When The Housemartins, the self-proclaimed “fourth best band in Hull” split, it would have been hard to predict that one member would become a successful children’s author (Stan Cullimore), another would become a world-famous DJ and dance artist (Norman Cook) and that two more would go on to form one of the most successful British groups of all time.
Yet that’s exactly what Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway did with the Beautiful South. Superbi is their ninth album, and although commercially the predecessors have been a mixed bag, it’s famously been said that one in every seven homes in the UK owns a copy of the ‘greatest hits’ compilation Carry On Up The Charts.
Superbi comes two years after the covers album Golddiggas, Headnodders and Pholk Songs and it appears that that project has given Heaton a chance to recharge his creative batteries. The album has a new country-ish direction, and although the famous Heaton template of acerbic lyrics wrapped in cuddly melodies remains, there does seem to be a new purpose here that was missing from releases such as Gaze and Painting It Red.
The mood of the album throughout is mostly upbeat and feelgood, with the twangy banjo and steel guitar of The Rose Of My Cologne making for an excellent opener. Alison Wheeler may be the third female vocalist of the Beautiful South’s career, but she sings Heaton’s bleak tale of a dysfunctional family perfectly (“Daddy was a local drunk, Mama was the loosest girl in town” runs the opening line).
Heaton has always been that most British of songwriters, and that tradition continues here, from the celebration of that famously rain sodden city of Manchester (“If rain makes Britain great, then Manchester is greater”), or the vicious disillusionment on the duet of The Cat Loves The Mouse, those very English emotions of disappointment and melancholy are fully on display.
Best of all is the pithily accurate ballad When Romance Is Dead. Although anyone who’s just embarked on married life should probably not listen to the song, Heaton’s tale of a couple growing apart will be recognised by more than a few people – “you know when romance is dead, that deathly cold blast from his side of the bed”. It’s an excellent song, superbly sung by both Wheeler and Hemingway.
Other nice touches include the brass band on The Next Verse and the country jamboree feel of From Now On, just two examples of the revitalising effect that producer Ian Stanley (former member of Tears For Fears and producer of Tori Amos‘ finest moment Little Earthquakes) has obviously had on the album. The lovely ballad Bed Of Nails is another example of Heaton at his finest, the gorgeous melody hiding some typically clever lyrics.
Obviously, the Beautiful South are never going to be the most fashionable group in the world, and there’s a good chance that Superbi will sell to their fanbase without making any big splashes in the chart. Yet Paul Heaton and company have never been particularly bothered about being hip, and Superbi is another example of this most resolutely British of bands quietly getting on with what they do best.