JOHN DUNBAR – What A Difference Indifference Makes

John Dunbar is a busy man. Between the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2023, he released two solo albums filled with retro pop, another two as a member of The John Sally Ride – a similar sounding pop outfit fond of humorous song titles (‘See Emily Work’, ‘Sheena Is A Prog Rocker’, ‘I Won’t Let Failure Go To My Head’) – and two more as Elvis Eno, exploring more experimental lo-fi work. Despite six albums and a bunch of one off singles appearing within a four year period, chances are, his name still isn’t familiar to you.

If you have any passing love for the works of Jon Auer, Mark Lane, or Portable Radio, then Dunbar really deserves attention. The mix of pop and sly humour throughout The John Sally Ride’s 2023 LP ‘The Other Women’ is great, but this solo album – John’s second – if approached song by song, is potentially greater. It clings firmly onto the same positive pop heart, but there’s something about the material that feels just a little more honest. Maybe that it’s that it feels slightly more homespun; a lot of the material sounds like polished demos at times, but the solo approach really shines a light on a great songwriter too.

‘What A Difference Indifference Makes’ starts with an upbeat, McCartney/Jellyfish-esque rumpty tumpty (albeit on an obviously smaller budget), ends with a whole world of bubblegum pop vibes pulled from the 70s and flaunted, unfashionably, in the present. By stopping off for a few mellotron sounds, occasional nods to a late 60s Ray Davies and even sharing a moody Procol Harem-esque organ driven number along the way, it’s very much a journey – but one that certainly feels like an album, rather than a collection of songs.

The album opener ‘I Wonder If She Colors Her Hair Now’ is a genuine highlight. Dunbar taps into a perfect toytown pop arrangement where his stabbed piano melodies are augmented by vaguely psychedelic flute-y sounds, and the track shares a pleasingly punchy rhythm throughout. An instant familiarity makes it so loveable, but beyond that, there’s more gold to be found via a wavering pop vocal that could be a distant cousin of The Posies in a light mood, and a bouncing bass that really gives the jabbing rhythms an important lift. It’s power pop 101, but that’s what makes it great; it supplies an immediate feel good jolt that allows the listener to slide into the busier ‘You Really Got Meh’ without any apprehension. On that number, a raft of 60s pop influences jostle beneath a brilliantly crafted DIY power pop melody and the bass is busier than before, dancing with glee beneath a combination of bright tack piano sounds, but it’s Dunbar’s jubilant vocal – occasionally harmonising with himself – that really makes it a pop treat. By the mid point, it sounds like an independent adult pop classic. Then, closing with an effected vocal and mellotron, there’s a belated nod to a “Beatles ’67” sound – specifically tipping the hat to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, and Dunbar’s choice of lyric which claims he’s heading for “a purple patch just around the corner” suggests that beneath his self-depreciating humour, he instinctively knows how good this is.

The equally brilliant ‘The Do-Gooder’ shares a similarly positive sound, again exploring an arrangement driven by the stabbing rhythms and marching drum beloved by Jellyfish – stolen from 10cc et al, naturally. By pushing the bass a little further forward in the mix, everything sounds much busier in a very welcome way, and between a few light psych flutes, another strong vocal, and a natural gift for retro pop, Dunbar’s guitar-free arrangement stands as another of this record’s best. In a similar mood, ‘What No One Is Saying’ serves up more jaunty pop via a bouncy piano, but ensures it feels suitably different thanks to unexpected rhythmic stops during the verses and an old style call and response backing vocal on the chorus. A weird keyboard solo is a little distracting – it comes a little too close to being Casiotone cheapness – but the track is rescued by a harmony drenched coda where the McCartney and Pilot love comes through in massive waves. It takes a little more work to love, but there’s still enjoyment to be gleaned from Dunbar’s DIY arrangement.

In a more adult mood, both ‘Go Down In Mystery’ and ‘When Promises Turn Into Lies’ trade in the bubblegum pop for a slightly rockier sound, with the former heavily leaning on some moody organ work. There’s more of a Procol Harem feel to the mid tempo music than McCartney, whilst the all round darker feel might have been inspired by The Posies. Dunbar’s hazy pop vocal provides a useful link to his other work, and overall, it’s great to hear him excelling on a tune that sounds as if it comes from outside his comfort zone, whilst ‘…Promises’ drops in a huge amount of mellotron sounds against a jazz tinged drum part, creating a distinctive opening. The album’s cuckoo, if you will, its first half doesn’t really fit with Dunbar’s power pop norm, but even so, it’s perfectly constructed. The repetitious keyboard riff really gives a feeling of unease and the filtered vocal accentuates a mounting oddity. Eventually, though, the performer reverts to type, and the track soon starts to work an arrangement heavily indebted to Brian Wilson circa ’66, complete with festive sounding bells on a tune that’s guaranteed to pull the classic pop lover back in.

Elsewhere, ‘Try Too Hard Or Phone It In’ relies on an almost novelty arrangement that could drop into ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ at any second, but obviously, that gives the stabbed piano plenty of room to drop an uplifting bubblegum melody, and ‘Isn’t It Great?’ could pass as a micro budget Matthew Sweet, but there’s still plenty of joy to be had hearing John wring the most out of an AM radio pop melody for the umpteenth time whilst playing a stabbed piano line over a rolling bass. If you’ve enjoyed the retro pop thus far, then these tunes will certainly appeal, predictable as they may well be.

Throughout ‘What A Difference Indifference Makes’, Dunbar exudes a massive love for sunshine pop, AM radio gold, and even some very light psych. If not for the very DIY production sound that makes no secret of its labour of love approach, the best of this record’s ten tunes could pass for lost relics from the late 60s; curios that sat unloved for decades on the backs of flop 7” singles before being rescued for a Cherry Red Records box set. His vibe really is that good, even when the overall sound is…perhaps a little thin. Whichever way you approach it, though, there are great songs lurking around every corner, on a record that’s almost guaranteed to please the hardened power pop/retro pop buff, assuming they’re happy to take this recording at face value. This is good, but give the man the run of a studio that 10cc had and/or the budget Manning and Sturmer threw at ‘Spilt Milk’, and he could be capable of delivering a timeless genre classic…

December 2023