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Joe Stilgoe - New Songs For Old Souls - The Arts Desk

Stilgoe's gorgeous brassy arrangements will help you forget be-bop ever happened

For someone apparently so suave, Joe Stilgoe feels uncomfortable in the modern world. His third album is an express journey - in an exquisitely furnished, authentic carriage - back to a pre-bebop era of bronzed, big-band swing, and witty pianist-singers. If the album title doesn't sum things up clearly enough, there are songs like "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times". Nothing Stilgoe does is crude enough to hammer a point home, but songs like this one and "Nothing's Changed", on which Stilgoe poignantly sings "Did we know jazz would all get rearranged?" make the point unambiguously.

Music so defiantly retro is easy to dismiss as cocktail jazz, but Stilgoe's lyrical edges are too sharp and his arrangements too brilliant for that, and these pieces demand centre stage. Stilgoe's voice, so demure on the gentler songs, has a gritty rasp when extended, like a trombone played hard, which gives him a full dramatic range. Many of the are songs Stilgoe's originals, and while they don't quite have Cole Porter's easy brilliance, they are serious and substantial pieces of writing, which contribute to his sense of serious artistic purpose. If anything, Stilgoe's lyrics are where his modernity is betrayed: songs like "You're Funny (But I'm Not in Love)" are the intimate confessions of a modern man, not the oblique carapace of wit many of his idols create.  

Though the band is listed initially as merely a quartet, with bass, drums and guitar, further inspection reveals quite a battery of extra brass, which breaks out in a blaze of shimmering colour on "Gold On Silver", "Nobody Cares Like Me" and "Pocket Song". Like Ian Shaw, though less likely to make your maiden aunt blanche, Stilgoe is a superb and witty live performer, and anyone familiar with his act will be missing his spontaneous contributions from the piano stool. He's celebrating the album launch with a live appearance in the Old Vic's new production of High Society, and for all of this album's gleaming appeal, live theatre is perhaps his natural milieu.

The Arts Desk
04 May 2015