David J. Roch – ‘A Cynic, A Realist, An Undertaker’ Album Review

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Last week, I went to The Lexington, one of my favourite music venues in London, to see the immensely talented Nicole Atkins perform. I happened to mention this on Twitter the night before and a couple of my music-loving friends immediately told me in no uncertain terms to make sure I didn’t miss the support act, David J. Roch, a singer-songwriter from Sheffield. Having discovered quite a few great musicians by turning up early for the support acts, I normally make it a policy to get to the venue for when the doors open, but getting a tip-off about a particularly good artist from people who know great music added to the anticipation leading up to that evening’s music. Well, my friends hadn’t exaggerated; David J. Roch and his band played a dazzling set that demanded and received the attention of the Lexington crowd. His voice is a beautiful instrument, with a dazzling range and a masterful control of dynamics and the music, often subtle, folk-influenced songs which explode into powerful sonic waves of spine-tingling emotion, nothing short of captivating. The purchase of David’s two albums, “Skin & Bones” and his new record, “A Cynic, A Realist, An Undertaker” was a foregone conclusion after just a couple of songs.

The title of David’s latest album seems to be rather baffling, until you discover that, by day, he actually is an undertaker, dealing with death and loss on a daily basis. That rather rare insight his profession gives him and, as I can only imagine, the amount of time someone in that profession must spend facing both mortality and a wide spectrum of human emotions manifests itself in his thought-provoking lyrics, which have a depth and profundity as rare and beautiful as the accompanying music. Some of the subjects covered on the album are often heavy going and it is apparent that extreme emotional highs and lows have been attained to have the life-experience required to convey written words as pained and fraught as some of lyrics featured on this album, but they are a huge part of what makes it such a compelling work of art. Produced partly by The Bad Seeds’ Jim Sclavunos and Roch’s long-time collaborator David Sanderson, it is stressed in the liner notes just how much “time, thought, effort and patience” went into the making of this album and it truly shows. The songs are meticulously crafted and the performances creeping into the realms of perfection; this is the kind of album that cries out for a really good sound system to play it on in order to enjoy the full dynamic range, intricacies and emotional impact of the music.

In addition to the production and performances sounding aesthetically pleasing, “A Cynic, A Realist, An Undertaker” is absolutely packed full of memorable songs. “Don’t Let Go Yet” simply aches with emotion as David pleads “Don’t offer hope if you’ve no intention of staying” to his partner in one of those fractured relationships many listeners will be able to relate to; it is a magnificent performance and the emotional punch utterly convincing. “Hearts & Minds” is a gentler take on the theme of dying love and betrayal, with the graceful, poignant strings and Roch’s delicate vocals expressing the fragility of his emotions beautifully. The dark clouds gather over “Hell To Pay”, a deep, brooding track with an almost menacing air which builds to a powerful, dramatic conclusion. Closer to an actual love song, but still rather tortured and generally fatalistic is the superb “Love Remains” which features the beautiful vocals of Rachel Sermanni and a gently swelling, sun breaking through the clouds chorus. The almost impossibly gorgeous “Can’t Seem To Find You Now” sees Roch longing for a past love with such heartbreaking intensity that it’s difficult to get through it without becoming a little misty-eyed yourself. There is also a lovely bonus version of the track at the end of the CD album which has the addition of Sermanni.

Continuing the theme of love and betrayal, the accusatory, almost vicious “Rain” is arrestingly brilliant as David howls with pain and indignation as the trumpets snarl and snap along with the wronged protagonist. “Darling, you’ll have to stand and be judged one day, by your maker!”, Roch proclaims. Hell hath no fury like a singer-songwriter scorned, but when it sounds as astonishingly good as this track, you forgive him every ounce of vitriol. I would have to hesitate if asked to compare David J. Roch with any other artists. There are touches of Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley, Damian Rice and even classic folk-influenced classic artists such as Simon & Garfunkel sprinkled lightly all over this record, but it would be a stretch of the imagination to actually state that Roch sounds specifically like any of them. He brings too much originality and individual character to his music for any comparisons to comfortably stick. All-in-all, “A Cynic, A Realist, An Undertaker” is certainly one of the greatest albums to be released this year and a contender for one of the best break-up albums of all time. This rather amazing piece of work will resonate deeply with those who have been through the intense emotional roller-coaster that comes with losing someone they deeply loved; the hurt, betrayal, anger, hope and desperation… even the weary acceptance, David J. Roch has captured it all within some achingly beautiful, astonishingly excellent music. Downright essential.

David J. Roch’s “A Cynic, A Realist, An Undertaker” is released on the 17th November, 2014, on Dram Records. David also plays a handful of live dates in London, Brighton, Leeds, Edinburgh and Sheffield throughout November, in support of his new album. For more details, please visit David’s website.

Andy Sweeney, 31st October, 2014.

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