration of Fred’s journey. The album itself is a journey, taking the listener through blues, country, alt-folk, indie rock, through to cabaret and music hall. All set against an exhilarating backdrop of smoky urban streets, cobbled pathways, hectic factories and an overworked populace. This is the working man’s Manchester, the land of the disaffected but proud underclass, the world that cannot be eroded by the vapid pseudo-glamour of hipster culture.
The introductory track “O Rain” draws the listener in effortlessly with its acapella blues, sung with a great poetic elegance, against a backing sample of the sound of torrential urban rainfall. Welcome to the city of rain. Welcome to the world of Fred. This introduction serves as a fitting prologue to Fred’s journey through a typical day in rainy Manchester. Our protagonist is then established in the track “Cowboy Fred From Lower Broughton”, a bittersweet country blues ballad drawing analogies between our downtrodden Mancunian suburban hero and a Wild West outlaw. Fred’s everyday environment is then explored through a selection of upbeat, jaunty ditties in a countrified folk style, traces of Half Man Half Biscuit and hints of Billy Bragg reverberating throughout. The monotony of Fred’s lifestyle and daily struggles are communicated through smart and droll lyrics brimming with wit and deadpan humour, and touches of classic 50s Rock’n’Roll on the infectiously catchy “Git Along Little Trolleys”, a humorous and lively insight into Fred’s supermarket job. “I Don’t Care, I Love You” is an instant winner and one of the album’s more lyrically upbeat moments; the sanctity of Fred’s love life covered against a backdrop of plink-plonk country guitar sounds awash with ethereal keyboard effects.
Transitioning between Acts One and Two, “Song For The Bad Bar” is far and wide one of the album’s highlights. A brilliantly catchy hook and wry Northern humour deliver this tale of a situation we’re all familiar with, waiting endlessly in a queue for a bar where the workers seem more concerned with chatting among themselves than serving customers.
Just when it seems the whole album is likely to be a light-hearted affair, things suddenly take a turn for the significantly darker as we venture into Act Two, a satirical reflection on Manchester conveyed through an examination of music promoters’ exploitation of Manchester’s musical heritage and the legacy of Tony Wilson. This theme is established with the track “The Manchester Music Men”, easily the most conventionally ‘Manc’ sounding song on the album in its homage to the classic Indie Rock sound of bands such as The Smiths and The Stone Roses. The song’s striking lyrics bring to the forefront a strong criticism of how up-and-coming Manchester musicians are stifled by endless regurgitation of the past:
“New music is evil poison,
there will be no revolution as long as you deny it in our creed,
No other music shall thee mention
and ye shall receive great redemption all in the name of our greed”
This theme is continued in “The Factory Lament”, a glorious highlight of the album with its surprise excursion into cabaret territory, a melancholic waltz accompanied by theatrical brass and eerie carnival effects. This is followed by the beautiful epic “Fight at the NQ Coral”, returning to the Wild West analogy, which serves by this point as an ideal metaphor for the chaos and conflict of modern-day urban existence. This six and a half minute ballad is the album’s darkest and most haunting moment, its lyrical exploration of a confrontation between the old and the new façades of Manchester set to a brooding soundscape of dark country rock.
The final two songs, the folk-tinged “The Hive of Industry”, and the epic ballad “Bumblebees and Railways” that closes the album, are poignant love songs to Manchester, raising shouts to its industrial heritage and its musical history, celebrations of the city’s distinct identity and the musical legacy of Tony Wilson, marks of achievement and prosperity on top of the drudgery and bleakness of everyday working life. It is a profound and emotional note to end an album that earlier on seemed like it would be mostly light-hearted fun. Stephen Armstrong’s music takes us into deeper territory, moving us beyond the quirks and oddities of everyday existence to explore what it really means to be human, the humility and emotion that powers those who serve as cogs in the machine of everyday industrial life. Fred’s life might seem monotonous, he might go through a lot of toil and trouble and annoying situations as he slaves away in the supermarket to support himself and his family. But at the end of the day he’s happy and proud to be a part of Manchester. Ultimately this album is a celebration of the integrity and dignity of the working classes, the people who’ve truly made Manchester what it is, with the underlying message that you don’t have to be rich or powerful to be happy. This is something that Manchester, in its current condition of gentrification, skyscrapers and supposedly slick and stylish apartment blocks, really should not lose sight of. Stephen Armstrong is a true talent to be reckoned with, a singer, poet and storyteller who speaks on behalf of the people in these dark times. His work definitely needs more recognition, and this album, one of the finest releases of the last year, serves as a shining example of his talent.
Stephen Armstrong Official Website
Fred and the Two Cities