Sweet Baboo, as you might expect from someone named after a pet name from the Peanuts comic strip, is the sort of artist who stumbles into your consciousness rather than thrusting himself in your face. Certainly that was the case at 2006’s Green Man festival in Wales when, following a last-minute cancellation by Television Personalities, local lad Stephen Black (for it is he) stepped into the breach armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar.
It wasn’t an easy proposition, largely because the most disappointed TP fan in the audience also happened to be the loudest, drunkest and most obnoxious. Fortunately, after peppering the beginning of Black’s set with confused attempts at wit, he was also the first to get bored and stagger out of the tent.
In fact, he was the only one. For, though clearly extremely nervous, Black soon won over the crowd with a sweet, self-effacing performance that occasionally descended into unexpected horror when a heartbroken torch song would lyrically climax with the unexpected appearance of a severed head.
His debut album was full of similar numbers that saw him name-checking his influences on the tracklist (‘Tom Waits Rip Off’, ‘Jonathan Richman’) while employing lyrical narratives that occasionally descended into that same sudden lovesick nightmare. Clearly this was a man you wouldn’t want to dump.
Fortunately the impression on ‘Ships’, the fourth Sweet Baboo album thus far, is that his love life is in relatively rude health. As the title suggests, this was initially intended to be a concept album about the sea wherein Black would finally lay his songwriting preoccupation with girls to rest, but as he recently admitted, “somewhere along the way the concept kinda went out the window”. Still, the combination has proved a winning one, with superb lead single ‘Let’s Go Swimming Wild’ recently grabbing the attention of a much wider audience (and winning our ‘coveted’ Video of the Week award).
Black has seen this success as a reward for having “been true to myself and [sticking] to my guns” after years playing a willing second fiddle to artists/friends like Euros Childs, Cate Le Bon and Slow Club, while acknowledging that “if I would have known as a teenager that my music would be played on Radio 1 or 6Music then I would have done a little wee”.
Follow-up single ‘If I Died’ has a similarly great video, this time featuring Black’s disembodied head floating next to the object of his affections, but it’s his typically self-deprecating lyrics that really take centre-stage, with our hero lamenting: “Daniel Johnston has written hundreds of great tunes / And I’ve got 6 / So I guess there’s some catching up to do”. Apparently he originally intended to record it in several languages as a homage to sixties stars who used to re-record songs for foreign markets, but songs like this are universal enough without resorting to Google Translate.
While it’s impossible to ignore the inherent tweeness of Sweet Baboo (the colourful cardigans and facepaint he sports on the cover is testament to that), but that needn’t put anyone off. While titles like ‘The Morse Code for Love Is Beep Beep, Beep Beep, the Binary Code Is One One’ might prepare some people for imminent irritation, Black’s is the sort of sweet-hearted silliness familiar to fans of The Lovely Eggs, The Bobby McGees or Kimya Dawson.
The latter’s ability to move from touching sentiment to complete frivolity in the blink of an eye is particularly evident on ‘Twelve Carrots of Love’, with lyrics such as the following:
“Well today I dreamt those [lady]birds
Crawling all over your body
They took ahold of your firm body
And laid it gently over mine
And now I must confess
That I am in the best band ever
And I make the best love ever
It lasts for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks…”
The whole song comes across a bit like a fey Lou Reed with a sense of humour, with a big brassy middle eight and coda that could almost have come off ‘Transformer’, which is certainly a better comparison than that served up by Black’s Dad, who apparently reckons he sounds like the Beautiful South.
Indeed, brass instruments, rather than accordions or mouth organs, are all over ‘Ships’, something Black attributes to a recent Northern Soul / Dexy’s Midnight Runners habit, as well as the hiring of a baritone saxophone that meant he “subconsciously probably wanted to get my money’s worth out of it”. The genial stomp these instruments emit on ‘8 Bit Monsters’ is particularly effective, conjuring the image of gardening implements happily marching around the lawn on a summer’s day, like some sort of domestic Fantasia.
While Jonathan Richman remains, as ever, his most influential reference point, songs like ‘The Sea Life Is the Life for Me (Mermaid Cutie)’, with Black’s vocals treated so as to make him sound almost underwater, make you wonder what might have happened if Syd Barrett had run away to sea just before he flipped his lid. It, would, you surmise, have been a good move.
If there’s a possible criticism of ‘Ships’, it’s that the relentless buoyancy gets a bit wearying by the end – certainly a bit more tonal or dynamic variety might have helped inoculate the listener against over-jaunt.
It’s only a minor complaint though. Sweet Baboo’s album “I’m a Dancer / Songs about Sleepin'” was nominated for the first ever Welsh Music Prize in 2011 but lost out to Gruff Rhys (who probably deserved it simply on the basis of lifetime achievement). Assuming that the Neon Neon album doesn’t qualify on account of it being only half-Welsh/not very good, then ‘Ships’ is surely a shoe-in this year…