Alison Fleming - Play on Words

Alison Fleming – Play on Words

In the early part of 2020, while driving home from the office, I began listening to Anthony Rowsick’s Prog-Watch, a superb weekly podcast dedicated to new musical artists in the progressive vein. ‘Big Tony’ brings a ton of energy, enthusiasm, and knowledge to his programme, featuring tracks from new releases with background context. During the second half of the show my fellow TPA reviewer Rob Fisher has a segment entitled ‘Progressive Discoveries’. On this particular occasion, he was reviewing The Rising by Tony Lowe’s ESP Project, and I got utterly lost in his words. So lost, in fact, that I nearly drove off the road! Rob has a way of drawing the listener into the music, and I was hooked, both on Rob’s infectious style and, more to the point, the magnificent music of The Rising. This was my introduction to ESP Project, and upon surviving the commute home I immediately ordered The Rising. It turned out to be one of the best musical purchases of my life.

How does all this relate to this review? Please indulge me just a bit further.

I am one of those fans that loves to explore all the facets of the music I listen to, so I dove into ESP Project with gusto, following them on social media and becoming familiar with their website and Bandcamp page. Their music is beyond compare to me. Tony Lowe is the musical mastermind behind ESP Project, a musician, composer, producer, engineer, photographer, painter, artist, and overall creative genius. He also has the innate ability to choose gifted artists to join him on his musical adventures. One of them is Alison Fleming. I first heard Alison’s voice on ESP Project’s Innerlife album from 2022, which she co-wrote with Lowe. In addition, she sang on most of the tracks, as well as playing mandolin and guitar. I fell in love with that album and was in awe of her vocal prowess.

Alison is a singer-songwriter, composer, and producer, originally from Yorkshire but now living in the US. She has been an active recording artist for three decades, with four solo albums to her credit in addition to her work with Lowe. Fleming and Lowe have twice been nominated for Grammy Awards, for their collaborative efforts on All of the Above (2007) and Second Nature (2008). Their third collaboration, Human Sleeping, was released in 2014, with Fleming’s first solo album, Freeway, appearing in 2017, with a subsequent remixed version.

This latest album, Play on Words, is a cornucopia of musical styles, introspection, and sophistication. Teaming up again with Paul Baggott, who played on and produced Freeway, Fleming has created a sonic tapestry of feelings and emotions that deeply resonates with me. Clocking in at a little under 41 minutes, the ten tracks provide an enchanting, soulful, and extremely enjoyable listening experience. I have played this album over forty times, and I keep coming back to it. I find it intimate and personal, and it marries the intricacies of human emotions and feelings with superb music, all interwoven with her gorgeous, sultry yet vulnerable vocals.

The title track leads the album off with a toe-tapping groove, infectious rhythm and a world beat reminiscent of Peter Gabriel or West African legend Angelique Kidjo. There is joy and an energetic drive as Fleming playfully tosses around words to rhyme, and the listener is whirled through an enthralling beat:

“Just a play on words
Spinning now
In the early hours
Round and round.

Wheeler, dealer
Roll an ace
Club together, Pack the place
Shake a leaf now
From the tree
Falling slow mo’ tell me
What you see.

In a book
All the stories that are told
I can feel them
In my soul so can you so can you.”

The listener is caught up in the sense of movement, as if on a merry-go-round. Such a sensation of sheer delight!

The Fisherman is an enchanting and rollicking pop/folk tune, full and rich with imagery and colour. Harmonica, penny whistle and a melodica that sounds almost like an accordion are superbly played by Paul Baggot, Fleming’s acoustic guitar beautifully capturing a sense of being near water – you can almost smell the ocean spray! The gorgeous vocal guides the track with allegorical lyrics and a nautical theme, which to this reviewer feels similar in style to Clannad’s The Fishing Blues, but with a jazzier vibe. A sumptuous albeit unconventional tune.

Fleming’s allure and charm come with her vocals, but another strength is her song writing ability and poignant lyrics. A case in point is No Good Child, my favourite song here. The atmosphere created by the music in conjunction with Fleming’s emotive vocals is breath-taking. I felt such a tremendous longing after listening, and it moved me deeply with its sense of urgency, sadness, and fragility. Syncopated drums form a brilliant guide, and the piano here is exquisite. It is as if our protagonist is looking out of the window of a moving train, questioning, probing, and wondering…

“A question of love
The answer lay sleeping
I took a trip
Down memory lane
There in a yellow leather chair
Opinions I’m keeping
To myself.

Do you love me like no other
Some things you just can’t hide
Show me the way
From this voodoo
No good child.”

This song took me immediately back to a record I fell in love with in the early 1990s, Nicky Holland’s eponymous debut album. It was also at this time that I married the love of my life, Robin. We played that album every night for weeks. Such a lovely memory!

