Anyone who’s followed Slow Club‘s evolution from charmingly ramshackle acoustic duo to fully fledged live outfit will be aware of a diminutive Welshman nicknamed Saxophone Steve, who normally gets to steal the show by clambering up onto a nearby speaker stack to perform a saxophone solo in the middle of fan favourite Hackney Marsh.
Well, Saxophone Steve (or Stephen Black as he’s otherwise known), as well as playing the bass guitar for Slow Club, has also been recording as Sweet Baboo for nearly a decade now. Ships is his fourth album, and while a description of “a concept album about the sea” may have you running for the hills, to miss out on this particular voyage will mean missing out on some of the most perfectly crafted indie-pop you’ll hear all year.
For Ships marks the point at which Sweet Baboo moved up another level. While Black’s three previous albums all had their moments, there was always a degree of self-conscious quirkiness just hovering below the surface. That’s all gone now – whether it’s the signing to respected indie label Moshi Moshi or just all those months touring with Slow Club, Euros Childs and Cate Le Bon, there’s a steely self-confidence rippling through all 11 tracks on Ships, which was recorded with Black’s long-term collaborators The Voluntary Butler Scheme.
Nowhere is this more perfectly demonstrated that on the gorgeous lead single Let’s Go Swimming Wild, an evocative anthem which starts off beautifully low-key, and then builds up to a gloriously soaring chorus. There’s plenty of parping sax, and what sounds suspiciously like a kazoo, but what ties it altogether is Black’s yearning, fragile vocals. An uplifting contender for Single of the Year, and it’s only April.
There are plenty of other highlights, with If I Died Would You Remember opening the album perfectly, featuring one of the best lyrics to be found anywhere – “Daniel Johnston has written hundreds of great tunes, and I’ve got six, so I guess there’s some catching up to do” – and a melody guaranteed to bring sunshine into the dullest of days. That’s followed by the almost impossibly perky The Morse Code For Love, which for good measure features yet another classic couplet: “If I had a drum, and you had a slightly more high pitched drum, and we pound and we pound and we pound, we can fill our hearts with love.”
There’s certainly a nautical theme running through the album – there’s the title for a start, and then songs called The Sea Life’s The Life For Me, You Are A Wave, and the aforementioned Let’s Go Swimming Wild. Most of Sweet Baboo’s songs though are about love and relationships, usually with a bittersweet edge. C’mon Let’s Mosh! recalls the off-kilter charm of Badly Drawn Boy, while the closing Cate’s Song is a beautifully touching, brass laden ballad which ends the album on a poignant note.
Sometimes it may skirt too closely to tweeness, as on the rather half-formed Chubby Cheeks, but overall Ships is a terrific step up for a man who’s paid his dues for too long. It may not be enough to make Sweet Baboo a household name just yet, but it certainly proves that he’s more than just Saxophone Steve.