Lucky Soul: The Great Unwanted

Lucky Soul
The Great Unwanted
Ruffa Lane
Available as import

The video for “Add Your Light to Mine, Baby”, the opening song of the Greenwich, UK-based band Lucky Soul’s debut LP The Great Unwanted, depicts the band in performance, exactly as you would imagine them from the song itself: dressed to the nines, with glamour, lead singer Ali Howard all smiles and style as she beckons you to escape with her into the dream world of a bright, bouncy pop song. This is the external surface of Lucky Soul’s music, what you hear first — color and light, a perfect realization of pop music as vacation.

The internal surface, the next level, is better visualized by the band’s video for the album’s fourth track, “Lips are Unhappy”. Shot in black-and-white, the singer looking sullen and alone behind dark shadows. The song isn’t dour, though, in fact, it’s a hyper, sunny dance song in the tradition of so many from decades past, with the repeated instruction to “shake, shake, shimmy.” But like so many classic dance songs — Smokey Robinson’s “I’ve Got to Dance to Keep from Crying” comes to mind as the ultimate, most obvious example — the dancing here is an escape from something. The same is true of “Add Your Light to Mine, Baby”. What sounds joyous is really a call for help. Seemingly hidden within the sugary melody is a life of dashed opportunities and burgeoning dreams of freedom. “All the rubbish that ever surrounds us could make a stone wall cry / But someday I’m going to leap out of this hole / And you can too if you’re by my side.”

Later in the album, the band’s most overtly retro dance song expresses this sentiment even more explicitly, with its title: “Get Outta Town!” The song sounds like it should come with accompanying dance steps, including count-offs, calls to get on the dancefloor and even a “Shout”-style section where things get quieter and then explode. In a certain light it’s a frivolous dance number, but in another it’s a call for rebellion against an oppressive environment, or at least escape from it. Lucky Soul’s songs all share this duality: They’re polished, giddy, completely light pop songs, but inside is heartbreak, confusion, the desire to leave sadness behind.

In the last few years plenty of indie-label groups have emulated ’50s and ’60s style vocal pop — girl groups and Motown especially — but none has done it as completely and confidently as Lucky Soul does here, with as full a sense of the many dimensions one song can have. And where so many indie-label musicians embrace a withdrawn and rough, “amateur” demeanor, partly as a way of fighting the perception of music as “product,” Lucky Soul perform their songs like they’re under the largest spotlight in the world, with the exuberance of a top-of-the-charts group, even if the style of their music is more suited to the airwaves from 40 or 50 years ago. Howard sings like she’s on the grandest stage, and the rest of each song is put together the same way, like Lucky Soul imagines it could be a number one single.

LUCKY SOUL [Photo: Libi Pedder]

Andrew Laidlaw, the group’s guitarist, main songwriter, and arranger, gives the songs strings-and-horn arrangements that go all out, lending increased drama to everything. The arrangements aren’t overdone, but rather precise, meticulously composed, giving Laidlaw the presence of a Phil Spector or Van Dyke Parks, someone who knows exactly what each song needs for greatest impact. Listen to the horns in “The Towering Inferno”, for example, they serve as counter-point to the vocals in just the right way, heightening the effect of a singer describing her hunger for life as an inferno that may one day destroy her. They rely on the best song-structure tricks in pop-music history, taking classic forms and lending them vibrancy. On The Great Unwanted there’s heart-wrenching, show-stopping ballads in the mold of Dusty Springfield, fun and flighty tunes which repeat everlasting hooks, and unstoppable dance tracks. Howard sings of heartbreak in as intense, heartfelt a way as your most earnest folkie, but the music sounds like candy.

Even the lyrics take a more considered, even poetic approach than might be expected for lightweight pop songs, with unique ways of expressing ancient emotions. “My Darling, Anything” describes a love-struck lonely someone like this: “Dead in the city, walking through traffic / A burned out head on a broken matchstick.” “The Last Song” begins “Born on a tear that seeps from the dagger-shaped hole in your heart,” but it isn’t just metaphors that make the lyrics distinct. These songs demonstrate a grasp on how much words in a song can communicate, both at first impression and as you listen more closely, and how even unlikely strings of words can be seamlessly fit to a melody.

LUCKY SOUL [Photo: David Ward]

The Great Unwanted is filled with song after song of heartbreak. At times it’s joked about, but mostly love seems a devastating, torturous experience. It’s a timeless theme, as is alienation and the desire to escape. Many of the songs’ protagonists identify themselves as outsiders, as alienated, wanting to get out of town, “leap out of this hole.” It’s an age-old feeling, from star-crossed lovers to James Dean to the Smiths. “Ain’t Never Been Cool” flips this desire for freedom in an interesting way, within the also familiar set-up of youth cliques. In this song, it’s the alienated, the outsider, who has the power, not the popular crowd. “I heard you do what you want / Do what you want to / Oh but you don’t though / Do you”. Here “I ain’t never been cool” is worn as a badge of honor. It’s the cool kids who’ll feel lost in the end.

The synthesis of these themes of heartbreak and alienation comes with the title track, which stands at the album’s center as a statement of definition or call to arms, outlining the defiance lurking behind all these tales of restless days and lonely nights. A string-laden number with echoes of the Shirelles, Crystals, etc., the song turns alienation into a uniting force, and then into a rallying cry (“Look for us / We were the whipping children / But no more”), using activist declarations like “We will not be ignored / We won’t take that no more.” The song ties tears of loneliness together with anti-conformity (“Dreading the sight of a Monday morning”) within an indie-pop song, drawing an invisible line from the Brill Building and Motown to punk and K Records. They coyly twist the cadence of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” into “It’s your body / You can die if you want to,” playing with pop history while aggressively asserting their own revamped version of sensitive-pop. Actually that’s what they do throughout The Great Unwanted. They take a history’s worth of love-and-loneliness songs and turn them into their own glimmering, shimmering gold. They’ve taken scraps of radio hits and misses past and regrown them into something fresh and new. They might never be huge, they might never be cool, but Lucky Soul has already created a catalogue of hit songs nonetheless.

Two videos… because we like Lucky Soul so much…

Lucky Soul – Add Your Light to Mine, Baby

Lucky Soul – Lips Are Unhappy

RATING 9 / 10