Smith & Burrows deliver beautiful, unpretentious pop perfection that is so much more than just “good enough”. They return as their self-named moniker, a decade after their festive 2011 debut Funny Looking Angels.
The acoustic guitar, synths, light beats and melodic hooks at the heart of this record are quite a departure for these multifaceted artists, especially for Smith, who typically orchestrates, brooding, atmospheric, post-punk tunes for Editors. But this musical partnership that began at Glastonbury in 2005, really works. It feels natural with a freshness that is more typical of a well-established duo rather than a second project from two stand-alone musicians over a ten-year gap.
As well as being a long-standing member of Razorlight, multi-instrumentalist Burrows is a prolific solo artist, and a popular stand-in for the likes of We Are Scientists and Tom Odell. These guys are solid pals beyond their musical connections, and their songs are all the better for it, germinated over a long period, embellished by that strong friendship.
The opener ‘All the Best Moves’, is a character-based song that Smith had written over two years ago at the tail-end of 2018. It tells the story of an individual who likes to give the impression of enjoying isolation when it’s really a facade for deep-seated loneliness. Burrows, who was supporting Editors on their tour, appeared on-stage with Smith to sing it together. Smith’s velvety vocals lead the track with a typical, darker vibe – “I’m happy here in the grip of my shakes/kids get killed because of the shoes that they choose”. This is wonderfully counterbalanced with Burrows’ higher-pitched harmonies, singing – “I love the snow, I love the rain”.
‘Buccaneer Rum Jum’ is blissfully eccentric and one of the strongest pieces on the album. Melodic keys kick off the song and run delicately through the track. Smith lays down the verse again, teetering on the brink of self-doubt – “Did you ever worry that you might get rumbled?”. The contrast of Burrow’s voice and projection is sublime, as he sings, “We’re forever falling back down to earth, to the bottom of the sea”.
The interplay between Burrows and Smith on the album feels easy and free-flowing. On ‘Spaghetti’, Smith again takes the vocal reins. The lyrics are peppered with his dry wit – “I don’t watch the news, I like misery with coffee and nights with the blues / I’m gonna mess you up just like spaghetti / I’ve been turning this town upside down for years.”
Producer Jacquire King’s (Tom Waits, Kings Of Leon, Norah Jones) intuitive instinct for choosing respective singing parts is blindingly evident. As Burrows says, “Neither of us are precious about who sings what. It’s always what’s best for the song. And Jacquire understood that – but he also pushed the idea of the songs, vocally, being Smith and Burrows. So it’s a really lovely equal vocal distribution.”
One of the best things about this album is Smith & Burrows’ adept ability to put together a group of unashamedly rooted songs in pop & new-wave. There’s no hiding behind any attempts to look or act serious, just an explosion of some catchy and expertly crafted tunes. No more so, than in ‘Old TV Shows’, a dedication to looking back fondly at old relationships. Smith eventually comes in with the killer line of, “It’s over like Top of the Pops” – paying homage to that great institution of the 70s, 80s & 90s, helping us drift back to those evenings by the television through a joyous, nostalgic filter.
Written by Burrows in New York, ‘Bottle Tops’ is much in the same vein with its synthesised, robotic pulses in the mould of post-punk icons such as Gary Numan or OMD. Any pretensions or fears that the guys may have had earlier in their careers of looking uncool by embracing no-nonsense dance hits are well and truly left in the dust by the end of this track.
The slower, slightly melancholy feel of ‘Parliament Hill’ may have its origins in a north London beauty-spot where the guys would have regularly frequented (before they both decamped to Gloucestershire last year), but there’s a message of hope and yearning in there that could transport any of us to a place that is dear to us in our own respective lives & environments. Smith regretfully muses – “I’m missing the madness of the light that you shine.”
The gentle-paced ‘I Want You Back In My Life’ was originally inspired by Burrows. It was then given the finishing touches in the chorus by Smith – “I need to love somebody, anybody”, after hearing his writing partner’s idea for the song whilst on a tour bus somewhere on the planet with Editors. The intro to ‘Too Late’ has shades of Stevie Nicks ‘Edge of Seventeen, and as the title suggests, is about the endings of a relationship, trying to cling onto something to rescue it from the brink of irrevocably breaking. On the bridge, Smith & Burrows join in unison, “Please, we don’t have forever. Play a song that keeps this together”. Although Smith came up with the premise of the track, it was Burrows that gave it the resounding chorus – “It’s too late now. Don’t be hard on yourself, just ‘cause everything’s over.”
The final track, ‘Straight Up Like a Mohican’ is the song that has taken the longest to see the light of day. It was originally coined by Burrows, sometime in late 2011 in Paris when they were on tour together. It has a celebratory feel to it, right from the finger-clicking intro. Definitely one of the most strutting and bombastic songs on the LP, the momentum of it comes through in the lyrics too – “Let me go forward, let me go somewhere…let me go anywhere.” It may have taken a decade to complete and release, but the forces of nature at work here were always going to find their voice. As Tom Smith echoes, “I never thought this second album would not happen. I don’t think we could stop it from happening. It has its own force, which is the power of our collaborative writing and voices. Although it did take a while.”
The pair spent six weeks in the Tennessee heat recording this album, immersed in American whiskey and vintage guitars. These same 1940s-era Gibson guitars inspired the final title of the LP, with the slogan: Only A Gibson Is Good Enough.
Two friends, Fifteen years, ten songs, put together during six weeks in the Nashville summertime. What is there not to like? Give it a blast. It will lift your spirits and make you want to sing along.