KURT BAKER – Rock ‘n’ Roll Club

Ever since the release of his ‘Brand New Beat’ album in 2012, Kurt Baker has been synonymous with a party-centric brand of power pop. Taking a huge influence from Joe Jackson, Shoes and a host of early 80s skinny tie wearers, he added his own voice to a classic sound on a run of enjoyable albums. Each new LP came with a certain expectation of something familiar, but that’s not to say there haven’t been a few musical surprises. 2018’s ‘Let’s Go Wild!’ showed off a more abrasive edge, increasing a few garage rock influences, and 2020’s ‘After Party’ – released mid-pandemic, making promotion more difficult – mixed the solid power pop fare with tunes that drew from New Romantic sources, and even dabbled with lounge jazz. ‘After Party’ wasn’t just Baker’s most adventurous album to date; it was also his best.

Over the following year, Kurt released a couple of stand alone digital singles; he collaborated with Italian power poppers Radio Days and US garage rockers Indonesian Junk; he played a pivotal role on the second K7s LP, and even released an excellent EP with Spanish punks Nuevo Catecismo Catolico. He might have been in danger of spreading himself too thinly by that point, but sessions for a new Kurt Baker Band album were also undertaken over the following year, and the resultant tunes – as featured on 2023’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Club’ – are very strong.

Like ‘After Party’ before it, the album isn’t afraid of throwing musical curve-balls. The first of these is actually used to open the record. ‘Hitting Rock Bottom’ shares a huge swaggering riff and a much harder edged guitar tone. A blend of power pop and 70s glam sounds huge throughout, and once those guitars are augmented by a swirling organ sound, a love for an earlier 70s sound is as huge as the riffs themselves. Even Baker’s vocal is very different to before. His curly tones are evident, but when indulging in much longer notes, he sounds more mature. Lurking beneath the surface, the party spirit is still there, and in this case, it’s most obvious on a rousing backing vocal that’s hugely catchy. Unexpectedly, a faint echo of T.Rex in the riff colliding with a huge confidence makes everything sound a little like something from ‘Definitely Maybe’ by Oasis, only played by superior musicians. At the other end of the album, ‘It Was You’ taps into a semi acoustic tune that sounds like a distant cousin of ‘Wonderwall’, fleshed out with strings that are decidedly Beatle-esque. Obviously, lyrically speaking, it’s a cut above Noel Gallagher and his Ladybird Book of Rhyming Words, and even though it feels strange at first to hear such a familiar voice propping up this kind of 60s pop throwback, Baker is in fine form vocally, sounding every bit the alternative balladeer. With the help of a heartfelt lyric and a couple of obvious influences – including Billie Joe Armstrong in balladeer mode – it adds yet another new angle to Kurt’s expanding repertoire.

Even more unexpected, ‘Love Express’ applies a very distinctive voice to a disco number. Funky guitars chop against an equally funky bassline; female backing vocals throw out hugely knowing “chugga-choo-choo” counter vocals, and a huge keyboard solo (courtesy of Kris Rodgers) sounds like a throwback to an old Parliament record and really boosts the retro feel. This is about as far from the likes of ‘Brand New Beat’ as you’ll find, but at the same time, it’s absolutely terrific. You can really hear the huge amount of fun the Baker Band are having throughout, and in terms of insane/inane chorus hooks, this track will be hard to beat.‘In Love Alone’ also eschews the typical uptempo power pop in favour of acoustic strums and tough basslines, recreating a fine slab of late 60s pop. Dripping with harmonies and more layers of organ, its retro charms are huge, and even though bits of the melody sound like they’ll slip into Springsteen’s ‘Promised Land’ at any moment, the curly delivery of that melody is unmistakably Baker’s work. This is unlikely to ever feel like one of the album’s stand-out cuts, but at the same time, it’s nicely put together and its timeless pop heart provides a nice counterpoint to a couple of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Club’s more feel-good, knockabout numbers. Best of all, the bass heavy ‘Good Feeling’ finds Baker exploring a world of 80s pop, on a tune where a huge groove sits atop a wash of retro synths. A harmony loaded chorus builds up a really strong feel good factor, and once the pieces all fit together, a vague new wave mood makes this sound like the ultimate tribute to film soundtrack filler from the era. It’s really nice to hear a couple of keyboard fills that are reminiscent of Philip Oakey & Georgio Moroder’s ‘Together In Electric Dreams’, whilst an unashamed AOR guitar solo comes as another welcome surprise. On an album brimming with good songs, this is one of the very best – an unmissable treat for all fans of retro pop.

Leading off with a huge drum sound, the title cut fuses a little more of Baker’s more typical power pop with a rockier element that makes a great feature of a chunky guitar. The way the big riff works a 70s influence into more of an 80s mood is impressive, and that’s before everything slides into a rousing hook that sounds as if it were designed as a crowd pleaser. A couple of howling leads en route lean more towards a hard rock sound than any Baker work to date, but a full compliment of harmonies ensures there’s something a little more familiar here. With a bigger power pop riff in hand, ‘Anchors Up’ sounds far more like a tune that would fit the ‘Brand New Beat’ LP, especially with a call and response vocal powering a very new wave chorus. Even here, though, Baker takes something that would be his meat and potatoes sound and gives it a bigger send off than before. The harmony vocals are great, but the arrangement really benefits from a stabbed piano in a few places, and a wall of sound applied to the rhythm guitar gives everything more of a punch. If you’re not won over immediately, Kurt unleashes a really catchy wordless hook for a really infectious middle eight for the maximum feel-good factor. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Club’ features more interesting musical fare, but this was a natural choice for the lead single; it’s immediately recognisable as Kurt Baker and not far removed from his past classics, but at the same time, it doesn’t entirely sound like an easy retread of past glories.

Elsewhere, ‘Go Getter’ applies some trashy rock ‘n’ roll riffing to a huge vocal, occasionally sounding like an extension of some of ‘Let’s Go Wild!’s noisier cuts, although with a far more sympathetic mix, and ‘She Don’t Wanna Be Alone’ revisits the 60s power pop love song format, as established on ‘Brand New Beat’s slower cuts, sharing Baker’s love for bands like The Raspberries. It’s fair to say that both are excellently played, but risk being in the shadow of the album’s more interesting experiments. That said, if they help to attract a less adventurous listener or two, they’ve more than done the job. By giving the record something far more predictable, it feels like a musical outing with something for everyone.

There’s a lot about ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Club’ that will feel familiar, but even more that shows an artist branching out and pushing forward. It shows off a song writer who can now pretty much turn his hand to anything and come out winning. After all, it’s unlikely you ever had a disco tune on your Baker Bingo card for 2023, but the world seems a little better for it. The more confident and sometimes more melodic stance suits Kurt. Whether those who expected – and possibly wanted – another round of slight variants of ‘Partied Out’ or ‘Hit The Ground’ will love this album is a different matter, but ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Club’ is a strong record, regardless. The best advice is to dive in with an open ear; hopefully, that way you’ll discover a well-meaning, fun, stylistically scattershot work that deserves revisiting – and often.

September 2023