Ophelia is another folksy, bluesy tune with orchestral flourishes and a mystical lyrical sophistication. The harp and guitar work here is sublime. The emotional angst as Fleming recalls a past relic is both vivid and literary, the tense atmosphere palpable as the music rises with a sense of foreboding and danger. The harpsichord at around four minutes allows for a breath, lowering the intensity and leaving the listener entranced. Ophelia is cinematic, urbane, and expansive, delivering with such devastating potency.

Catching one’s breath, Catch You Out lightens the load a little. An irresistible pop-driven song, it harks back to the glory days of the club dances of the late 1970s and ’80s. A song about romance and the pursuit of relationships, its simple approach is refreshing and clear, Fleming’s breathy vocal delivery interlaced with subtle lead guitar, making this a delightful offering.

The worldly and Gabrielesque In a Daze sparkles and shines. A glorious track that highlights the flexibility and range of Fleming’s voice. The rhythm is utterly infectious with its flamingo and bossa nova groove. At two minutes there’s a blistering lead guitar that holds the track together, reminding this reviewer of Dan Fogelberg’s superb version of the Hollies’ smash Tell Me to My Face. The drumming cadence and pulsating rhythm girdles the track’s witty lyrics, making for a delicious atmosphere as Fleming questions a relationship and the perennial questions about love:

“Single suitcases
Clickety clacks
On the rack
At the back
For two
Do I love you.

Must be crazy
Must be mad to be
Sitting on this train with you now
I’m in a daze.”

The sense of motion and the sights and sounds of being on a moving train are vivid and real. I often find myself dancing around the room when this song comes on!

Another alluring and lyrically clever pop driven track is Lover in the Sun. The terrific bassline and a reggae feel gives it a visual quality, almost like music written for a romance novel, quite sensual and summery. Before we’re a minute in the listener might hear some similarity to Loreena McKennitt, specifically her song The Mummers’ Dance.

Let it Rain is a masterpiece of contemporary songwriting. The beauty of this utterly dramatic track is highlighted by Fleming’s amazing voice. It begins with a gorgeous soft acoustic piano introduction, followed immediately with Fleming’s opening lyrics:

“Awaiting a dove
Now the rain has
Stopped falling
The silence is deafening
Just to prove
That it works.”

The pitch and sway of her voice is just magical. It is as if she is singing directly to the listener, baring her soul with its vulnerabilities, desires, and overall humanness. This track alone could stand with the best Joni Mitchell songs – it’s that magnificent.

Feeling the pulse of the city and all its sounds, colours and textures, Run Riot is a slow rocker about cars and the adrenalin rush one feels while driving fast. The heaviest of Play on Words‘ tracks, it combines sleek R&B, Motown, and alternative rock, making for quite a unique mix that works well. The drumming and electric guitar are compelling and gripping.

The album’s last song, In the Country Now connotates a story within a story. A fresh new beginning or an escape from a darker past? The track rolls and evolves with crystal clear images of the countryside and its trappings, all the while making allusions to a former life:

“What ghostly presence
Pales the air
There sat by the lake
Grey lady
Through her veil
She softly stare.”

A beautiful acoustic guitar and deep bass groove are met by a luxurious sax a couple of minutes in, giving an overall jazzier feel and atmosphere, reminiscent of songs by Sade and Al Stewart, the latter especially with his allegorical and historical tunes.

Play on Words is a unique, fully crafted and intricate exposé of a hugely talented artist. There is an original and organic quality to Alison’s music that permeates the entirety of this album. Her music is introspective and confessional and there is a sense of both fragility and strength in her lyrics. Fleming has stories to tell, and her lyricism is dynamic and literary. There is such a gentle, vulnerable beauty in her voice. I am looking forward to her continued work with Tony Lowe’s ESP Project as well her future solo projects. She deserve a much wider audience.

01. Play on Words (4:33)
02. The Fisherman (3:45)
03. No Good Child (5:44)
04. Ophelia (4:14)
05. Catch You Out (3:23)
06. In A Daze (4:40)
07. Lover in the Sun (3:34)
08. Let it Rain (4:03)
09. Run Riot (4:59)
10. In the Country Now (3:37)

Total Time – 40:32

Alison Fleming – Lead & Backing Vocals, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Piano, Digital Piano, Programming, Songs & Arrangements, Recording, Production
Paul Baggott – Electric & Acoustic Lead & Rhythm Guitars, Bass Guitar, Programmed Drums, Keyboards, Percussion, Melodica (track 2), Orchestral & String Arrangements, Backing Vocals, Penny Whistle (track 2), Vocal Arrangements, Production, Mixing, Engineering, Mastering

Record Label: Independent
Formats: CD, Digital
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 17th March 2023

Alison Fleming – Website | Facebook | Bandcamp