Release Date: Aug 14, 2015
Record label: Moshi Moshi Records
Coming off of 2013's critically acclaimed Ships and an appearance on countrywoman Cate Le Bon's Mug Museum, for his fifth studio album under the Sweet Baboo pseudonym, Welsh indie singer/songwriter Stephen Black enlisted arranger Paul Jones to help him streamline instrumentation to focus on vocals. The resulting The Boombox Ballads is a smile-inducing collection of mostly lighthearted, romantic ditties with a retro-tinged timelessness. His best-sounding record so far production-wise, there's nothing plain about the presentation -- which incorporates frequent strings, piano, guitars, drums, brass, occasional double-tracking, backing vocals, and more -- but simplicity is key, and old-fashioned charisma leads the charge.
In the opening song from his new album, Stephen Black, who as Sweet Baboo has been releasing songs since 2003, sings “Sometimes I might get it wrong / And sometimes baby that’s when I’m far from home / A thousand miles but I never tire / Of singing these silly songs”. Like Paul McCartney, whose “Silly Love Songs” topped Billboard’s year-end singles charts in 1976, Black is an unrepentant sentimentalist, happy to write gorgeous love songs. “Sometimes” begins with a simple acoustic guitar picking that accentuates the vocal; on verse two, a second sweet voice joins, followed by light drumming, accordion, and strings.
Sweet Baboo – the performing name of Stephen Black – is a product of Wales’s fertile and reliably strange music scene, hailing from Trefriw and having performed with compatriots Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys and Euros Childs. On his fifth album The Boombox Ballads, Black claims he “wanted to explore more what it was to be a ‘Singer’ as opposed to a ‘Singer Songwriter’”. In practice, this new approach results in an eschewal of minor-key mopeyness and an embracing of Tin Pan Alley-style songwriting, lush string arrangements and unabashed sentimentality.
A romp of merry, pomp-filled trumpet puffs, and string-jaunts about walking in the pouring rain, Sweet Baboo’s ‘The Boombox Ballads’ is deliberately twee. Less than one minute into proceedings, album opener ‘Sometimes’ springs jauntily upwards into a cheery flourish of strings. Pressing play on this record is like swaggering - thumbs tucked firmly round braces - straight into the supercalifragilisticexpialidocious section of Disney’s Mary Poppins film.
The album title The Boombox Ballads first made me imagine Welshman Stephen Black’s latest album as Sweet Baboo would be a lo-fi affair. I thought of John Darnielle or Robert Pollard recording songs into the mic of a boombox. But nope, there’s no snap, crackle, pop like that here. This is an elegant, impeccably arranged album.
Scroll down for reviews of five albums that might just have slipped under your radar this week, from Autobahn’s relentlessly dark debut to the versatile racket of Nottingham newcomers Kagoule.Drinks – ‘Hermits On Holiday’A guitar emits a long screech, drums crash randomly and Cate Le Bon’s voice impatiently asks, “Tim, do I like that dog?”. Welcome to Drinks debut ‘Hermits On Holiday’, which Le Bon recorded in Los Angeles with White Fence’s Tim Presley. There’s a gulf between Presley’s noisy psychedelia and Le Bon’s pop kitsch, but that didn’t stop him asking the Cardiff musician to tour as White Fence’s guitarist a few years back.