“You've got to find a way/Say what you want to say/Breakout!”
Fans of '80s music should recognize this chorus from British duo Swing Out Sister's biggest hit, “Breakout.” Their 1987 debut album, It's Better to Travel, featured the band's unique combination of jazz and pop with modern beats — think the Fifth Dimension, version 2.0. Sounding as if a time machine transported them from the '60s to the '80s, pageboy-coiffed vocalist Corinne Drewery, keyboardist Andy Connell, and drummer Martin Jackson (who left the band after the first album) scored two Grammy nominations and critical acclaim. In America, their popularity cooled upon the release of their second CD, 1989's Kaleidoscope World; however, they experienced continued success in Europe and, most of all, Japan.
Swing Out Sister's latest release, Beautiful Mess, continues their '60s pop-mixed-with-electronica sensibilities. The Burt Bacharach horns on the title track will appeal to '80s fans, and “I'd Be Happy” sounds like a Kaleidoscope World outtake with its use of vibes and string arrangements. Interestingly, they delve into R&B on this album, particularly on “State of Mind,” a neo-soul track which sounds like a jazzier Jill Scott tune. The duo also extends their sound into Brazilian territory with “Butterfly Lullaby,” an instrumental featuring a sexy samba beat.
A standout track, “Out There” is a wispy ballad featuring pretty chord changes, whispery backing vocals, and Drewery's clear, dreamy voice. However, Swing Out Sister hardly ignores their original pop and dance fans: “Secret Love (You're Invisible)” contains a catchy beat layered with Drewery's cheery vocals and scratchy guitar licks. The first single, “Something Every Day,” is classic Swing Out Sister: a midtempo but driving beat, Drewery's '60s-era vocals couched in girl-group background voices, and jazz-like chord changes. Connell's piano work on this track is especially effective.
Both original and newer fans of Swing Out Sister will enjoy Beautiful Mess. Wisely the group sticks with their signature retro sound, punctuated by subtle hip-hop beats. While the excursion into neo-soul may be new for Swing Out Sister, it adds a welcome maturity to their sound. The only tracks that could have been omitted are remixed versions of “Something Every Day” and “Butterfly” — the DJ's clunky drum beats totally overwhelm the songs' pretty melodies.
With their mixture of retro and modern sounds, Swing Out Sister sounds like they were transplanted from the '60s, and their unique music still sounds great over 20 years later. “Breakout” of your current iPod playlists and either revisit the group's music, or discover it for the first time.
Right now, Beautiful Mess is available in the UK, but only as an import in the U.S. Hopefully this status will change in the near future. To listen to selected Beautiful Mess tracks, visit Swing Out Sister's Beautiful Mess page, or log on to their MySpace site.