“When you feel the need for space, run away from place to place,” Sweet Baboo sings, offering an irresistible invitation: “Here’s two train tickets, let’s go!” After the Harry Nilsson-esque love songs of 2015’s The Boombox Ballads, Stephen Black embarks on a new mission on Wild Imagination: to find the perfect pick-me-up antidote to the winter of our discontent.
The result is a bright, wry, melodically buoyant and sweetly melancholy tonic from the North Wales (born in Trefriw, near Snowdonia; now Cardiff-based) singer: a tribute to the joys of travel and the warming return home alike. Previously, Black’s co-travelling collaborators have included Carmarthenshire’s Cate Le Bon. But his sweet sentiments and winning melodies have been constant companions for all open-hearted listeners since 2003. And they prove so once more on Wild Imagination, with impeccable timing.
“I think everyone agrees 2016 was a pretty shitty year,” Black explains. “I kept thinking about my son (he’s nearly 3) and wanting to protect him from the world, so I decided to try and make an album full of positivity because that’s what I know I can do. And at the moment, I don’t know what else to suggest. As an aside, the album was originally going to be called Positive Recordings.”
The ten positive missives assembled for Wild Imagination are fully alert to the transporting and restorative possibilities of pop music. The lovingly nurtured, brass-warmed introduction of The Gardener is Black’s attempt to mimic the insta-pep opening of The Beach Boys’ California Girls; co-conspirator Paul Jones provided the arrangement, Black and multi-instrumentalist Rob Jones played the music. Another influence was Moog wizard Mort Garson’s 1976 LP Plantasia, an album made for tending plants to: tending one’s garden being very much on Black’s mind here.
The brightly melodious title-track is a love letter to Black’s son, couched in the enlivening appeal of good music. With elegant beauty, Black integrates snapshots from father/son moments with openly declared debts to his forebears. “I’ll lift you up towards the edge of the moon/ Pretend you are flying,” he sings, while adding a hint of his own aspirations: “I put on some Beatles and some old rock’n’roll…”
“You may as well aim high,” Black explains. “As with a lot of this album, I wanted to convey the sense of hope and joy I feel when I listen to Robert Wyatt or Arthur Russell singing. Musically, I love the mix of Jeff Lynne acoustics, cheap drum machine, Talking Heads keyboard riffs and Wings guitar licks. The middle eight is lifted straight from the Euros Childs songbook.”
Black’s church of pop uplift is a broad one. While Boombox looked to everyone from Nilsson to Scott Walker for inspiration, Wild Imagination frames Black as a gently inquisitive psych-pop explorer of pop classicism’s outer reaches, forever seeking out fresh melodies to brighten the perspective on a darkening world.
Stereolab’s warmly chic pulse informs Swallows, the first song written for the album; Paul suggested the French-pop feel, Rob provided the flugelhorn. The Casio-dreamy reverie of Badminton takes a dolefully introspective turn, not unlike Richard Hawley, while the mantric Clear Blue Skies reaches for a state of zero-gravity transcendence. “It’s a song about me and my son blasting off into space,” Black says, name-checking Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and Arthur Russell’s World Of Echo by way of another god-like sonic explorer. “I love the new age, Eno bit in the middle that’s held for about a minute. I’m hoping this section might grow into a monster live. I’m also holding out for a pregnancy test sync.”
A user-friendly spirit is sustained with a second-half segue in the shape of The Night Gardener, another instrumental. Hold On, meanwhile, is a lovingly intimate pick-you-up delivered with an abundance of charm. “Hold on to that smile, that smile makes coming home worthwhile,” sings Black, summing up the joys of returning home after time on tour.
A spirit of romance continues to fuel Black towards the album’s close. On Humberside, he counts his blessings and suggests a trip to Yorkshire to ease the soul. Finally, he ventures out to America’s West Coast and back for Californ-I-A, a gently lapping lullaby for the weary traveler or child and a lovingly Nilsson-esque send-off for an album rich in warmth and wonder.
Either way, by train or ship, bag a ticket and hop on board. If 2017 is getting you down, a little Wild Imagination might just lift you out of it for a while.
Burnley five piece, recently signed to Wrong Way Records. The new 7 inch AA release, Goa/Kiss Me about to hit the shops on August 11th, and recently featured on Steve Lamacq's BBC6 radio show. Over the last year they have nudged up support slots with Moon Duo, The Lucid Dream, Stealing Sheep, Cabbage, The Orielles, Mystic Braves, Heaters and have an upcoming support slots with Acid Mothers Temple, Minami DeutscSh and Endless Booge. Recent festival slots at Beatherder and Blackthorn with a new festival appearance at Bedrock soon. Always cook up a storm.