KURT BAKER – Brand New Beat

kurt-baker (1)‘Brand New Beat’ is the first full-length release from The Leftovers’ frontman Kurt Baker.  Following a handful of EPs issued between 2010-12 (‘Got It Covered’, ‘Rockin’ For a Living’ and the excellent ‘Want You Around’) and a brief stopover with Wimpy & The Medallions, this album felt long overdue by the time of its arrival.  It was however well worth the wait.

The ‘Want You Around’ EP served as a great taster for this album, since some of the material treads a similar line in power pop/new wave inspired brilliance, but if anything, shows a slightly broader range of Baker’s talents.  An instant pop classic, ‘Don’t Go Falling In Love’ has a tuneful arrangement constructed around twin guitars and a fat bass.  Musically, the power pop style recalls late 70s outings by The Paley Brothers and the like, while Baker’s vocal has a warble which owes as much to the legendary Joe Jackson as it does various snotty pop-punkers which filled the mid 90s and beyond.  Some listeners may find his voice takes a small amount of tuning into, but there’s no questioning the strength of the song writing – the hook here is so simple, so pure even, you’ll catch yourselves singing along by the time the last chorus rolls around.  In places, the verses of ‘Hit The Ground’ are even more indebted to Jackson, while the chorus takes a (repetitive) more rock-based direction.  The two slightly different styles work well together, especially as lead guitarist – and producer – Wyatt Funderburk has just enough balls to link the two via a raucous and trashy, near metallic guitar break.

While the rest of the material has a similar mark of quality, Baker hasn’t rested on his laurels and filled the record with identikit Joe Jackson-esque songs.  Tapping into his quieter side, ‘She’s Not Sorry’ leans far more towards 60s bubblegum pop, with a harmonious arrangement that’s a dead ringer for Mark Bacino’s earlier work.  The vocal is a strong one, but can occasionally feel slightly full-on due to the chosen musical backdrop, which in turn is a tad casiotone; this, of course once you’ve adjusted, just adds to the overall sense of wonderful disposability.  Also with a nod to the 60s, ‘She Can Do It All’ sounds like it should be taken from an EP where KB pays tribute to Nick Lowe, it’s strong sense of melody, (another) tough bassline and quirky fills sounding not too far removed from some of that well respected song writer’s late 70s output.  In addition to one of Baker’s best vocal performances, his style of bass playing provides a great counterpart to the more sugary aspects of the tune.  Repeated listens highlight an excellent arrangement which, thanks to Funderburk’s superb production, really captures something special without ever sounding flashy.  A second attempt at a slow number ‘How Many Times’ fares a little less well as it sounds like an Elvis Costello cast off, with Baker curling his vocal lines appropriately.  It’s not a bad tune all things considered – there are enjoyable chorus harmonies and a great bass sound – but the slightly overdone vocal combined with the xmas bells and slow pace makes this drag in comparison to the rest of the album.

Fans of Baker’s slightly punkier past should get a quick thrill from both ‘Partied Out’ and ‘Weekend Girls’, as he takes time out from the bubblegum stance to push the guitars to the fore.  While definitely sharper around the edges, both numbers retain Baker’s gift for an instantly loveable chorus.  Even at the noisiest end of ‘Brand New Beat’s musical spectrum, ‘Weekend Girls’ finds space in the mix for a new wave keyboard accompaniment and other relative musical complexities.  Just as a couple of the other tracks will inspire singing along, these are near-guaranteed to make you want to cut loose and jump up and down.  [In terms of new-wave inspired pop punk, this pair of tunes are among 2012’s best; even better, though, is the self-titled LP from Dan Vapid & The Cheats – check that one out ASAP.]

Since the record clocks it at barely half an hour, in some ways, it would have been nice for ‘Want You Around’ to have reappeared here for those who missed it first time around, but on the whole, ‘Brand New Beat’ is an expertly delivered exercise in quality over quantity.  Those who’ve dipped in and out of Baker’s past works will undoubtedly love this record with a capital L, while other power pop lovers should find it a very accessible set.

January 2013