Stephen Black is something of a luminary in the fervent Welsh music scene. His relentlessly self-deprecating stage chat and capacity for uniquely bizarre lyrics endears him to any audience he encounters, including several enjoyably dishevelled last minute fill-in slots at the Green Man festival in recent years.
It’s hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about Black, but his irreverent manner has stymied his journey to the nation’s hearts. The title of ‘The Morse Code For Love is Beep Beep, Beep Beep, the Binary Code is One One’ from previous album, ‘Ships’, highlights this rather neatly. But, with ‘The Boombox Ballads’, Sweet Baboo is clearly ready for the adoration that must surely come his way.
Openly indebted to his influences, including Nilsson, Newman and Walker, there are also touches of compatriots Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, a band with whom Black is more than a little smitten. What that list should tell you is that these ten songs are laced with melody, bathed in luscious harmonies and verbally dextrous.
The big shift here is the introduction of delicately deployed strings, the added heft almost forcing Black to toe the line a little more. Indeed, he’s explained that his initial plan was try and do everything for this album himself, but with the contributions of others has come some real beauty. This is best demonstrated with ‘I Just Want To Be Good’, a song written by Cate Le Bon, in whose band he often performs, and yet about him.
‘You Got Me Time Keeping’ has a wonderfully odd breakdown that Black has quite freely admitted began as an attempt to “rip-off” the middle section of Scott Walker’s ‘The Electrician’. The parallels aren’t legally binding, but the shimmering, horn-assisted pop gallop with which it all commences shifts down a gear before too long, mutating into grandiose, classic balladry only for everything to stop around the four-minute mark. Droning strings, disembodied voices and scattered percussion make for an ambitious, bizarre and beguiling breakdown, before it all picks up again. Guest vocals from Laura Byron, known elsewhere as lo-fi blues merchant Tender Prey, complete the magic of this seven-minute centrepiece. It is one of the most striking moments of music released so far this year and reason enough for lending ‘The Boombox Ballads’ your time.
Although, if you need additional persuading, it should be said that the simple euphoria of ‘Walking In The Rain’, with its heartfelt paean to a romantic meander in inclement conditions, has significant earworm credentials. Add in the Belle and Sebastian aping ‘Got To Hang Onto You’, which recalls a drunken romantic night around the record player, and stop-start marching band melody of ‘Sometimes’ and that should do the trick.
Sweet Baboo’s gloriously eccentric back catalogue has nevertheless often hinted at the capacity to deliver a truly special record: a glorious, emphatic collection of songs showcasing his truly affecting vocal and knack for ridiculously insistent hooks. No further hints are required for, with ‘The Boombox Ballads’, Black has got there.