“A theme running through my work is not fitting in,” admits singer/songwriter Martin Carr. It’s odd that he feels that way because during a few moments in his career, Carr fit right in with his surroundings just fine. There’s a song on his new album named “Mainstream”, for crying out loud. When his old band the Boo Radleys were shifting gears from shoegaze to Britpop, the rest of the UK seemed to be doing the same thing. The band found mass success then lost it in the span of three magical albums – Giant Steps, Wake Up! and C’Mon Kids. After the Boo Radleys came apart, Carr took to being a one-man band called Brave Captain. As an entire world of amateur musicians were discovering how to record themselves on laptops and release their music through DIY channels, Martin Carr had perfected his own home recording approach and eventually retired the Brave Captain name. But even though he was slightly ahead of the no studio/(almost) no label curve of musical tinkerers back in 2000, Carr’s broader musical approach was one that was getting lost in pop music’s turn-of-the-century identity crisis. He self-released his first proper solo album Ye Gods and Little Fishes in 2009 and waited for the world to come knocking. Luckily the German label Tapete liked the demos for The Breaks enough to take a crack at its release.
It was around this time of Ye Gods that Carr made peace with the pop/radio friendly side of his musical personality and dove back into the sunny sounds that made the Boo Radleys a household name in the UK. Even after a five-year pause, The Breaks picks right up on what Ye Gods was suggesting: that Martin Carr still had a Wake Up! inside of him should he choose to let it out. The Breaksis almost dangerous in its Britpop approach since Carr’s PR team is touting it as one of Carr’s greatest albums. That’s quite a claim to make, even if Giants Steps was the only album to his credit. So, is this truly his greatest achievement? Even before I heard a note of The Breaks, I knew there would be no simple answer to a question like that.
First, let’s start with what’s missing. The dense experimental layers of Brave Captain are not here. The restless studio hermit that secretly hoped there could be room for some hip-hop and free jazz in the mix is on sabbatical. Sice Rowbottom is not here to sing his ass off and there are no fuzzed-out guitars getting cranked to 11. The songs are straightforward, showing none of the bizarre U-turns that Carr would lead his former band through in the early days. Now that you’ve mentally removed those elements, think of the Boos final hour Kingsize, only with a good night’s rest behind it, and you’re getting closer.
The Breaks kicks the door open to let the sun in with “The Santa Fe Skyway”, a jubilant keyboard and horn-driven number that sighs “Mary Jane / What a way to waste the day.” The sun is out, it’s 1995, and UK’s greatest bands hate each other all over again! At least it feels that way. Those good vibes go for “St. Peter in Chains”, which is quite the lyrical downer: “‘Jesus loves us,’ Sister Mary said / As she beat out the rhythm on the back of my head.” The number is Britpop ‘a’ rockin’ enough, but the chorus could have used a little more than just singing the song’s title four times in sweet overdubbed harmonies.
After that, the album takes a somber but never depressing turn. “I tell myself / I’m happy as I am” sings Carr on “Mainstream”, though you get the impression that he doesn’t really mind the self deception. The warm ’60s British invasion brass certainly helps. “Mountains” and “Senseless Apprentice” could both pass for lost Boo Radleys songs, though from different eras (for “Mountains”, think of Wake Up!‘s more mellow moments). Musically, Carr sounds comfortable, almost complacent. Lyrically, he can still be heavy-handed. For instance, “No Money in My Pocket” features with couplet early on: “If Jesus ran our chip shop all our fish would be free / But Jesus was a lefty / So they nailed him to a tree / You don’t get on the wrong side of the business community.” God, what happened to this guy back in the ’90s? Fortunately, Carr walks back into less forced territory with the easy going almost-do-wop “I Don’t Think I’ll Make It”: “Call me / Text me, tweet me, summon me to your heart.” You just have to get used to the fact that he rhymes “heart” with “Descartes”. But what comes next makes it all worthwhile: “I’ll make every mistake there is.”
The Breaks is a good little album, worthwhile even. But is it Martin Carr’s best? I’m going to go ahead and say that it’s not because it’s just too mannered. Carr’s finest moments doesn’t have anything to do with the edge of youth or the futile discussion of “relevance”, they happened when he just let his freak flag fly. That goes for the deafening guitars of the Boo Radleys just as well as the overly ambitious experiments of Brave Captain. The Breaks is just a pretty good pop album.