OK, by now we all know the story: Johnny Borrell put Razorlight together in 2003, in the halcyon days before indie earned itself the prefix “landfill”. There was the angular, frenetic excitement of the first album. There was a splash in the press. There were quotes about Dylan and chips. There was Golden Touch. It was a lot of fun.
Then there was the massive commercial success of the second album. There were arena shows, big festival stages – and yes – Hollywood starlets, wild parties and all the rest of it. There was America. The fun got a bit heavy. There was the third album. Three months on a Scottish island writing introspective, Nebraska-style acoustic songs; then those songs being put through a band/studio/label process and ending up a little different. The fun was getting harder and harder to find.
Then something happened.
Razorlight mutated. New members emerged, the sound shifted. But Johnny found himself writing in a whole new way. This new material was definitely Johnny, but it didn’t feel like Razorlight. So, he hooked up with a whole new crew of absurdly talented musicians and made Borrell 1. The album was a joyful set of innocently exuberant, heartfelt and unrestrained bar room rock ‘n’ rollers. It didn’t sell. One-liners were cracked, scores were settled, backlashes were lashed. But, once again, that wasn’t really the point. The album was fun. Seriously fun. The joy was back.
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And the fun keeps on. Out of the original Borrell 1 musicians, the band Zazou* emerged. They’re an utterly unique group. Joao Mello on sax and piano was discovered as an 18-year old busking on the street, and recruited on the spot. Darren Berry, Clem Brown, and Andy Waterworth on percussion, violin and upright bass respectively are all topflight classical and jazz musicians, with years of touring experience, notably with Penguin Café Orchestra and the Trojans.
This is a very special group. They make a noise no one else in Britain is making, and no one else really could make. They play with a feel for groove, a wildness in the arrangements and a sense of purpose that haven’t been heard on these shores for too long a time. Reflecting their musical backgrounds, the sound is almost absurdly eclectic, taking in everything from gospel and blues, to psychedelic tango and, or course, good old rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no auto-tune, no quantized beats, no over-compressed gated-snares: just people in a room playing with sweat and groove – and loving every second of it.
The songs still have those big Borrell hooks, but there’s something else here too, a new self-awareness, daring and willingness to take risks. After the sniping that followed Borrell 1 another songwriter might have retreated to the comfort zone. Johnny went the other way. There’s no industry ploy here, no slick hard sell, no approval seeking. This is real. It’s the sound of a songwriter and a band genuinely pushing themselves through all their musical knowledge to discover something classic-and-yet-kind-of-new. A seven-minute album opener – why not? Latin grooves with a string quartet – why not? Be-Bop versions of songs from Twelfth Night – why not? New Orleans-style gospel covers of songs from Bob Dylan’s odd 80s Christian period – if it feels good, do it – why not?
The fun is definitely back. And that was always the point. As incongruous as it may sound, this is probably the least cynical band playing in London right now. Has Johnny Borrell gone mad? Well, maybe. But maybe a bit of madness is what great music needs? Maybe getting crazy and letting go has led Johnny to make the best album of his career?