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Kevin Coyne – Sugar Candy Taxi (Puncture, 1999)

KEVIN COYNE

Sugar Candy Taxi (Ruf)

A longtime veteran of the musical fringes who recorded on Virgin (back when it was an “underground” label with the likes of Robert Wyatt and Henry Cow) and Cherry Red (you may recall him sticking out like a sore thumb on the Pillows And Prayers comp), Kevin Coyne has one of those startling, weird voices that faint-hearted listeners recoil from and a small cult grow to love. It’s a rough, braying tenor that snarls like the young Van Morrison, slurs like Randy Newman, and warbles like David Thomas, all the while spewing out an uncomfortably intimate brand of sparse, jagged avant-folk blues.

Sugar Candy Taxi, Coyne’s latest, was recorded in two days in London with his sons Robert and Eugene as the main backing musicians. The songs themselves, according to the accompanying press release, were all improvised on the spot. As someone who subscribes to the belief that lyrics are something you work on, I don’t normally consider this something to boast about, but if the story is true, Coyne is quite a remarkable artist: fully realized songs far outnumber throwaways on this collection.

The title track is a lovely Newmanesque shuffle that muses on sexual politics and smelly cigars, while the next song, “Porcupine People”, is an amazing flute-flecked mess: imagine if the aforementioned Van had gone the way of Syd Barrett or Skip Spence after Astral Weeks instead of mellowing out in Woodstock and Marin.

Songs alternate between simple acoustic guitar or electric-piano solo pieces and louder (though still bare) band numbers featuring Robert Coyne’s appealingly nasty guitar. (Imagine the riff from “Cold Turkey” with even sharper teeth.) The elder Coyne’s strength lies in conveying a down-and-out melancholy that occasionally twists into something more disturbing, like “The Garden Gate Song,” a first-person tale of a man stalking his first love 40 years later over a terse, sputtering piano.

Unfortunately, he’s a lot less interesting when he’s drooling about phone sex and back-door love affairs over a standard blues shuffle (who, barring maybe Sonny Boy Williamson, wouldn’t be?) as he does on several mid-album numbers. I’m sure it’s easy to improvise stuff like this in the studio—but that doesn’t mean it should be released.

Still, don’t be put off. If you get past the spotty interlude, the album rights itself again with “Fly,” which ascends on an insane, squawking guitar loop. The desire to fly has spawned quite a few hideous hit songs lately (R. Kelly and Lenny Kravitz spring to mind), but unlike this one, they don’t temper their skyward longings with vivid, paranoid descriptions of malevolent birds threatening the singer on his nature walk. The final cluster of songs on Sugar Candy Taxi are the most heart-stopping: poignant expressions of memory and loss that capture the feeling that comes as one gets older and realizes that age and wisdom won’t answer your questions. “I want to be a normal man…what the hell is a normal man?” I suspect it’s nothing but a damn lie, Mr. Coyne…but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve wondered the same thing.