Sometimes it feels like half of every music review these days is a biography of the artist in question, and - because there's a great deal to say about this exciting record - here's the short version…
Liverpudlian legend Ian is the former lead singer/songwriter and guitarist with 80's group, The Icicle Works…. scored a big hit in the UK with 'Love Is A Wonderful Colour'… scored a big hit in the US with 'Whisper To A Scream (Bird's Fly)'… recorded four acclaimed studio albums… original line-up disbanded… signed to CBS as a solo artist (but recorded one more album under the name Icicle Works)… started solo career proper on This Way Up records… solo debut included 'If Love Was Like Guitars' which was named NME's single of the week… second solo album recorded in LA with top session musicians and Neil Young's legendary band, Crazy Horse… this album was nominated for the 1994 Mercury Prize… acclaimed solo career continued, with highlights including the seminal 'Merseybeast' and another chart hit in the early 2000's... occasional tours under The Icicle Works name (mainly on significant anniversaries)… has worked with Ringo Starr and The Waterboys… opened for Neil Young at Liverpool Echo Arena….
I could go on - and that's the short version! In recent years, Ian has made some great albums with Liverpool rock band 'Cold Shoulder' backing him (as well as the acclaimed, award-winning 'Little Episodes' album, which was more acoustic in tone) but, as the man himself has recently said, he'd never recorded an album with his regular solo band/third generation Icicle Works line-up, and 'Star, Smile, Strong' is the long-awaited debut for this superb band on record.
The musicianship throughout this album is outstanding, as you'd expect, with Matthew Priest (from Dodgy) on drums, Roy Corkill (from Black and the second-generation Icicle Works) on bass, Richard Naiff (from The Waterboys) on keyboards and flute, forming the main band on the tracks. The guest vocals from Hev Parson are superb, and it's lovely for the die-hard fans to hear legendary original Icicle Works drummer Chris Sharrock return on percussion. With excellent added strings, guitar/vocal, sax and extra keys from Kate O'Brien, Chris Kearney, Martin Winning and producer Ciaran Bell respectively, the album's warm and varied musical template is in safe hands. TV science expert Professor Brian Cox even makes an appearance (more of which later)!
Added to this are the soaring vocals and stunning guitar-playing of Ian himself. Even though his trademark lead-playing is reined-in a little more than usual - in service of the song (by his own admission), the instantly-memorable riffs hark back to the earliest days of The Icicle Works.
Superb playing and exquisite production (courtesy of Ciaron Bell) is never enough however - an attempt at a genuinely classic album will live or die on the song-power within, and happily, 'Star Smile Strong' is chock-full of excellent songs, with contrasting styles (a McNabb trademark), which capture your imagination and linger long in the memory.
Opener 'Mystic Age' (gleefully played in its entirety on BBC6 Music recently - despite being eight minutes long!) is a thing of wonder - all 'found sounds', shimmering guitars, spiritual lyrics and a sampled speeches from Professor Brian Cox, which builds to a huge, Pink Floyd-esque crescendo. 'Can't Get What I Want' is pure pop, with a kazoo solo, of all things! 'How She Moves' cleverly uses a string sample from recording app Garageband as a base for a beautiful, summery song set in New York. 'Waitin' on a Streetcar' sends Ian almost into lounge territory, with a lovely, fluid bass part and keening trumpet from Martin Smith. 'Enabler' has a sound that seems to hark back deliberately to the second Icicle Works album and the brilliant 'Perambulator', with its modal-sounding riff and sense of menace in the lyrics and tone, beneath shimmering harmonies. 'Lazy Water' shows off the tightness and funkiness of the band to a tee, with Richard Naiff's astonishing flute part and slowly vanishing vocals evoking classic 70's folk-rock.
'I Kinda Like It Without You', which feels like the emotional heart of the album, is classic McNabb - clever lyrical misdirection as a man tries to convince his ex (and probably himself) that he's fine on his own. This song boasts a truly lovely melody and lyrics guaranteed to raise a smile - who couldn't love a song that mentions Wetherspoons? The moment when the band falls away, to leave Ian singing with only the beautiful strings behind him on the most emotionally raw section of the lyrics, is worth the price of the CD on its own.
Just when you thought that you weren't going to hear the rockier side of Ian's music on this record, along comes 'Hotter Than The Sun' - a song that samples a monster riff wholesale from a track by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. The lyrics are unashamedly carnal in nature and McNabb sings them in a proper, rock 'n' roll scream, like Chuck Berry on steroids (a reminder that, as well as being one of our finest guitarists, he's also one of our most powerful vocalists). With this clever sampling trickery, Ian is movingly reunited on this song with his friend and keyboard genius, the late Tommy Eyre, who also played on Ian's classic album 'Head Like A Rock'.
The kaleidoscopic changes in musical style continue apace, with the wry country-rocker 'Women Love A Bastard (Men Love A Bitch) and the huge, power-pop surge of 'Wanna Change My Plea To Guilty' with its great riff and splenetic, punky guitar solo.
What follows is a great treat for long-term McNabb fans - 'This Love I Feel For You', a co-write between Ian and Crazy Horse drummer Ralph Molina. Ralph provides the beautiful, soulful lyric, which Ian dresses in an effortlessly catchy tune and musical setting that spookily recalls mid-period Icicle Works.
Rounding off the record is the long, rolling, beautiful 'Clarabella (Come To The Window)' - another song destined to become a McNabb classic. His long-term fans have come to cherish these moments where Ian lets himself go, musically and lyrically (for example, the haunting 'Presence Of The One' from the 'Truth & Beauty' album and 'Me & The Devil' from 'Waifs & Strays') and allows a song to wend its way (in this case) through Dylan-esque imagery in search of destinations unknown. The lyrical motif is Dylan, the music (with sax played like it always should be, by Martin Winning) borders on Springsteen at his most magisterial - think 'Land Of Hope & Dreams'. It's a fitting end to a great album that rewards repeated listens and will, in the fullness of time, be regarded as a classic.
It almost seems like lazy writing to point out that, in a parallel universe somewhere, Ian is striding the world stages like a U2-sized behemoth, and that it's criminal that, in this universe, he's not. However, those in the know (a large catchment that is ever-growing, actually), know that - as well as being one of our most charismatic live performers, Ian McNabb is up there as one of the finest singer-songwriters and guitarists that these isles have ever produced. This album will delight that large, growing fan-base and should, with the aid of word-of-mouth, draw even more people in.
'Star Smile Strong' is what the actors say in the mirror to motivate themselves before they walk onstage in Woody Allen's 'Broadway Danny Rose'. Ian and his band also tend to go through this ritual before they go onstage - mainly as a joke I'm sure - but, as regular audience-members will attest, Ian McNabb and his band play with an admirable intensity and ferocity that would shame most bands half their age. So, this cute, pre-gig ritual clearly works. As well as that, this title could also be a shorthand description of Ian McNabb himself - he's clearly a star, he always makes us smile and long may he stay this strong.
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