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MARTIN STEPHENSON & THE DAINTIES (Buy CDs by this artist)
Boat to Bolivia (UK Kitchenware/London) 1986
Gladsome Humour & Blue (UK Kitchenware/London) 1988 (Kitchenware/London/Capitol) 1989
Salutation Road (Kitchenware/London/Capitol) 1990

Those old enough to remember Donovan's late-'60s albums, on which he combined strains of folk, rock, blues and wispy jazz with sincere, unpretentious singing, have a good reference point for Martin Stephenson and the Daintees.

Hailing from a small town outside of Newcastle (which he reputedly never left until he was 27), singer/guitarist Stephenson is a performer of extraordinary warmth and depth whose major strength is his gift for understatement. On Boat to Bolivia, he's presented in a variety of settings — from reggae to ragtime — and seems entirely at ease in all of them. At a time when music is thoroughly dominated by urban and suburban voices, many of Stephenson's songs offer a refreshing rural perspective.

Gladsome Humour & Blue tones down the stylistic eclecticism of Bolivia in favor of a darker, even more introspective approach, with strings and acoustic instruments at the forefront on most tracks. This is Stephenson's least immediate, most subtle album, though many of the songs project an almost religious intensity. Not light listening, but rewarding. (The American Gladsome is a double-vinyl/single-CD-or-cassette package that includes Boat to Bolivia in its entirety.)

Teamed up with American producer Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, Michelle Shocked), Stephenson's outlook is considerably brighter — often downright celebratory — on Salutation Road. Anderson puts him in more of a rock setting than on either previous album, spicing things up with horns and background vocalists on many of the tracks — but never to the detriment of the star, who responds with some of his best performances yet. A lovely record.

[Dave Schulps]