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Neal HoffmannNeal Hoffmann
Album: Untrained Heart
Label: Amphibic
Tracks: 9

Neal Hoffmann bursts on to the singer-songwriter radar with this sophisticated self-produced solo debut comprising a fine collection of highly original and lusciously arranged compositions.

As if to be topical, Hoffmann is the quintessential European. Born in Germany, but with familial links to Norway and living in London, Hoffmann claims musical influences as broad as Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry and The Cardigans, infused with the Nordic noir of Jo Nesbø and all tossed in the London air. The album was mixed in Norway and Finland, and the blurb claims a Scandinavian feel, but to me Untrained Heart sounds as consummately British as say Nick Drake, and none the worse for that.

Having suffered previously from loss of control on band projects (he made two albums in the noughties with his band Amphibic, released only in Europe) Hoffmann built his own studio in an attempt to become self-sufficient and gradually became his own "one man band, artist-arranger-sound-engineer-producer-mixer team." Realising the limitations of this arrangement, Hoffmann soon roped in others to add drums, backing vocals and strings on the track 'Half The Universe (Is Missing)', a song written in response to the Norwegian shooting tragedy, which was a critical success (and is available on Spotify). Spurred on by this experience, an album had to be the next step, and Untrained Heart is the result.

Here are nine beautifully crafted songs, lyrically interesting, musically multi-layered, and delivered with genre-defying originality. Hoffmann plays most of the instruments himself, layering the sound into a well-produced, but not over-produced, package, and demonstrates sound judgement in his choice of guest offerings. Cello contributions from Celine Barry (Botticelli Duo, The Chameleon String Quartet, Tonic Fold and the Cullinan Ensemble) and Miriam Wakeling (Bedriska Trio, Quartet Volute) are particularly effective.

Opener 'Under a Different Sun' is a thoughtful 'who knows what might have been' cry out to a lost love perhaps, wondering aloud but never mournful. 'Maybe Arizona' follows, a restrained almost plaintive piece, a love song with desert imagery abounding, with lovely cello backing.

'Not Johnny Cash' is a tongue in cheek homage to the Man in Black, a song about being yourself and not turning into anyone else. 'Untrained Heart' is a personal story, says Hoffmann, about someone who isn't listening to what their heart tells them. The eleven-piece string arrangement reportedly took Hoffmann two months to write but the results are stunning, with every note evidently a labour of love.

'Give Way', explains Hoffmann, started life a long time ago with a different title and lyrics, but as life moved on, so the old lyrics didn't mean much to him anymore. So he gave the song new lyrics and a new title. The song, he says "..talks about hitting difficulties and points towards the light at the end of the tunnel. I think I tried to express that as I was younger, things went quite well for me for quite some time, life seemed easy. As I got a bit older things became more difficult but I have retained a lot of my optimism. Even though I like to explore darker corners."

'Vanity And Pride' is another wondering aloud song assessing the end of a relationship, but these songs are not sombre, but optimistic, even though the refrain "I hope we won't stay friends" sounds less so. 'Instinct And Feel' is another soul-baring introspective exploration of the heart-over-head approach to relationships, and 'One of Them' is an interesting imagination of what it is like for a celebrity to go home and hang out with friends and family, where no one thinks of them as famous - so they can just be 'one of them'. "Someone like Paul McCartney", says Hoffmann. The controlled bassoon solo does indeed give the song a Beatle-y feel, with a final twist as Hoffmann sings "now I stand here and I'm one of you".

Album closer 'Summer Time Bliss' is an impatient lament of the absence of a summer, twee glockenspiel taking us through imagery of ice-cream, parks and paddling.

Hoffmann's vocal style is interesting, at times haunting, bluesy, raspy even, at others, well I'm going to say it, a little too James Blunty for my liking, but there's no doubting his musical ability, and on this evidence Hoffmann's skills as an arranger and producer are highly developed too. It will be interesting to see whether the commercial potential inherent in this fine debut gains any momentum; it surely deserves to.

Ian Taylor