Kin to the Burt Bacharach and Sergio Mendes compositions of old, Swing Out Sister lightly incorporates the dance of the Pet Shop Boys and the soft rock of Tracy Thorn, creating a sublime easy listening experience that predicted the lounge revival of the last fifteen years. Started in Manchester, England by keyboardist Andy Connell, drummer Martin Jackson (since replaced by Myke Wilson) and vocalist Corinne Drewery in 1985, Swing Out Sister enjoyed a string of dance and adult contemporary hits in the late 80s and early 90s, including "Twilight," "Surrender," "You're On My Mind," "Notgonnachange" and the number one hit, "Am I The Same Girl." While the group's preeminence on American charts had petered out by the mid 90s, their popularity expanded in Japan and steadied in their home country in subsequent years. Almost twenty-five years, nine studio, six live and compilation albums later, the same irresistible froth that endeared audiences around the world has been impressively whipped up again on this improved follow-up to Swing Out Sister's 2004 Where Our Love Grows.
A Beautiful Mess is more cohesive than their last effort, which was high on sun, but a low wattage affair in lyrical and creative substance. The same jazzy brass, flirty keys, soft percussions and chic bossa nova atmospherics of their last U.S. release are present, but here they are more compellingly executed. From Gersende Giorgio and Myke Wilson's aural backgrounds to Drewery and Connell's loose, but effective, song craft on these mostly self-penned tunes, a Beautiful Mess belies its name.
For those looking for catchy tunes to whistle to, a Beautiful Mess spotlights one that is at least as good as their zenith, "Breakout," and a few others that come close. From its opening finger snaps and Drewery's milky alto crooning, "Something Every Day" eases its way into that part of the brain reserved for those dang songs you just can't forget. Apparently, Swing Out Sister agrees; the US version of a Beautiful Mess includes an acoustic take and a funky acid jazz remix of the project's debut single that are every bit as good as the original. Swing Out Sister knows a good thing when they hear it, so the casual harmonies of the indigo "Butterfly" are also given multiple treatments, including a bumpy Little Wizard remix and a luminous instrumental that would have been perfectly at home scoring the sex scenes from Shaft or SuperFly. The xylophone and Rhodes interplay with Tim Cansfield's guitar on "State of Mind" remind us that mature music need not lack seasoning to be comfortably consumed. Taking inspiration from the Bacharach and Fifth Dimension playbooks, Drewery does a fine job as the proxy Marilyn McCoo or Dionne Warwick on the brightly lit "I'd Be Happy." There are more contemporary lounge and chillout exercises like "Out There," but they generally complement rather than distract from a Beautiful Mess's modern take on 60s pop.
While other artists gut the sounds of Stax, Atlantic and Motown for their 60s retro restorations, it's nice to hear the more refined side of that chiffon era's pop music machinery so lithely rendered by a group that is doing some inspiring of its own. On "Butterfly" you can hear the influence Drewery's vocals may have had on indie enigma Adriana Evans' self-titled 1997 debut (and the SOS sound on producer Dred Scott). Indie acid jazz groups like Jiva and Jazzanova sometimes take their material in direction that bears that indelible Swing Out Sister imprint, leaving one hopeful that these heavenly comforts are as timeless as the best of this graceful album. Highly Recommended.By L. Michael Gipson