Sweet, lush romantic pop from North Wales.
In the opening song from his new album, Stephen Black, who as Sweet Baboo has been releasing songs since 2003, sings “Sometimes I might get it wrong / And sometimes baby that’s when I’m far from home / A thousand miles but I never tire / Of singing these silly songs”. Like Paul McCartney, whose “Silly Love Songs” topped Billboard’s year-end singles charts in 1976, Black is an unrepentant sentimentalist, happy to write gorgeous love songs. “Sometimes” begins with a simple acoustic guitar picking that accentuates the vocal; on verse two, a second sweet voice joins, followed by light drumming, accordion, and strings. The song’s tender lyric sung to lush instrumentation is a little pop gem.
The comparison of a rather unknown, North Wales, UK-based singer to Sir Paul might seem like a big stretch, and it is, of course, if one is measuring sales or fame or even virtuosity. Black has said that two of his musical heroes are Harry Nilsson and Brian Wilson, and while he’s not going to achieve their stature, either, Black’s influences and ambition do show with The Boombox Ballads. He doesn’t seem interested, however, in sharing their crazy, drug-addicted life styles. In interviews, Black mentions his wife frequently, and he has a young baby, and the album as a whole feels like sweet domesticity. You might listen while you’re having a cup of tea and a cookie in the afternoon with a loved one, but the domestic touches don’t cancel imagination. In “Walking in the Rain”, for example, the singer pleads to his love that it’s the perfect day to go walking, because it’s raining hard, and they’ll get soaked, and then they can come inside and strip naked. And then put on clothes and do it all again.
The Boombox Ballads isn’t for you if you like albums that experiment with blends of genres, or whose themes and subjects range widely. Each of the album’s songs are variations on the single theme of romance, and all inhabit the genre of sophisticated pop. Black writes clever lyrics, though on occasion they seem overly cute, like Cole Porter in “You’re the Top” from Anything Goes. For example, in “Tonight You Are a Tiger”, Black begins by comparing his lover to a tiger: “Sabre toothed and your mouth so wide / And you have a big strong body and an even better mind / So baby bite me in the belly, pierce my skin and dive right in." He follows that by saying he wants to be her mammoth, and her paleontologist, and that she’s also a writer with bookish cool and a theme park and a boombox. I can’t picture all that. But on the songs that don’t strive quite so much for cleverness -- particularly the standouts “Two Lonely Magpies” and “You Got Me Time Keeping” -- Black blends word and sound into an infectious, delightful pop.
The album doesn’t quite match Stephin Merritt’s output of sixty-nine love songs on the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. Black doesn’t have Merritt’s sardonic wit, or the range of musical styles, and so you aren’t laughing out loud here the way you can listening to the Magnetic Fields. The songs on this album show something less funny but nevertheless meaningful: a songwriter deeply in love, with his wife as well as his life and art. If you aren’t in love or aren’t thinking that love has a role in your near-future, you’re likely going to want to turn this album off quickly. But if you are in love, get this album, play it with your loved one, and go for a walk in the rain. And then, of course, come home and strip naked.