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Richard Ashcroft

+ {RPA & The United Nations Of Sound}

A celebrated and charismatic frontman with Britpop chart-toppers The VERVE (peaking with “Urban Hymns” singles `Bittersweet Symphony’ and `The Drugs Don’t Work’ in 1997), RICHARD ASHCROFT was the coolest dude around. Born 11th September 1971 in Billinge, a suburb of Wigan in Lancashire, England, the singer’s first experience with mind-altering attitudes was when his step-father (an acolyte of the Rosicrucians way of life) convinced the 11-year-old Richard that expansion of the inner soul and the healing arts were the way to go.
Unfairly nicknamed “Mad Richard” from the British music press as (The) VERVE soared into the consciousness of post-indie fans, ASHCROFT was aware that he would always be typecast as someone associated with psychedelia. In between tears and tantrums (not forgetting the odd legal wrangle from the ABKCO Corps) as he led his group to astronomical sales figures for third album `Urban Hymns’, The VERVE could not sustain the pressures of band life.
For many, RICHARD ASHCROFT was the VERVE, and when a solo set was announced at the turn of the millennium, fans counted down the days to something fresh from Wigan’s wayward hero. And what a picture of domestic bliss he painted on ALONE WITH EVERYBODY (2000) {*7}, his first solo set and a marked transition from the anguished soul-searching of his best work with his old combo. Eloquent string arrangements, folky strumming and contented musings on life’s basic essentials made for one of the best chart-topping solo debuts in years. A lucky man? It certainly seemed so. At times orchestral-laden and symphonically bittersweet, `A Song For The Lovers’, `Money To Burn’ and `C’Mon People (We’re Making It Now)’, all reached the higher regions of the singles charts, but the his laurels were certainly resting on any “urban hymns” he could conjure up.
ASHCROFT returned in 2002 to deliver HUMAN CONDITIONS {*6}, a slightly bitter sophomore record, that seemed to isolate VERVE fans even more. Reverting into a world of deliberate melancholy, Richard even dabbled with the world’s smallest violin. Themes of God, lost love and difficult relationships have all been explored before by ASHCROFT et al, nevertheless it reached the UK Top 3. Yet its only saving grace remained in the brilliant closing track `Nature Is The Law’ (excuse the cheesy title), which featured BRIAN WILSON on backing harmonies, plus hits `Science of Silence’ and `Buy It In Bottles’.
Newly signed to Parlophone Records and back within sniffing distance of No.1, the man prone to overstatement returned with the underrated KEYS TO THE WORLD (2006) {*6}, its title perhaps a subtle reference to CURTIS MAYFIELD, one of whose productions he sampled on Top 20 hit, `Music Is Power’ (shades of Bitter Sweet’s string pomp), and whose Windy City soul perhaps provided a spiritual – if not literal – compass to the album’s symphonic roots sound. `Why Not Nothing’ was the most visceral opening to any ASHCROFT record, a NEIL DIAMOND-phlemgy, veteran-wise acoustic rocker which might have cleaned up as a lead single. The more typical `Break The Night With Colour’ went Top 3 anyway, all layered angst and straining martyrdom. The title track sailed close to The VERVE and `Sweet Brother Malcolm’ sounded like the obligatory levee-side ballad from a mid-period BLACK CROWES album (one that he actually managed to bring off), yet it was the swelling `Simple Song’ which perhaps supplied the most finely-cut key to ASHCROFT’s world, a penultimate manifesto for better times ahead.
The VERVE, meanwhile, were plotting a comeback of sorts, although the punningly-titled `Forth’ set in 2008 had its fair share of bittersweet critics. Dissolving in the wake of the album’s mixed reviews, RICHARD ASHCROFT painted a different portrait on his subsequent RPA & THE UNITED NATIONS OF SOUND (2010) {*5} project set. Romantic and reflective, the literate singer adapted/procured a few tunes from sources such as the BEE GEES (`Are You Ready?’), JOHN LEE HOOKER (`How Deep Is Your Man?’) and DAVID AXELROD (`Life Can Be So Beautiful’), but the record was overall disappointing; his American label (Razor & Tie) decided to safely bill the set under his solo moniker the following March.
Previewed by rousing downloads `This Is How It Feels’ and `Hold On’, 2016’s THESE PEOPLE {*6} was six years of frustration and brooding rolled into one symphonic set. Assisted by former VERVE orchestrator Wil Malone, the mood-enhancing Top 3 record had its share of effective tunes, although none of them – `Everybody Needs Somebody To Hurt’, `They Don’t Own Me’ and `Picture Of You’ mainly stepping into the pseudo-psychedelic sandals of `The Drugs Don’t Work’, `Sonnet’ and `Lucky Man’ – could compare to his “Urban Hymns” of old. A tad Euro-centric and circumvented on a veneer of future festival fist-pumping, opener `Out Of My Body’ turned the key of another door, a door that might lead to his Shangri-la/Utopia.
© MC Strong/MCS 2002-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS May2016

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