Alamo Music, 2011, DD album, 42m 50s, £name your price
I remember at school my art teacher exhorting the class to stop drawing tiny pictures in the corner and to cover the page with bold strokes, to step out and give voice to whatever it was we wanted to express. Well, there are no bushels on top of Hope and Social’s light: they fill the canvas; they are bold; they are bright colours and big gestures; and they give every impression of having forgotten where their navels are.
This album is bursting with positivity, not of the sort that pretends bad stuff isn’t happening, or that the world is mainly composed of puppies and flowers, but the kind that celebrates the whole sordid, beautiful complexity of existence. It’s not just what the lyrics are about, but it’s the big, bouncy beats, the enthusiastic delivery, the sweeping orchestrations, and the loose, comfortable feel, that never dwells on the effort that went into recording these carefully crafted and creatively arranged songs.
It may be that this isn’t the sort of thing you like: if so, you won’t like it. If, on the other hand, it’s even anywhere near the fringes of your musical taste, you’ll almost certainly like it within the first few bars. It opens with a choral arrangement, which immediately signals with its vocal timbres that it is neither church music, nor a hastily appropriated pastiche of a township choir; and it quickly launches into an irresistible groove that owes something to ska, but is really an expression of the band’s own magpie rhythmic sensibility. This is a recurring theme: almost everything in this music has some familiarity about it, but you can rarely put your finger on exactly what it is. These players and arrangers have digested their influences thoroughly, and the contents of this album are stylistically their own: it sounds almost traditional, but is highly original without ever pursuing novelty for its own sake.
If there is any style or era that Sleep Sound’s combination of big beats and expansive orchestrations puts me in mind of, it’s the late 1980s, and bands like The Waterboys and Big Country: it’s not that there is an overt influence, but there’s that sense of scale. Like those bands, Hope and Social have found a majestic grandeur in the particular and the ordinary.
The core of the album’s sound is a traditional rock lineup, but the arrangements are a tour de force, with brass, strings and vocal arrangements that always sound exactly right, never out of place. I’m a big fan of keeping it simple, and using the minimum of cleverness to achieve your expressive intentions: while all of these songs would sound just great with an acoustic guitar and a single voice, Hope and Social have done the exact minimum, finding the right arrangement for each song, and showing an admirable objectivity and self-discipline in knowing when to stop. You could hand these songs to any of the world’s top professional arrangers, and I’d be extremely surprised if they released any more of their potential than the band has on this album.
This music has sadness and melancholy in it, and not every song is upbeat, but it is joyful music, and it is also a rare and valuable thing, rock music you can dance to. Rock music that it’s very hard not to dance to, in fact! If you want music that will move you, get you swaying, and then uplift you with a big anthemic chorus; if you want music that taps a real emotional meaning, without sentimentality or kitsch; if you want a studio album that will leave you feeling like you’ve been at a gig, then get this.