When I reviewed American Interior for Wales Arts Review earlier in the year, I wrote that it was the first time that I hadn’t missed the natural chemistry that the other members of the Super Furry Animals brought to Gruff Rhys’ songwriting. Well, it has to be said that I feel the same way about the new record by Rhys’ fellow Cardiff resident and all round kindred spirit, Martin Carr. Since the Boo Radleys split up after releasing the excellent Kingsize (1998) to an almost entirely indifferent public, their lead guitarist and songwriter, Carr, has released a series of interesting, periodically brilliant albums under the Brave Captain moniker, before more recently making records under his own name. The problem with the reception of these records has possibly been owing to the fact that Carr’s vision underpinned every piece of music that the Boo Radleys created. Perhaps these subsequent records, then, couldn’t help but feel a little bit like expensive demos, or at least like a Boo Radleys’ record without the sense of symbiosis that the other members brought along to their songwriter’s compositions.
This is probably being unfair to Carr’s solo oeuvre but, in any case, suffice it to say that The Breaks is the type of album that relegates such concerns to irrelevance. It is a record that brims with such confidence and ebullience that you suddenly remember what an absolutely essential – especially around the time of Giant Steps – band The Boo Radleys used to be. Maybe Carr went too far on ‘Wake Up Boo!’ (although for me the problem with that song was simply that it was overplayed – and of course, overplayed in so many hideous contexts!), however, whichever way you choose to look at it, it is still, quite frankly, a bizarre state of affairs to not listen to one of the most important songwriters this country has ever produced on the strength of his having made one – one! – cheesey pop song. Should we not listen to David Bowie because of ‘The Laughing Gnome’? And anyway, isn’t ‘Country House’ a vastly more offensive piece of commercial Britpop?
But perhaps the problem with ‘Wake Up Boo!’ is really that its impact caused Carr to somewhat turn his back on what was always one of his key strengths: Lennon-and-McCartney-esque verse-chorus-verse pop-symphonic perfection. The genius of the Boos’ masterpiece Giant Steps was that the band took this perfection and then experimented wildly with it. Fucked it up really. Post ‘Wake Up Boo!’ however, Carr appeared to try to write songs with much more deliberately experimental structures, the sonic experimentation that accompanied them seeming at times to verge on the contrived. This is not at all always the case – the aforementioned Kingsize, for instance, contains some of his most lovely and overlooked works – but, nevertheless, there has, at times, hovered the sense that here was a songwriter unwilling to play to his strengths.
The brilliance of The Breaks (a record that Carr envisioned as being simple and direct solely because he didn’t have a band and so could only get acoustic gigs), is that it finds Carr re-embracing these core strengths i.e wistful, erudite, poetic lyrics sung over a deliciously idiosyncratic take on 60s/70s pop, folk and country (with that early Radleys’ love for Kevin Shields always looming frostily in the background).
Opening song – and lead single – ‘The Santa Fe Skyway’ is quite simply one of the best pop songs Martin Carr has ever written. Opening with a crunching industrial sound and a spiralling orchestral note that recalls Kingsize opener, ‘Blue Room in Archway’, the song suddenly spins away into open chords and a blissed out Hammond organ. ‘I was drunk inside my socks/ Rocking up to your house’, sings a delighted-sounding Carr, immediately sounding better vocally than at any other point in his solo career. Perhaps it was inevitable in the past that Carr would feel in Sice’s shadow as a vocalist – when the Radleys’ vocalist had such a unique voice – but here Carr sounds completely in charge. ‘You know your father kicked me out/ Said I was a lout and a liar’ he hollers, clearly entranced by memory in that same lysergic way that he used to be when he had Sice to ventriloquise his words for him on classic Boos’ cuts like ‘Barney and Me’ and ‘From the Bench at Belvedere’. Add to this Isaac Hayes-esque trumpet parps, sun-sweet harmonies and looping background violins that seem to echo ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’, and you are left with something so overburdened with feelgood elements that you think that it shouldn’t work. But no. It works ridiculously well; carried along, as it is, by its own self-belief and innate brilliance.
‘St Peter in Chains’ is named after an actual school. Carr was shocked and dismayed to find that friends of his were sending their children to the unforgettably named Catholic school of the song’s title and was ultimately sent back to thinking about his own experiences of corporal punishment and Catholic schooling. People don’t always think of Carr as a great lyricist – erroneously dwelling on about the deliberately throwaway lyrics to ‘Wake Up Boo!’ – but Carr has always been a literary lyricist, able to fit poetic introspection into catchy pop structures in a way that Lou Reed would be proud of. In ‘St Peter In Chains’, for instance, he works the Beatlesey ‘…dreaming’ hookline onto a variety of poignant reflections:
My mother said if you can’t behave/ We’re gonna send you away to be saved/ Concentrate the mind and purify the soul/ Wake you up from your dreaming/ …Love with the ruler or the hand or the cane/ My face against the wall/ …Dreaming…
I had initially presumed ‘Mainstream’ to be about the Radleys’ foray into the charts in the mid 90s, a time when Carr became conflicted by the band having achieved the success that they had always sought. However, quite rightly, Carr prefers not to linger on those days, and the piece is instead about the quiet life he now lives as a married father of two, having long since turned his back on a more alternative way of life. Musically the piece contains delightful echoes of his long term hero, Jimmy Webb but there are also some surprising Leonard Cohen phrases too, not least in the form of the beatific, eerie female backing vocals whereby Carr has his singers swoon the words, ‘sleeping gas, chloroform…’, to unsettling effect.
The Breaks is a record full of many such startling moments. It is a work of pop immediacy but it also one that repays repeated visits with hidden depths. It is very nearly – whisper it – a masterpiece. Martin Carr is one of the best songwriters the United Kingdom has ever produced. It’s high time that people got over ‘Wake Up Boo!’ and started listening to him again.
The Breaks is released on CD and Vinyl by Tapete Records on Monday.