Our Daily Bread 493: Brian Bordello ‘Cardboard Box Beatles’

February 10, 2022

Dominic Valvona

Brian Bordello ‘Cardboard Box Beatles’
(Metal Postcard Records) 11th February 2022

Declaration of interests, yes, Brian ‘Bordello’ Shea is a regular contributor to this esteemed blog. And so, in an act of what could be deemed as “pop eating itself” I’m going to somehow balance friendship with critical analyses.

Who am I kidding?! Brian is the best. And anything I’ve written or will write about both his idiosyncratic solo work and his music with the creatively dysfunctional family band, The Bordellos, will probably go unread by the masses, who should really be celebrating this St. Helens lo fi poet-of-the-people: if by people you mean despondent middle-aged white blokes learning to come to terms with their fates; ignored by all and sundry; not quite old enough to prove invaluable, yet too old to start over.

The Les Miserable of the North, Brian’s wit and aphorism one-liners make all his resigned lyricism more palatable. No one quite sums up life in an almost ungovernable modern Britain like our Brian. Yet there’s always a sullen but achingly heartbreaking fragility, delivered on Brian’s second most popular theme of romance: unrequited love; a love lost; a love undeserved. Regrets…he’s had a fair few. But listening to the lo fi (so lo fi as to barely register; making even the late Sparklehorse sound like a flash git) stripped of artifice recordings of this “nowhere man” (A Beatles reference which we shall come back to later) is never a slog.

Across the decades, shovelling away with a kid’s cheap plastic spade – left over from a northern beachside holiday many moons ago I envisage – at the music industry’s coalface, Brian has released his proclamations and wry wisdom in various guises and on a myriad of obscure labels. His latest album is for Metal Postcard Records (no strangers to this site; the “postcard” bit of that imprint the closest a fandom Brian will ever get to the original iconic Scottish label he adores) is about as basic as it gets: just an acoustic guitar, Brian’s wistful soft rasped voice and the hum and slipping rubber band of what sounds like a Tascam four-track.

Cardboard Box Beatle as a title does little to prepare the listener; the Cardboard title-track couldn’t be further from a Beatles homage, sounding like a St. Helens bedraggled Kurt Cobain unraveling his life, baring his soul to the disinterest of everyone else. Instead, the box in question can be seen as a metaphor for a cheap recycled life of low achievement; 50 plus years summed up in a box you might drop off at a jumble sale when someone dies, or leave for the local charity shop: leftovers, mementos, cherished low monitory valued memories deemed worthless. The charity shop will be something Brian is all too aware of, after like many of us, struggling to keep or losing their job in the Covid pandemic.

It’s also, no doubt, a descriptive name for the cheap knock-offs, those who still pray at the altar of a band that spilt up over 50 years ago. Whilst Brian himself wears his influences on his mothball, untangling sleeve, he berates the lack of ingenuity, freshness, zest, protest and, even, fun in most new music. As a reviewer for my site, he’s more than used to reading umpteen thousand press releases, and the eye-catching, dumbed-down use of “soundalike” references. Whilst the 90s to the most recent generation breaking through is the 60s to us 80s kids, there’s still such a hunger to sound, copy the music of their grandfathers and mothers. Brian’s own nostalgia doesn’t get in the way of championing the contemporary artists/bands that are trying something different. He’s sung of a pantheon of “motherfuckers”, from Scott Walker to Gene Vincent; Julian Cope to Dave Gedge; artists he feels gave the bird finger to compromise, or were just one-offs, never to be repeated.

Disparaging catcalls aside, the industry’s reliance on back catalogues is proving destructive to newcomers: Brian can be heard banging his head against Flyod’s brick wall. None more so than on the album’s almost flat, despondent opener ‘Yes, I Am The New Nick Drake’; a low-end wistful jeer no doubt at the production line of acoustic troubadours in awe of the fateful legend: but only in copying the adulation part, the young life cut short bit of that legend being a step too far to copy.

As far as The Beatles go there’s an air of melancholic Revolver on the disarming but pleaded ‘Please’; also hints of a Mogadon induced Wedding Present and The Las in the melody and strumming. It must be said that the low quality of these plaints, laments and maverick observations feels more like eavesdropping than a performance: as if Brian sits all day playing these often candid, cathartic but also piss-taking jibes to himself, and that we’ve just stumbled upon him and decided to secretly press record.

In the romantic, knockabout sentimental vogue, Brian exudes a Northern Syd Barrett (another hero of our Brian’s; forget Floyd after that though) trying to catch a free-spirited ‘Flowerchild’; grumbles about his bland perpetual Autumn wardrobe as a metaphor for lost love and mortality and lockdowns, on the “all my summers have gone” “dododoing” ‘Seasons Change’; languidly strums Catholic metaphors about a muse on the Dan Tracey-esque ‘The True Meaning Of Love’; and on what is a deeply offensive, but all the better for it guilty laugh, ‘Here Comes Eric With His Dead Child Song’ (contender surely for best title of 2022, if not ever), in drudgery, bemoans his own sad existence and behaviour to those held dear. 

But as I have mentioned already, this is the unraveling of an artist on the “scrapheap”; a moment (say a year in Covid lockdown) captured of mental fatigue, alienation, defeat. Songs like ‘Catfood On The Floor’ epitomize a modern “nowhere man”; a generation X life boxed-up with nothing worth keeping other than the trinkets that marked personal euphoria against a disposable, unwanted collection of CDs ripped from the covers of NME and Mojo: a summary lament of the emptiness that so many of us felt, experienced during the last two years. Brian even measures himself up for an “Instagram” friendly funeral on the ode to a ‘Salamander Fruit Fly’; a poignant, though well obscured in tune, song about death, mental health and the banality of narcissism seen through the vaporous lifestyles and validations of social media.

Brian takes it all in with an acidic, often witty pun(ing) amusement; even the most depressing moments magically dark in humour and self-depreciation. Never has so little musically evoked such reams of thought; a simple, slipping and warping because of cheap apparatus, guitar and voice denouncement of modern life spent under the cosh of Covid, Cardboard Box Beatles is more than the sum of its cheaply recorded parts.

Coming back round to that Beatles title, the album (as so many of Brian’s releases are) is released on the anniversary of the Fab Fours Please, Please Me recordings; a link back to nostalgia and love for the band that still influences legions fifty-nine years later. Because at the heart of Brian’s diatribes about our reliance for nostalgia, he still can’t quite escape it himself. But then, can any of us truly cut ties with the past and a so-called “golden age”. Perhaps it’s that age’s mysticism, the secret alchemy that Brian so cherishes – a life without 24/7 newsfeeds and Twitter accounts -, a complete opposite to today’s all too knowing show and tells and the relentlessness demystifying commodification of the art form. Striped back to the essentials, Brian encapsulates an array of displeasures like no one else can. Let’s just hope his music reaches the wider audience it deserves.


One Response to “Our Daily Bread 493: Brian Bordello ‘Cardboard Box Beatles’”

  1. […] Brian Bordello  ‘Cardboard Box Beatles’  (Metal Postcard Records)  DVReview […]

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