Complete SurrenderPreviously forlorn and just on the doable side of twee, Sheffield girl-boy duo Slow Club decided they wanted a change. Their two previous albums, the second a great improvement on the first, were a mix of shoe-gaze and rattling, nurturing indie-folk; it was sweet but had a dark and more interesting undercurrent. “Complete Surrender” doesn’t rattle and isn’t folk music but the dark tendencies and songwriting style have, in part, remained. Colin Elliot, who has worked with Jarvis Cocker, Kylie Minogue on her Abbey Road album and, most notably, Richard Hawley, has been enlisted to produce and in doing so has in part become what feels like a third member, such is his presumed impact. Retro, northern soul and Motown girl-group stompers dominate in what is now a fully formed and lushly intricate backdrop that accompanies Charles Watson and, in frequently spectacular fashion, Rebecca Taylor’s tales of heartbreak and determined, if not always successful, reinvention.

Slow Club’s emphasis has always been on their centre-stage vocals and their self-written durable melodies so, although the sonic energy here has been intensified, and, on tracks like the endlessly ascending title track, is pitched to equal a song’s mood, it’s always the songs themselves that shine through. There is not a case for style over substance here and this is before taking into account the duo’s vocals; Watson’s doleful white-boy falsetto, pitched high and yearning, like a northern Ben Gibbard, and Taylor who sings with tremendous power and a nuanced, technical ability to express a catalogue of emotions without ever over-egging. Unlike her male partner who is certainly competent but not awe-inspiring, Taylor sounds closer to firmly established female singers who have earned iconic status. Maybe closer to Sandie Shaw, on songs like the frail but fighting “Dependable People and Things that I’m Sure Of”, a slow solo performance, she astounds with a plaintive but rousing vocal documenting the fresh pain of a terminal relationship.

‘But I can run further than I could before
And I can laugh louder, I can dance ’til I’m sore
Then in the morning, I can do it again
I just have to keep moving, don’t ever stop moving

And all of this envy and all of this fear
Will just be a memory of this shitty year

The pair share vocal duties throughout the album’s eleven tracks with songs dedicated to either one or the other but on occasion their voices merge in the most surprising way considering how different they are. On “Tears Of Joy”, Taylor’s wistful voice is actually underscored by Watson’s throughout although at first this isn’t obvious, clearly initially taking the lead his vocal gradually morphs into the ecstatic whoops of his partner’s -- the joy of the title expressed. On “Everything is New”, with its strings, ahhh-ahhh serenades, spirited chorus and rock guitars their vocals -- again led by Watson -- collide and separate again, beautifully. “The Queen’s Nose”, another glorious ballad delivered solely by Taylor, and an obvious high point, is so exquisite that it is hard not to begin wishing that the power-couple had weighed out their responsibilities differently when it comes to vocal duties. Songs like the playful and more electronic “The Pieces” don’t stand up to the weightier performances here many of which do belong to Rebecca Taylor, but it is also the various shades of their vocals playing together that make tracks such as “Wanderer Wandering” such a multi- layered, rich but still airy pleasure.

“Complete Surrender” has elevated the duo to a position where they will be at the very least heard in the same context as some of pop’s most soulful big hitters; Jessie Ware, Sam Smith and even Adele are their contemporaries now. Whether they experience the same level of commercial success is another issue of course and realistically, extremely unlikely -- only a tiny percentage will after all.  But to make a record like this and to take strides that enables your sound to be both mainstream but wholly grounded in a lyrical sensibility that is essentially British in its self-deprecation and rejection of sentimentality is admirable and is what gives Slow Club their edge. “Complete Surrender” is an album that eventually becomes a part of you and as much as it is nurturing, moving and empathic; it also thrills with its new ambitions and ends up sounding unlike anything else experienced over the last eighteen months.

 

“Closer Than You Know” -- The Kennedys

This album’s been around for a few months but it slipped under the MusicRiot radar until we heard about The Kennedys touring to support it in the UK, so I guess that justifies telling you all about it a little late.  This is the twelfth album the husband and wife team, Pete and Maura Kennedy, have released as The Kennedys, although they have both also been involved with various side projects.  The Kennedys are one of those “well-kept secret” bands that have devoted fans but, for some reason, have never quite become massively successful.

“Closer than You Know” is an interesting piece of work.  Just for once I agree with a statement from a press release; this is “pop for grown-ups” and, more importantly, it’s music for people who really care about music.  There isn’t any filler on this album; all of the songs are good and, in my opinion, at least a couple are great.  It’s difficult to define their style, but if you take folk-rock as your starting point, add a bit of Celtic seasoning and throw in 60s UK pop and The Byrds, you won’t be far off the mark.

The opening song “Winter” sets the scene for the album with Pete’s finger-picked guitar backing  Maura’s breathy, multi-tracked, vocals before moving into the country-tinged “Rhyme and Reason”, followed by the story of a second generation illegal immigrant “Marina Dream”, which has a Celtic folk feel  and a rhythm that evokes perfectly the flight and pursuit experienced by the girl at the centre of the song.

The middle section of the album moves across a variety of styles instrumentally and vocally featuring laconic Richard Hawley style-guitar, discordant synthesised strings and classical nylon-strung guitar arrangements.  I’m not dismissing these songs by any means, because they’re all good but, for me, after a couple of listens, the album builds up to one focal point.

From the opening sus4 chords of “Big Star Song” I was hooked.  The song is a celebration of Alex Chilton’s work and a lament for his passing;  it’s a perfect marriage of words and music which evokes an earlier era while sounding completely contemporary.  Like many great songs, this has several layers and, lyrically, it’s also about losing something or someone other than Alex Chilton.  I don’t know what that something else is and I suspect it’s so personal that I don’t really want to know.  Whichever way you look at it, this is a great song.

“Big Star Song” is followed by a U2 cover, “Wild Honey” , “Happy Again” (which has more than a hint of Rosanne Cash vocally) and “Winter Lies”, which completes the cycle.  I would have reviewed this as a good album without “Big Star Song”, but with that song, it’s a very good album indeed.  You can hear loads of influences at work here (you can probably add Stevie Nicks and maybe Emmylou Harris to the ones I’ve already listed), but this is fresh and original. 

My only general criticism is that the album feels slightly over-produced at times.  This may be a reaction to working as a duo because it must be natural at times to over-compensate by throwing too much at the production and adding another extra guitar part or vocal harmony. It’s a minor criticism and I’m really looking forward to hearing the live interpretations of the songs later this week.

“Closer than You Know” is out now (Catalogue No. TK1208), distributed by Proper Music Distribution.