Swing Out Sister emerged at a time (1986) when the ranks of sophisti-pop contenders seemed to swell on a daily basis, with acts like Johnny Hates Jazz, Curiosity Killed the Cat, Basia, the Style Council and Sade all jostling for attention. Simultaneously chic and very slightly kitsch, they thrived on the considerable charm of lead singer Corinne Drewery, a gamine fashionista with a Galaxy chocolate voice, the instrumental talents of Andy Connell, and the pair’s notable abilities as a songwriting unit. They’ve survived better than most. A common misconception is that they’ve never changed, something encouraged by Drewery’s semi-permanent geometric bob (she did, in fact, wear her hair differently at certain points in the 1990s).
Their first album, It’s Better to Travel (Mercury, 1986), was synth-based, with concise, efficient pop songs like the worldwide hit, “Breakout”. On their second album, Kaleidoscope World (Fontana, 1989) they began to follow their muse to more obscure places, with orchestral arrangements that recalled John Barry and songs steeped in the sounds of Bacharach & David and the well-known Pearl & Dean advert. They even managed to enlist Jimmy Webb to arrange two of the tracks. From that point on, they’ve stirred in the following ingredients: Laura Nyro, Brill Building pop, Motown, 1960s girl groups, Northern soul, Dusty Springfield, bossa nova, 1960s and ’70s European cinema soundtracks, neo-soul, Blue Note jazz, hip-hop and more. Given that list, it’s hardly surprising that, quite early on, their music stopped fitting any popular radio formats. The hits no longer came but by then they’d built an international following that has stayed with them to this day.
Almost Persuaded is their tenth album, coming after a long-than-usual gap of ten years. They constructed it via a crowd-funding initiative that let fans in on the writing and recording process. In a sense, it’s a concept album in that its creation was conceptualized. There was a soft release last year, and a launch at the Hospital Club in London. Now comes the official release. Despite the absence of real strings, it’s perhaps the most film-score sounding collection they’ve made since Kaleidoscope World, though this time the influences are more obscure than John Barry.
On several of Almost Persuaded‘s shimmering, velvet-soft songs, SOS sound like they’re channeling the late Piero Piccioni, the Italian film composer who was, in turn, inspired by American jazz and film music. In 1974, two gorgeous Piccioni compositions, “It’s Possible” and “Revelation”, were sung by British singer/songwriter Catherine Howe, for the films Bello, Onesto, Emigrato, Australia Sposerebbe Compaesana Illibata and Il Dio Sotto La Pelle. The two songs combined soul music and upscale, easy listening with the rangy, irregular melodic lines of operatic recitative. Swing Out Sister seem to have picked up that baton, particularly on “Don’t Give the Game Away” and the title track, although their melodies are constructed in more of a pop vein.
As usual, throughout the album, Corinne and Andy are like perpetual habitués of le beau monde. Yes, the lyrics suggest heartache and regret, but it’s heartache and regret beside luxurious infinity pools at beautiful Mediterranean coastal resorts where no one wears manmade fabrics. You’ll hear traces of Minnie Riperton (in her Come to My Garden era) and late-period Rotary Connection, especially on “Which Wrong Is Right”. Towards the middle of that song, a beautiful ba-da-ba-da counterpoint vocal occurs that summons memories of psychedelic soul arranger Charles Stepney.
“Everybody’s Here” mingles in some Leon Ware/Marvin Gaye stylings. On “Happier Than Sunshine” and “Until Tomorrow Forgets” there’s a smooth-jazz feel that recalls Teena Marie’s Congo Square (Universal, 2010) album, while the upmarket easy listening of “I Wish I Knew”, with its triumphant aural tsunami of a chorus, revives musical ideas from Kaleidoscope World. An absolute stand-out aspect of Almost Persuaded is the way it’s been arranged and mixed. You’ll hear tumbling cocktail piano, strummed guitars, a live woodwind and brass section and programmed strings that are blended cleverly enough to sound real. Players include percussionist Jody Linscott, and it’s hard to think of a more apt guest, given that she first came to fame as part of Kokomo, the criminally underrated 1970s soul group whose three CBS albums have undoubtedly affected SOS.
SOS’s influences are worn on the sleeve, but my assessing of them in such terms may do them a disservice. The blend they achieve is unique and this album, with its lavish orchestral and electronic textures, is one of their best. The only track that reveals the artificiality of the ‘string section’ is “All in a Heartbeat”, and, for a brief moment, I wondered what this album might be like had it been unapologetic electronica, instead of digital elements designed to sound warm and analogue. If SOS wanted to create something with more ferocity and more bite, that would probably be the way to go. But by the time you’ve registered the fact that these are keyboard-operated strings, a trademark SOS chorus comes along, bathed in the sounds of Italy and France in the late 1960s, and you’re swept back into a reverie.
The only drawback to Almost Persuaded is its lack of intensity, and it is this quality that sometimes renders SOS inessential, especially if listened to as background music (I suggest a close listen with headphones to bring out the real substance of the album). In part, it’s because the lyrics, though likable and vaguely poetic, don’t always amount to more than a pile of sweet nothings. Take this example, from “Which Wrong Is Right”: “People never satisfied, how will love survive / What’s happening now, faces we don’t recognize / Nowhere left to hide, don’t ask me how.” Or this, from “Be My Valentine”: “Hold me tight, come what may / Like you were always mine / If our dreams come true then let’s pretend / Be my valentine.” The songs don’t tell clear stories, but work on a more impressionistic level, presenting a series of romantic and philosophical reflections, with pretty words like dustings of icing sugar. Then there’s the fact that Drewery’s voice, though beautiful and in good condition, is limited in its emotional expressiveness. However, a compelling argument could just as easily be mounted that her coolness and reticence are strengths.
These limitations aside, Almost Persuaded is a sweet and luxuriant confection. It conjures the feeling of white-hot days spent sunbathing and lying by the sea, followed by neon-lit nights of romance and intrigue, and it couldn’t be more suited to a summer release. It rewards multiple listens, and its sheer, unabashed opulence is becoming. Although the accusation that SOS haven’t significantly changed partly sticks, there’s a silver lining to it, which is that they also haven’t deteriorated. Not in the slightest. They sound as if they have the necessary mileage and heft for many more albums.