Sarah Cracknell stays cozy, Willis Earl Beal sooths his soul
Best known as the lead singer for the crate-digging, modern-yet-nostalgic Brit-pop purveyors Saint Etienne, Sarah Cracknell steps out with a new solo album Red Kite recorded in a barn near her country home.
This isn’t Cracknell’s first full-length solo outing—that would be Lipslide, which was recorded in the late ’90s and leaned toward a dance-pop electronics-heavy style; it’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as memorable as Saint Etienne’s high water marks like “He’s on the Phone,” “Hobart Paving” or “Sylvie.”
Red Kite features 12 numbers that hit pop pleasure points, wading in safe waters with careful, clear production and the intimate knowledge of ’60s pop that often informed Saint Etienne—those familiar with Saint Etienne won’t be surprised to hear tiny homages to the Beach Boys, the Brill Building and girl-group pop here, among countless other references.
Cracknell sings on Red Kite as she does with Saint Etienne, cheerily and warmly with a touch of soul, and she often lets her longer notes dissolve into a breathy whisper. Musically, the dancefloor aspirations are shed, favoring a more organic, pastoral approach, like on “In the Dark” which features a dulcimer, strings and gentle guitar notes or “Favourite Chair” with harp and cello flourishes; a good point of comparison might be “Former Lover” on Saint Etienne’s Tiger Bay.
The sugary sweet moments shine without being too treacly, like “Hearts Are for Breaking” with bright melodies on bells, a “Be My Baby” drumbeat quote, fuzz-guitar licks and unabashed “ba da da da da” syllables, and “It’s Never Too Late” features flutey goodness and conjures a Left Banke vibe.
“I Am Not Your Enemy” has a spy soundtrack mood with Link Wray-esque guitar, and the album features collaborations with The Rails and Nicky Wire of Manic Street Preachers. Song for song, Red Kit is slightly more satisfying than the last Saint Etienne album Words and Music, but it’s all in cozy, safe territory.
Willis Earl Beal
(Tender Loving Empire)
Neither completely a naïve outsider nor calculating attention-seeker, Willis Earl Beal is positioned at some unknown place between those poles, with a twisty and turbulent background that sometimes overshadows his music.
Also twisty and turbulent are the stylistic changes in his music that have occurred in just a few years, making the Willis Earl Beal heard on his low-fidelity home recordings on Acousmatic Sorcery very far away from his latest full-length album, Noctunes.
After the stripped-down, messy and pondering sketches of Acousmatic Sorcery, Beal found himself backed with a rock combo and strings and duetting with Cat Power on his follow-up, Nobody Knows in 2013, with diversions like the Tom Waits-esque junkyard stomp “Too Dry to Cry.” Noctunes follows in the path of his self-released Experiments in Time, and both efforts mark his geographic transition from New York City to Washington state and offer a more soothing, uniform soul sound.
With a typical song utilizing sustained synth notes and minimal percussion from a drum machine, there is not a shred of irony, and if anything, there is more clarity and cohesion in his work than ever before. Here, the center of attention is squarely on Beal’s voice, and indeed, he can deliver the goods without having to mask any imperfections through studio wizardry.
Although mostly serene, there are subtly disquieting features at play, like the low atonal drones on the opening track, “Under You.” Emotional wringing is evident throughout Noctunes, like on the moving “Flying So Low,” and the straightforward earnestness of the lyrics might be unexpected for today’s detached listeners—although lines like “I told myself I was normal inside” in “Lust” could have a place on misfit teens’ Tumblr posts.
Occasionally, Beal will raise his voice to reach Teddy Pendergrass-esque forcefulness, like on the peak of “Start Over,” and he seems to be betting it all here, sacrificing quirky music diversity for a spotlight on his vocal ability.