It’s a CD that might be best enjoyed with a bucket of popcorn and box of Ju Ju beans.
That’s probably the way Barry Adamson intends for it to be, too. Ever since his first solo album Moss Side Story almost two decades ago, Adamson has parlayed his enthusiasm for classic cinema into nearly every release since. His “soundtracks without movies” have even turned into work on creating actual movie scoring work, most notably from David Lynch. Add to that his affinity for fifties rock-n-roll, sixties soul, and seventies soul-jazz and the results are a music that both looks way back in time and transcends it.
Seven albums later, Adamson makes perhaps his most earnest effort at combining the nickelodeon music with his other passions with today’s release of Back To The Cat.
It’s an ambitious undertaking that successfully digests such a wide array of influences into a unique imprint. Through it all, Adamson reveals all these influences and more, while maintaining the same vibe; one that combines Ennio Morricone film noir — complete with the sleazy but sentimental outlook — with bright melodies, a lot of soul and a little orchestral jazz.
Somewhere in the mix, Nick Cave’s dark influence from Adamson’s prior gig as a founding member of the Bad Seeds lurks in the background.
Like a good screenplay, it’s an album erupting with character.
You get that overall vibe of this album from the opening second what a single lonely low note emits from a piano and a heavily reverbed flute that slithers around. You can almost smell the smoke from the Lucky Strikes as the half-time cool beat pace the post-war thriller flick undercurrent of “The Beaten Side Of Town.” Adamson’s seamy, relaxed croon varies from a low seductive growl to full-on shouting as a jazz orchestra roars in and quickly back out again.
The next three selections make up the sweet spot of Cat. “Straight ‘Til Sunrise” is a sunny slice of Motown that Holland-Dozier-Holland would have proud to write, with an added bonus of a gritty jazz organ solo.
“Spend A Little Time” is an updated take on Elvis Presley. It’s almost as if Adamson replaces Led Zeppelin’s early rock-n-roll tribute “Rock And Roll” and swapped Jimmy Page’s guitar for horns and an organ. Yet, Adamson still manages to match Zep’s swagger note for note.
“Shadow Of Death Hotel,” the first of two instrumentals, is so deadgummed hip you gotta wear shades to listen to it, a eminently catchy chunk of organic funk-jazz underpinned by a rhythm guitar, acoustic bass and drums setting the shuffle. The horn charts come straight out of the Mike Hammer theme and a short, climatic bridge briefly shifts the song into hard-driving rock before returning to the original, stone-cold groove.
The other vocal-less track “Flight” is nearly as clever, blending eery electronic sounds with echoes of Tommy Dorsey’s band, like dance music for ghosts of the swing era.
“Walk On Fire” with it’s chugging, wah wah’ing guitars pacing a syncopated beat, owes as much to Isaac Hayes as it does to sixties spy thrillers. “People” finds Adamson in a playfully philosophical mood amongst a sea of strings and even a steel guitar.
If there’s anything holding this record back it’s Adamson’s own vocal. Oh, he can belt ‘em out alright, but sometimes he carries that lounge singer act to the point of shtick; the over-emoting on “I Could Love You” and “Psycho-Sexual” bring those songs down a notch. The cheery “Civilization” succeeds in using rousing gospel as a backdrop for an unsavory charactor thrown in jail, but he seems unsure how to end it. The song peters out suddenly with a whimper leaving the listener high and dry.
These minor shortcomings aside, it’s hard to dismiss Adamson’s sweeping aspirations when he has grasped nearly everything that he reached for.
Adamson combined all this into a thematic collection of songs he wrote, arranged and produced in a way that share that common cinematic feel. This, in spite of all the change-ups in tempo, subject matter and influences. All of which make Back To The Cat a singular product in a crowded field of pop albums today.
Using the term “pop” very loosely here, of course…