20 years having passed since its birth, it would appear the media has decided that 2014is the year we re-discover and reconsider the indie-rock explosion dubbed ‘Britpop’ – but while the press indulge in some harmless 90s nostalgia, one of the scene’s most distinctive voices is busy carving out a new niche for himself. Chris Helme, singer with John Squire’s legendary post-Stone Roses Britpop outfit, has proven in his most recent work what an artist with a successful commercial past can achieve when they unshackle themselves from an oversimplified version of their history, and focus on the more complex reality of their present.
What was obvious from Day One of Chris Helme’s career was that he was in possession of a truly special voice. Chris’ voice was just as distinctive a part of the Seahorses sound as John Squire’s guitar tone – no small feat. As frontman for the Seahorses, Chris took the adenoid twang of the “northern indie ” rock singer and imbued it with a lilting folk-club creativity honed around the open mic scene of his native York. The Seahorses’ huge success took Chris around the globe, but when the band ended in 1999, Chris returned to his home-town, determined to rediscover those roots, in order to move forward anew.
Two albums with a newly formed band The Yards followed. Operating within classic 60s/70s rock structures, Chris spent this stage of his career developing rapidly as a songwriter and a singer. The voice gained the gravel and grit of age and experience. Sporadic solo acoustic shows began to be spoken about in hushed, reverent tones – his cover of Nina Simone’s Be My Husband (retitled by Jeff Buckley as Be Your Husband) remains a show-stopping spine-tingler. As Chris’s command of his voice grows, so to his command of an audience. Playing to sell-out crowds up and down the country, few artists can hush a rowdy crowd like Chris Helme.
Chris’ journey led him, finally, to The Rookery. Released in 2012 to broad critical acclaim, The Rookery surely exceeded the expectations of even his most loyal fans. Twining wyrd early 70s Brit-folk with rumbling dark- skies Americana, The Rookery is a gorgeously arranged album dealing in self-doubt, melancholy and uncertainty. Fuzzed guitars growl, lysergically inclined strings swoop and swirl discordantly - and at the centre of this storm, that familiar voice, somehow simultaneously stronger and more hesitant than we’ve heard it before. And while The Rookery does feel like a culmination of Chris’ previous work, what it really feels like is the beginning of a new chapter. When Chris releases the follow-up to The Rookery later this year, it will be fascinating to see where his story goes next.