On August 14th , North Wales’ Sweet Baboo (Stephen Black) is set to release his debut album The Boombox Ballads. In a press release, Black suggests that he wanted to explore “more what it was like to be a ‘singer’ as opposed to a ‘songwriter’, a term that seems to have picked up some negative connotations in recent years”. The Boombox Ballads does an excellent job of towing the line between uptempo rock songs and, true to its title, heartfelt ballads. Fleshed out with string arrangements by Paul Jones, the record is rooted in pop classicism and does an excellent job of paying tribute to past giants like Nilsson, or Bacharach.
The Boombox Ballads opens with “Sometimes”, the album’s lead single. It enters with gentle fingerpicking and Black’s wonderful vocal delivery. Location and register aside, his voice is somewhat reminiscent of Euros Childs, another Welsh songwriter that found success overseas. When the verse abruptly shifts to the chorus, “Sometimes” turns into a full on baroque affair, with string and brass rounding out the edges. Thankfully, Black leaves enough space on the remaining verses to focus on his subject: “Baby, let’s stay up all night, until we’re both crazy and sleep deprived. See, two of you is like a dream come true, and if there’s any more than I’m yours.”
After “Sometimes”, Black jumps straight into “Got To Hang Onto You”, the first of many faster songs. His delivery is true northern soul by way of Phil Lynott, in the same vein as Belle & Sebastian’s “I’m A Cuckoo”. He doesn’t shy away from his influences, with lyrics making direct reference to popular UK dance clubs of the early days: “So let’s make our very own Wigan Casino, move furniture around dance away into the night”. Like Lynott, Black crams as many words and syllables as he can into one line, but it never feels forced or rushed.
Other highlights include “You Are Gentle”, with its subtle nods to Holland-era Beach Boys (see also: “Sail On Sailor”), and one songwriting trick that doesn’t get used often enough: direct lyrical references to chord changes as they happen in real time (see also: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). Over the course of The Boombox Ballads, Black effortlessly jumps between slower, contemplative songs, and full out bombast.
Review by Evan McDowell