Every year for the past nine years, Jay McAllister, aka Beans on Toast, has released an album on his birthday, 1st December. Beginning with the sprawling 50-track debut, Standing On A Chair, recorded and produced over the course of a weekend by one Ben Lovett, of subsequent Mumford & Sons fame, it was done in the loft of his parent’s house.
Fast forward to 2018, and Beans on Toast has a tenth album, A Bird in the Hand. It too was recorded by Lovett, their first partnership since that debut. Of course, Lovett has since found fame and fortune in the intervening period, but he’s very much a good friend of music, and of musicians, whether they are mega-stars, or just your average jobbing Joe; via his production work, his Communion label, and running a venue (O’Meara’s). However, instead of the loft, it was done in the fantastically decked out Church Studios, current home of big-time producer Paul Epworth, and where Adele’s last album was made. Made over a number of weekends and evenings, when Mumfords had downed tools, Beans and friends used that band’s set up to their advantage. For sure, the sound is a little more polished than Standing On A Chair, but in most respects this still sounds like a no-fuss, back-to-basics Beans on Toast album, as befitting the rousing-yet-intimate autobiographical narratives.
It is, however, under the influence of Lovett, a little more eclectic than usual, and less lyrically fiery than his previous album Cushty, which spent much of its time, in the words of McAllister, “moaning” about the state of the world. The world has changed in that time (almost certainly for the worse), but McAllister’s focus is altogether different. First and foremost, he’s had a child. The bubble that this life-changing event can engender is reflected in a number of songs that are basically love letters to her, his partner, and his friends and family. This begins with the rootsy ‘Another Year’, that raisesa a toast to his immediate family, and the ever-evolving circle of life. It’s followed by further songs of celebration in the form of the piano-led bar-room waltz of ‘Good Health & Happiness’, and most beautifully, on the musically elegant ‘Magic’, a song that exquisitely details the unparalleled experience, and heightened nervous excitement of the whole birthing process, whilst heaping praise on the hospital staff. Indeed, the acoustic finger-picked homage ‘Here at Homerton Hospital’ is in part a response to that experience, along with Donald Trump’s typically ignorant comments about London hospitals. It’s another heart-felt celebration of life, this time of the magnificently dedicated, and skilled multi-cultural employees who work at such places.
Elsewhere, there is a rousing country-folk style dedication to a soulmate, in the form of fellow festival favourite Skinny Lister’s Lorna Thomas (‘1980’s Sagittarius’), and ‘Miss You Like Crazy’, again a love letter to his partner, but whom – as he details here – he has to separate on many-an-ocassion, as he tours and earns a living in his chosen way. While ‘Watching the World Go By’ is in praise of exactly that, taking the odd moment to relax and reflect, as McAlliser sings: “You have to admit it looks fantastic / There are so many reasons to be optimistic / Savouring the moment of just being alive.”
Perhaps in danger of being a little too indulgent with personal affairs of the heart, and loving praise to those close to him, McAllister spreads his wings and subsequently takes on the plastic crisis (‘Bamboo Toothbrush’), and his personal responsibilities therein; a light-hearted look at the ubiquitous Amazon’s virtual assistant ‘Alexa’, done in a rollicking live-in-the-studio fashion, and a plead (self-admonishing as well) to ‘Please Give Generously’ to those less fortunate, and less able than others.
Yet, at heart, this is an album about the warm fuzzy glow of good emotional health, that children, friends and family can give. Despite the odd bit of whinging in the past, McAllister is very much an optimist, and without ever being soppy or dull, his positivity within this micro-environment of his is what he can’t help but relay to the outside world. As always, whether with a band, or on his own, the music is upbeat, while his inimitably raspy, yet clear-as-day voice and homely sentiments, are unashamedly in celebratory mode.