Attention London: One of 2011's greatest treasures is right in your back yard.
Look in your backyard. Some of the best music can be found right there. That's certainly the reality for London audiences. While U.S. exports like Rihanna, Maroon 5, and Gym Class Heroes currently crown the pop charts in the U.K., London-based Mamas Gun, a five-piece soul-pop-funk-rock band, are doing more for the health of music than most top-selling acts on either side of the Atlantic. Following the group's 2010 debut, Routes to Riches, Mamas Gun have re-emerged with The Life and Soul, a flawless set that captures the band frolicking in a wonderland of infectious melodies and vibrant musical motifs.
To get a sense of the group's orientation, consider some of the acts that individual band members have collaborated with or recorded with in recent years: Pharrell, Corinne Bailey Rae, Lewis Taylor, John Oates, Mungo Jerry, Leon Ware, Rod Temperton. Spanning generations, these artists and songwriters reside along a continuum of pop-based musical forms. Similarly, Mamas Gun blend a variety of sensibilities with producers Martin Terefe and Andreas Olsson (KT Tunstall, Jason Mraz, James Morrison) on The Life and Soul. In the space of two songs, there's "The Art", whose serene beauty and rounded harmonies would make Brian Wilson smile, and then the cathartic, acid rock-infused "Get a High". In the space of just one song – "Rocket to the Moon" – the band incorporates a number of styles that seamlessly coalesce. Across 11 original tracks, plus a brilliant cover of Queen's "Bicycle Race", Mamas Gun deliver hooks in dividends and satisfy a wide swath of music lovers.
"Reconnection" triggers the first round of hooks on the band's second effort for the independent Candelion label. The opening 10 seconds produce an explosion of sound that then yields to the stripped-down yet propulsive interplay between bassist Rex Horan and drummer Jack Pollitt. With his soaring tenor, lead vocalist Andy Platts sings above a chorus whose rhythm drives like a modern-day Motown machine. A sense of whimsy permeates the track and is cleverly rendered in the song's corresponding video, which maps colorful and irreverent imagery over the music. It's well-conceived and well-executed: there's perhaps no sequence better suited to the closing tag of "Reconnection" than the sight of Platts jumping over a hill and a rainbow of balloons rising from the ground.
If Bad Company and Rufus & Chaka Khan had collaborated in 1975, "The Life and Soul" might have been the result. Though such a comparison might be unfair in adjudicating the quality of the title track, it serves to underscore how well Mamas Gun fuse soul and rock, and how their talent is comparable to that particular echelon of classic bands. Among the track's many merits, a monstrous guitar riff by Terry Lewis ("Spiller") seizes attention and doesn't relent, while Platts' opening wail typifies his vocal prowess to thrilling effect.
"We Make It Look So Easy" glides through the band's panoramic landscape of soul like a cool breeze at sunset. Their adeptness with blue-lights-in-the-basement grooves is just as masterful as their funk excursions and exhibits Platts' versatility as a romantic lead. Shifting even further downtempo, the band stirs some blues into the mix on "Sending You a Message", where the marriage of Dave Oliver's keys and the contemplative tone of Platts' voice amplifies the lyrics' undercurrent of yearning.
Mamas Gun lift the atmosphere on the rollicking "Rocket to the Moon" before Beverly Knight shows up for the party. The U.K. soul queen duets with Andy Platts on "Only One". The two singers possess a natural élan without duelling in histrionic melisma like so many contemporary pop acts and reality TV singing contestants are wont. When Platts and Knight intone a word like "sky" in the chorus, they apply a clean and unbroken phrasing to extend the vowel sound, complementing the character of each other's voice rather than upstaging it with unnecessary glottal gesticulations.
Elsewhere, the buoyant beat of "On a String" is perhaps the best ingress to the Mamas Gun experience for listeners whose music choices are shaped by Top 40 radio. That's not to trivialize the musicality of "On a String" but rather to emphasize the immediacy of its melody, which is front-loaded at the very beginning of the track. Come to think of it, there's no reason that "On a String" should not be garnering the same amount of airplay as anything in the Top 10.
However, in the parlance of critics and industry insiders, Mamas Gun is destined to be more than a "singles" act. The Life and Soul is an exceptional album, a collection of twelve songs that coheres even amidst the different styles and sounds that the band explores. The album is just as strong as the equally laudable Routes to Riches but is not simply a retread of its predecessor's best moments. On The Life and Soul, Mamas Gun have expanded their sound and have certainly raised the bar for what they do next. They have also fashioned one of 2011's greatest treasures. The lesson here? Do yourself a favour and visit your back yard every now and then.