The Boo Radleys, one of the ’90s’ finest pop bands, called it quits early this month fresh off the American release of their seventh album, Kingsize. Such ill timing has always thwarted the Boo Radleys’ attempts at sustaining popular success. The Liverpudlian band’s UK label, Creation Records, seems incapable of diligently promoting more than one band at a time, and the Boos have always played second fiddle behind Primal Scream or Oasis. In the U.S., the Boos’ CD releases have been haphazard affairs, shuffled among three different labels and appearing many momentum-killing months after their U.K. debuts.
Beginning with the rare mini-LP Ichabod and I, continuing through four EPs, and culminating with 1992’s Everything’s Alright Forever album, the Boo Radleys helped define the shoe- gazer sound of the early ’90s: distortion, swirling guitar effects, and little concern for audible vocals. But 1993’s Giant Steps shows songwriter and leader Martin Carr in high confidence; his songs are not only clear and instantly catchy but also resolutely innovative. Carr rarely repeated the same chorus within a tune, and he clothed the songs in warm brass, wind, and string arrangements, making Giant Steps a huge, colorful leap away from the near-monochromatic Everything’s Alright Forever.
Giant Steps was voted album of the year by readers of the New Musical Express, but the band had its biggest Brit hit in 1995 with Wake Up! and its remarkable first single, “Wake Up Boo!” The song is a perfect marriage of Beach Boys harmonies and Wham!-like peppiness; imagine Michael and Ridgeley’s “Freedom” as done by Brian Wilson at the height of his mini-symphony insanity. Abandoning the obtuseness of Giant Steps, Wake Up! is a fabulous straight-up pop album. The horns are punchy, the guitars crunchy; the melodies soar, and the mood stays upbeat. Naturally, Carr put on the brakes for 1995’s C’mon Kids, crashing his joy machine on a dark drive through heavy psychedelic rock that turned off many fans of Wake Up!’s positive purity. C’mon Kids still has great tunes, like the explosive titular call to arms and the gorgeous, acoustic-based “Ride the Tiger,” but there are no sunny horns and strings to alleviate the songs’ Cimmerian moods.
Kingsize returns to pure pophorns and strings included. While it has neither the freshness of Giant Steps nor the sheer exuberance of Wake Up!, Kingsize still presents a band capable of making grand sounds feel like intimate confessionsdespite the CD’s inclusion of the Boos’ worst song ever, “Free Huey,” its first single. Kingsize made less than a dent in the heads of England’s fickle music fans, but if they ignored the album on the basis of “Free Huey,” a tune so annoying it may have single-handedly sunk the album there, no one can blame them. An anemic protest tune to begin with, “Free Huey” gets even weakerand more maddeningwhen the single-named lead singer, Sice, strains his soft tenor, shouting, “Don’t you know and you got to be all that you can be” for 90 seconds with zero variation. It will make even the biggest fan want to violently fling the CD across the universe. Rest assured, the album offers no such further excuses for outrage. Carr’s sweeping love of pop musicfrom the Beach Boys and Beatles to dub and electronicabrings it all together on Kingsize in an engaging embrace.
“Heaven’s at the Bottom of This Glass” sounds like the Partridge Family if David Cassidy went on a bender, with a bouncy melody, Sice’s crystal-clear voice, and lyrics to drink for. “Blue Room in Archway” begins with a chatterbox drum machine running under a mournful string section before changing into an anthemic stomper, and the titular track gives off the same goose-pimply aura as Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend.” “High as Monkeys” and “Adieu Clo-Clo” have electronica hearts and power-pop souls, while “She Is Everywhere” sounds inspired by early Pink Floyd; “Comb Your Hair” by Phil Spector.
Long a gloomy romantic, Carr often writes about rainy days and Mondays. On Kingsize’s tribute to the man behind the Wichita Lineman, “Jimmy Webb Is God,” Carr pens “I’m addicted, I’m melancholic/Sing it again”; on the Burt Bacharach-ian “The Old Newsstand at Hamilton Square” he observes, “Sad songs are easier to play, I’m afraid.” But for all the hunkered-down heartbreakerslike the countrified “Put Your Arms Around Me and Tell Me Everything’s Going to Be OK,” with its stay-in-bed pleadings, and the triphop-meets-ELO flow of “Eurostar,” with its request to “Just lie here, don’t go to town”Carr also writes oddball rabble-rousers. “Song From the Blue Room” sounds like Paul McCartney in piano-balladeer mode, with Carr urging people to “Take your future in your own hands” and “Come together, love each other/Spit on those who say/This is not the way.”
Whereas on the gorgeous “Monuments for a Dead Century” (which sounds as if the Association met up with João Gilberto), Carr claims to be “Still trying to think what it is I’d like to be” 10 years into his music career, he sounds sure of his life choices on the album closer, “The Future Is Now.” It’s a funky ditty, featuring background singers answering Sice like an R&B chorusin lines that could be considered either ironic or prescient in light of the Boo’s breakup: “I’ve got a lot to do/I still feel the same pull (The future is now).” Maybe busting up the Boos is Carr’s ticket to the future.CP