Mark Moraghan - Moonlight's Back in Style -

This latest release on the Linn record label is subtitled "Songs By Nicky Campbell". Yes, that Nicky Campbell, the DJ and radio/TV presenter/personality. It turns out that Campbell has always been interested in music and songwriting having played the piano since childhood and even considered a career in music before his life took a different course.

The vocal outlet for the collection of Campbell songs gathered here is singer Mark Moraghan who Campbell met on the BBC light entertainment programme "Just The Two Of Us", a singing competition which saw Moraghan duetting with Atomic Kitten's Natasha Hamilton ( they came second). Moraghan is also an actor but has long harboured a dream of becoming a professional singer, something he realises here.

Campbell and Moraghan share a love for the swing era and for the music of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Moraghan has dubbed the music on this album "New Swing"  as the arrangements (by the excellent Paul Buck) are defiantly retro but the lyrics, mainly by Campbell, are full of contemporary and topical cultural references. No doubt the success of Robbie Williams' "swing" project has informed this album but Moraghan and Campbell's album stands up well in it's own right. Moraghan is a talented singer handling the material with confidence and sophistication and his abilities coupled with Buck's classy arrangements and David Pick's pinpoint production make for a pretty decent offering. The songs aren't bad either, Campbell is a capable and witty writer and whilst I'll freely admit that this kind of music isn't really up my street this album is far better than I first expected.

The album was recorded in Gloucester and features a number of musicians prominent on the jazz scene in South Wales and the Borders including Ben Thomas (trumpet), Pete Tantrum (tenor and baritone saxes) and arranger Buck on piano and keyboards. Thomas is a talented trumpeter who I get to see a lot of on the local Herefordshire scene. The core group is completed by Kevin Harcourt (also trumpet), Nick Attwood (trombone), Mark Howell (double bass) and Sam Brown (drums). The occasional guest features here and there including vocalist Margo Buchanan who duets with Moraghan on "We'll Never Have Manhattan" and Campbell himself who contributes acoustic guitar to "Many's The Time" and the occasional backing vocal elsewhere.

The album kicks off with the spirited "Come For The Ride" which sets the agenda for the rest of the album. One of two numbers co-written by Campbell and Moraghan it's a kind of "Come Fly With Me" for the 21st Century with topical references to Barak Obama and Sat Navs- mind you they name check Charlie Parker too. Buck's punchy, swinging arrangement contains enjoyable solos from Tantrum,Thomas and the pianist himself.

After the rousing start "A Blast From The Past" veers closer to ballad territory. It's a fond look back at a chronologically distant love affair and features the honeyed backing vocal of Margo Buchanan in the lush but gently swinging arrangement.

The lyrics of the title track are simultaneously a love song and a paean to the musical era Campbell and Moraghan love best. Again Buck's arrangement combines verve with lushness making judicious use of strings to supplement the horns. Moraghan delivers a typically assured performance, his voice is perfectly suited to this style of music.

The singer also convinces on the big ballad "Angels Don't Cry Anymore" which manages to stay just this side of cloying. Tantrum's warm tenor solo is also a considerable plus.

"We'll Never Have Manhattan" is a vocal duet between Moraghan and Buchanan. In Campbell's clever lyric the protagonist's longing to visit a mythical New York is cancelled out by the reality of life in humdrum South London. Broadway NYC is exchanged for Tooting Broadway. I've never heard so many South London locations mentioned in a song since the heyday of Carter USM. As you may have gathered this song is witty, genuinely amusing and great fun.

I'm less keen on "Many's The Time" an ill advised diversion into country/pop territory complete with fiddles and pedal steel. For the first time Moraghan's voice sounds sickly and unctuous, the jollity forced. Even Campbell's lyrics lack their usual bite. Next please.

"I'll Make An Exception For You" returns the duo to more familiar territory with predictably improved results. Campbell's lyrics are back to their clever best and everybody sounds much more comfortable. By and large throughout the record the words are excellent, informed by Campbell's obvious love of wordplay. 

However "Through It All"  is another item I'm less than keen on. Stephen Sproat's ukelele is a distracting presence in the arrangement and the whole thing is a bit too "music hall" for my tastes.

"I Got My Hat, I Got My Shoes" restores the equilibrium. It's a kind of cousin to "I Get Along Without You Very Well" or Steely Dan's "Things I Miss The Most". Campbell's lyrics neatly capture the defiant despair of the jilted lover and there's a tasteful solo from Thomas.

"Love Ran out Of Time" marks a return to lush, tear jerking ballad territory. Romance and nostalgia are brought out in Campbell's poetic, economical lyrics allied to an assured vocal performance from Moraghan and a masterful arrangement from Buck. This tune co-written by Moraghan and Campbell is utterly convincing and sums up what these guys do best.

Unfortunately "The Birds Are Singing Your Name" is another step backwards into faux country territory. Too perky by half. 

The jazzy after hours ambience is back for the epic ballad "The Universe Of Blue" with Tantrum's smoky sax solo a delight. "Wonderfully Wonderful You" is a buoyant swinger and the closing "You Make This Whole Crazy Story Worthwhile" features a pared down line up (voice,piano,bass,drums) and a subtle string arrangement. The song ends the album on an elegiac note.

As I've said this isn't really my kind of music but it's executed with a care and skill that can't fail to impress. Moraghan and Campbell update their chosen era superbly and the swing/big band items regularly hit the mark. Their experiments outside this idiom are less convincing and interrupt the flow of the album. These quibbles aside this is a pretty decent offering and one which I found myself enjoying rather more than I'd expected.
20 October 2009