Sing Under the Bridges

Anthony Toner crafts another fine collection of literate songs that tell of love, life and loss

Craft is a much undervalued attribute in modern life. In our manic march through the mainstream mush that passes for popular culture, speed is everything. We want it all and we want it yesterday. Mass-produced and under-formed items weigh down our shelves and clog our inboxes as we celebrate the immediate at the expense of the well made.

Coleraine singer-songwriter, Anthony Toner, knows the benefit of old-fashioned craftsmanship, however. You can hear it all over his latest collection of songs, Sing Under The Bridges, an album full of pin sharp portraits of life, both broken and beautiful. It is a record to cherish.

Painting from a palette that offers brightly-coloured, blue-eyed soul hues alongside the more familiar rusty shades of folk and the acoustic songwriter tradition, Sing Under the Bridges offers story songs peopled with real characters attempting to make their way through lives that are peppered with pot holes and unexpected twists in the road.

As anyone familiar with Toner’s back catalogue knows – and he emerged onto the scene with 'Sailortown', his ode to the Belfast docklands that first brought him to the radio airwaves back in 2008 – that’s exactly what the 40-something songwriter has been doing all through his career.

There’s something about the material on offer here, though, that suggests a sizable leap forward from previous albums like A Light Under The Door (2011).

The production is thanks to fellow Coleraine muso, Clive Culbertson, and there are subtle changes in musical style that are accentuated by guest players, including keyboardist John McCullough and blues icon Ronnie Greer, but mostly it’s the mood shift that makes this album special.

There’s an edgy, slightly dark sense of foreboding that permeates proceedings, and leaves you in no doubt that the artist has had a few dark nights of the soul in recent times. That manifests itself in gems like 'Most People Are A Pain In The Ass'.

This track lists off modern irritants, from work mates who infringe on your personal space to experts keen to make your life a misery. As Toner sings, 'If life was a movie, you’d kill them in the opening scene'. It may amount to merely a grumpy man’s list of bugbears, but when its told with style like this, who cares?

Best of this dark bunch is 'Things Fall Apart'. Ushered in on a JJ Cale style shuffle, it takes us from the New Jersey Turnpike to Smithfield Market in the blink of an eye, leaving us with the memorable image of Toner driving 'up and down the road to hell, looking for a place to park'.

This track also provides the album's finest moment, with the sketch of a mother and daughter relationship that is summed up in the killer line, 'There’s nothing worse than two generations disappointed in each other'.

'Take The Road To Fivemiletown' is another moody little minor key highlight that tells of deep-rooted family abuse, with a protagonist locked in a loveless marriage. At just over four minutes, it does exactly what a truly great short story should do: lays out it’s tale and leaves you to make of it what you will. Evocative and economical, this is literary songwriting at its very best.

Some pieces, like the horn enhanced opener 'Tell Me Something That I Don’t Know' and the deeply affecting 'Only Child In The World', could move a statue to tears. In between there are love songs cut from the kind of soulful cloth that Van Morrison used to turn to so effectively in the early 1970s, and more quality one liners than anyone has the right to expect from a singer-songwriter album.

Whatever emotion he’s invoking, though, you know it's authentic, genuine and painstakingly crafted with time and love. In a world of sweat shop produced sneakers, Anthony Toner is a pair of lovingly sculpted Italian brogues, all handmade and finely finished. Go ahead and treat yourself to a little luxury.