Swing Out Sister – Blue Mood, Breakout and Beyond: The Early Years Part 1 (Cherry Red Records)

It was in 1987 that Swing Out Sister made quite a splash, as their debut album It’s Better to Travel saw the light of day, achieving platinum status, and reaching number 1 in the UK. They had signed to Mercury Records and together with producer Paul Staveley O’Duffy, the same producer famed for having worked with Hipsway and Curiosity Killed the Cat, released the single ‘Break Out’ and, wow, what a splash. Two years previously the band had tentatively dipped their toes into the water, releasing their debut ‘Blue Mood’ in 1985, a track which would later find itself on their debut album. This was smooth jazz, even acid jazz, a sound that would embody the group from this point on.

Breakout’ is the number that introduces this collection, with vocalist Corinne Drewery’s coffee-toned vocals perhaps being the blend that won the public’s hearts. This, not quite their debut single, reached number 4 in the UK, with the album It’s Better To Travel’s five singles cutting a swathe through the UK’s music scene between ’85 and ’87. With synthetic orchestration quite audible throughout, this fills the sound in between Drewery’s vocal, which slides like a warm knife through butter. The music soon slips into ‘Twilight World’, the fourth single to be lifted from the debut album. Corinne sings “Don’t be fooled by love songs and lonely hearts. You’re living in a twilight world…”, a line with a very 80’s telling. I couldn’t help hearing patterns familiar to Max Headroom in that debut single ‘Blue Mood’, unsurprising as both inhabited 1985; maybe it’s those familiar sequencers doing the talking. 

1989 saw the release of Kaleidoscope World and as ‘Fooled By A Smile’ enters the fore I hear what sounds like an obvious gear change. Musically, it’s fuller, with the constant of Corinne’s cappuccino vocal. The band’s musician and composer Andy Connell, has produced music with a laid-back tone, yet with a tempo that takes charge. Music that is cheeky and like that comfortable pair of slippers – reassuring and easy to find. This tone is showing off the bright lights of an urban setting, a place where money and relationships come easily. When offered track 4, ‘Heart For Hire’, the lyrics reminded me of something a friend had once said upon meeting the band, that “A woman who writes lyrics like that, must have been really hurting” and certainly from the words sung in ‘Heart For Hire’ it’s easy to draw that conclusion. Corinne sets the stage, “This heart’s for hire. You brought me reeling to my senses. With lies and broken promises. There’s no turning back…”. But it’s Connell’s cool compositions that sit perfectly with Corrine’s vocal illustration, allowing the music to breathe life, whatever tempo it sets. Theirs is a veritable melting pot of music, taking influences from the modern jazz of The Style Council, Johnny Hates Jazz, and Working Week, creating their own interpretation. As a backdrop to dinner, or played hard on a dance floor filled with hundreds of twisted bodies, it works.

Get In Touch With Yourself was the third album released in May 1992. The first number on the album bears a heavy veneer that screams out to be lent to the big screen. It’s not surprising that I hear music with cinematic qualities; the scores of John Barry and Ennio Morricone have been an influence on a younger Connell. But rather than copying these, they’ve been reimagined in their own image. ‘Am I The Same Girl’ bears influences of Lennon and McCartney, if it’s only a chord ascent. The song is a brighter take on the aftermath of a break-up, as Corrine sings, “…Why don’t you stop and think it over. Am I the same girl who knew your soul?…”. Followed by ‘Incomplete Without You’, still reeling from the break-up, we find the author on a thoroughly 90’s palette, in which an up-tempo synthesiser brushes shoulders with the jazz feel of a Swing Out Sister original. This is where the album heads skyward, as an Isaac Hayes-influenced number ‘Everyday Crime’ meets head-on with the soundtrack of Shaft, so much is its Blaxploitation vibe. This is a number the makers of the film’s re-boot surely missed out on; it’s full of the swagger that identified the character. On this occasion Drewery tells us, “…Here comes that feeling again. Just can’t stop needing you. It’s an everyday crime (in the name of love)…”. The only crime in my mind was that it never saw a single release. We might well describe the album as lovelorn, but with fat beats and a modern jazz attitude. ‘Notgonnachange’ could be the number that stakes its place without even pressing play, but as Corrine sings “…Should we go our separate ways or stay together. Believe me when I say. I’m not gonna change…”, it’s clear where the conversation is going. But with Connell’s arrangement taking it to another plane.

The fourth disc is a 10-track live album recorded at The Jazz Café, in London, in 1992. Swing Out Sister was originally a studio-bound project before they ever performed on stage and as we hear them here, with eight years of experience, should come as no surprise at just how adept their performance is, having gained a worldwide following. This is a recording, first released as a Japanese import in 2000 on the Mercury label. The quality of sound production is simply superb, the album plays beautifully, omitting much of the in-between-number fluff and instead gets down to the bare bones of the performance. With music from across their career to 1992, you might even say that for the uninitiated this is a good introduction to the band. Culminating in a 4-track medley, which ends with an illustration of lounge music greatness, as the band performs a telling of ‘Wives and Daughters’, a number still considered one of Burt Bacharach’s greatest swing numbers.

Rounding off, the final four discs feature mixes, B-sides, and edits. With mixes of ‘Blue Mood’, through ‘Breakout’, ’Twilight World’, to ’Notgonnachange’, among those found on discs 5-7, to B-sides and edits found on disc 8. Among these is an 80’s homage in ‘Dirty Money’, featuring a canvas of fat beats and heavy bass runs, as Corrine asks “…dirty money, is it such a crime…” a reference that isn’t missed today. Along with the original recording of ‘Coney Island Man’ and having heard this on The Jazz Café presentation is every bit as good as I remember. Saving the best till last on my journey is Swing Out Sister’s version of ‘Windmills Of Your Mind’, a truly beautiful song, with lyrics by American songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman and music by French composer Michel Legrand, this is a number recorded by many artists and here doesn’t disappoint, made simply sublime by Drewery and Co. The ultimate dinner party companion, but at nearly 10 hours of music, in 107 songs, maybe not all at once.

Website; http://www.swingoutsister.com

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