Although he might well be new to you, HOGIE (aka Tim Higgins) has been ploughing an individualistic furrow in several artistic spheres - painting, photography and graphic design – in his adopted home base of London for over three decades now.
I say ‘adopted’ because Tim’s home town is actually Warrington and the lure of some northern solidarity drew him back to the North-West (more specifically Liverpool) to lay down the four emotive songs making up his debut EP ‘Folk From The Smoke’.
Of course it helps that he can rope in quality support from no less than Mike Badger, The Shady Trio and The Loose Moose String Band to bring these tunes to fruition. Yet while it’s true the raw, all-live, first take approach suits Higgins’ music to a T, it’s the fact that the songs are so resonant to begin with that ensures they score.
Recorded at Liverpool’s Crosstown Studio with engineer Jon Lawton on hand and Mike Badger in the producer’s chair, ‘Folk From the Smoke’ treats us to four heartfelt, quintessentially English slices of life where (refreshingly) people very much come first. Dreamer’s anthem ‘Holding out on Hope’ is the closest thing to a straight love song here, with Higgins delivering the bittersweet lyric (“your heart must be made of stone/ returning wilted flowers/ but I remain optimistic”) in his gravelly, Tom Waits-meets-Guy Kyser voice while the band supply a sympathetic, mellow country-folk stroll.
While the EP’s title track takes it at an equally mellow pace, the music’s languid swing does little to disguise the vitriol in Higgins’ lyric wherein he takes a well-aimed swipe at the Whitehall ‘haves’ determined to crush the rest of us with their enforced austerity. “They’d build a shiny temple to fit the shopping in/ but they’ll cut the Sunday services and every other day from therein” he sings with some feeling, yet without ever sounding preachy.
‘Too Many People’ and the closing ‘Winterland (Blues)’, meanwhile, are sparse and raw. The bedrock of both tracks is Higgins’ primitive acoustic strum and it’s perfect for the straight up plea for humanity that is ‘Too Many People’, wherein he poses pertinent questions (“how many people in this town would help a man if he was down?/ drop a coin in his cup, give him the time of day?”) a lot more of us should think about with the Christmas season just about to kick in.
The jewel in the crown, though, is surely the closing ‘Winterland (Blues)’. With just Barry Southern’s banjo on hand to add flecks of colour, it’s a lo-fi, but enormously moving hymnal folk blues saluting the fallen from World War One right through to ongoing modern skirmishes like Afghanistan and the human collateral such horrific campaigns bequeath. While it’s impossible to deny the impact of lines like “the leafless trees bear witness to the blood-stained fields of snow/ like watercolours blending into the frozen earth below”, it’s the song’s exploration of the poppy as both emblem of remembrance and opiate/ destroyer (“the Winterland where the poppies grow/ just give me opium ‘cos this pain is hurting so”) which is particularly vivid.
Superficially, then, it would be easy to paint Tim Higgins as a modern day protest singer a la punk poet Patrik Fitzgerald, but really such comparisons sell him short. Ultimately it’s the warmth and humanity in his songs that pulls you in and that’s a surprisingly rare quality these days. He may be a relatively late starter in this game, but I – for one – am very glad he’s here now. I’m all ears for the promised debut album due in 2012.