Gary Raymond reviews the ninth studio album from Stephen Black’s Sweet Baboo, Wreckage.
True story: I was sat in a bar in a hotel in Cairo in January of 2020, blissfully unaware, as were most of us, of the shadows of Covid approaching, blowing the dust off a long day schlepping around the city’s International Book Fair with a few ice cold Heinekens when I felt in the pit of my stomach a plink of familiarity and my ear’s pricking at the sound of home. Hiraeth? Well, not quite, as I’d only been in Egypt two days, and I’ve always been a bit of a wanderer rather than a reluctant traveller. No, this was something more difficult, at first, to pinpoint. A vibe, a rhythm, a sound. Over the speakers of the hotel bar was a song I was struggling to identify, and the reason was it was just so… well… out of place. The song was “Let’s Go Swimming Wild” by Sweet Baboo (aka Stephen Black, Bethesda born-and-Colwyn Bay-bred) and as far as I could tell, me and that song were the only Welsh things in that hotel that evening. It’s a long road from Gwynedd to Giza, and whatever unlikely route that song had taken to the barroom playlist it remained a mystery. This is by way of saying “Let’s Go Swimming Wild”, a single from Black’s 2013 Ships album, is a corker of a song, and was my introduction to Sweet Baboo back in the day. It is enough to keep going, to keep an eye on what is coming out of that corner of Wales’ song-writing stable – and for all the gems that have emerged since, it has to be said nothing has quite hit that “sweet” spot of originality, familiarity, swagger, groove, and lyrical agility of “Let’s Go Swimming Wild”. But one thing I was reminded of in that hotel bar was that Sweet Baboo has never really moved on, never really progressed from that sound. You know what you’re going to get with a Sweet Baboo record.
And that is no bad thing; but on the peripheries of Black’s prolific output lies evidence of boundary-pushing, the sun-kissed vision of broader horizons. His partnership with Paul Jones on the two volumes of Group Listening recordings probably amount to Black’s best recorded work to date. And his work with the likes of Cate le Bon, H. Hawkline, and Euros Childs, further mark Black out as more than just enchanted troubadour locked in the wrong era for that sort of thing. His songwriting for the most part is charming, stylistic, with a European influence, a softcore 60s psychedelia predisposition that has that peculiar hold over so many Welsh musical artists. Sweet Baboo’s new album, Wreckage, to that extent, is no different to his previous albums. The writing is assured and well-crafted as always, and although Black’s voice has matured from young and slack to matured and slack, this is an album that drifts and sails by.
It opens with a bossa nova clunker in “Hopeless”, but thankfully raises its game thereafter. “The Worry” and “Good Luck” show Black having more fun with his lyrics than he is with his music – but it’s never a bad thing to reminded of Ray Davies even if it is late-70s rather than late-60s Kinks you’re being reminded of. “Take a Left Out of the Door” is a frustrating track because it gives the first inkling of what a great album sits somewhere within the soul of Stephen Black. It is, quite simply, a marvellous song performed with an insouciant glow. It is one of those gems I was talking about earlier. “The Waitress” catches a similar spirit. Black is much more interesting when channelling an inner Ron Sexsmith than when he’s got an eye on Mike Love or Captain and Tennille. Wreckage is an album of swaying, harmless songs written with a casual expertise, but as with all of Black’s albums, there is evidence that Sweet Baboo has so much more in the tank.
Wreckage is available now.