Blur’s drummer breaks his solo duck with an assured album that, while largely electronic, beats with an analogue heart
Dave Rowntree is a man of many disciplines, which makes the fact that Radio Songs is his solo debut all the more surprising. Alongside his ‘day job’ as drummer with Blur, Rowntree is proficient as an animator, TV soundtrack composer, qualified lawyer, and, more recently, a member of Norfolk County Council.
For his first opus as a solo artist however, Rowntree goes back to his childhood and the house where he grew up – specifically the kitchen table where he would build radio kits with his father, the pair listening to worldwide broadcasts on the newly assembled apparatus. The excitement of tuning into Chinese radio from Colchester had a lasting effect, and now Rowntree feeds the charm of those memories through a prism that includes present day observations and frustrations.
While largely electronic, the music of Radio Songs has an analogue heart. Rowntree pulls up a chair for the listener to sit alongside him at the kitchen table, dabbling in domesticity but putting the world to rights at the same time. Poignant and personal memories are shared, with the regret-laden Downtown dreaming “a dream of yesterday”, when the UK was still in the EU and Rowntree didn’t have to “wave friends away”. He does so to the consoling pulse of an electronic pendulum.
Concluding, “There’s nothing to see here – move on”, Rowntree finds himself on home territory with London Bridge. This resolute song is the most obvious relative of Blur’s East End singalongs, as though Damon Albarn has popped out for a brew and handed over vocal duties. Rowntree’s delivery is very straightforward but in an appealing way, the words and sentiments abundantly clear.
The steadiness wavers with Black Sheep, whose vulnerable recollections are accompanied by portamento strings, before the husky delivery of 1,000 Miles leaves a lump in the throat. This subtle romance documents an unfinished argument with his girlfriend before a long flight, and does so with the elegance and grace of a Paddy McAloon song. “I try to reach out and trust you, but I’m 1,000 miles from home”, Rowntree sings with exquisite pangs of separation. There is just enough assurance to tell us everything will be resolved in the end, but the final line, noting how “love makes us vulnerable”, is a telling postscript.
Tape Measure is initially reflective, a study in self-assessment and confession, before suddenly opening out into a big, folksy chorus over glitchy beats. These unexpected quirks, Rowntree flitting between introvert and extravert, add to the charm and appeal of Radio Songs. HK, an audio collage aided by sonic manipulation, tells a meaningful tale but has enjoyable twists and turns. Machines Like Me leans a little more on the work of John Foxx or Blancmange, laced with a mournful air.
The album ends with impressive resolve. Volcano’s tales of frustration boil over in a substantial coda, perfectly paced and deeply felt. Who’s Asking, a choral piece converted to instruments with the help of Leo Abrahams, has an eerie calm looking beyond all radio stations to outer space. With these two songs Rowntree shows an ability to work on a larger scale, hinting at capabilities for future releases.
The only surprise with Radio Songs is that Dave Rowntree has taken so long to break his solo duck. Having done so with great assurance, he has made an album of lasting appeal which responds well to repeated listening. Hopefully Blur’s rhythm lynchpin will quickly return with another piece of radio kit, as the feeling persists he has a lot more left to say.