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Who Is the Sender?

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Album Review

After a 40-year gap between albums, North London songwriter Bill Fay returned to recording with the glorious Life Is People in 2012. Who Is the Sender? reunites he and producer Joshua Henry. They recorded this set in 13 days with most of the same musicians (including guitarist Ray Russell and drummer Alan Rushton, who have been part of Fay's circle since the 1970s). Fay's vocal and a piano are the center of these songs with standard rock band instrumentation, though tastefully employed chamber strings and horns are more prevalent this time around. They illustrate Fay's soft yet authoritatively questioning voice, which is more assured but far from pendantic. His poetic, poignant observations about the natural world, humanity's contradictory impulses, philosophical and cosmological queries, and direct political assertions are direct yet presented with genuine humility. As a result, these simple songs are brimming with moral authority. "War Machine" is a waltz painted by Mellotron, organ, strings, and electric guitars. Fay sings "There's a hawk in the distance/He ain't praying for forgiveness/It's his nature to kill/But mine isn't/ But we all kill in ways/That he doesn't/As we pay our taxes/To the war machine...." The chorus is hymn-like as Dannie Deller's vocals shore up Fay's with conviction. "Underneath the Sun," with its cascading piano chords, cello, French horn, and rumbling cymbals, is almost processional as the songwriter juxtaposes images of birds, squirrels, rivers, and pines with trains full of uranium and human violence. "How Little" commences as a gentle, minor-key ballad that explores the mystery of origin in nature. It's not without drama and tension, however: Russell's electric guitar explodes with sharp, angular shards in the center. The title track is almost a chamber piece. Fay's questioning title is actually an expression of gratitude for his songs; he recei9ves them as a gift. His vocal is affirmed by strings, brass, and a Wurlitzer. "A Page Incomplete," with Matt Deighton's guitar punching through mix, is brief yet soul stirring. The country-tinged "I Hear You Calling" was first recorded by Fay on Time of the Last Persecution. Heard through the passage of 40-plus years (most of it spent working menial jobs), its poignancy is revelatory: "All my time is lying/on the factory floor...Give me back my time/I hear you calling/From the river bank/I will be coming/When the air is black…" There is no bitterness, only desire and affirmation. Christian spirituality has always been the thread in Fay's work, but he's no evangelical autodidact. The simple, profound songs on Who Is the Sender? ask numerous questions and express doubts — genuine faith has to if it is to remain viable. But because these tunes embrace the totality of earthly experience in the presence of the Divine, they can willfully accept a painful, broken world with a gentle, wide-open heart.


Born: North London, England

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '00s, '10s

Obscure British singer/songwriter Bill Fay made a couple of albums in the early '70s that matched Dylanesque songwriting with unusual arrangements. Fay had actually done his first single, "Some Good Advice"/"Screams in the Ears," for Deram back in 1967, produced by early Donovan co-manager Peter Eden. The single introduced his characteristic downbeat melodies and scrambled poetic lyrics, though with somewhat more pop-oriented production and melodies, than those heard on his albums. It wouldn't be...
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Who Is the Sender?, Bill Fay
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