By Josh Lees
The most impressive thing about Bradford-based Josh Lees' debut album, is his ability to tweak the usually restrictive acoustic pop formula, to give each song its own distinct character. Although this is more prominent in some songs than in others, this is overall one of the more varied and interesting acoustic-dominated albums. By the end of the eleven tracks, you won't be completely sick of the sound of an acoustic guitar clattering away, which is a definite achievement.
The sunny acoustic pop of album-opener 'Safe In The Harbour' is guaranteed to brighten your day. Josh Lees strums away enthusiastically, putting an infectious spring into this song's step. Lees' lyrics are a perfect blend of down-to-earth frankness and optimism, that'll lift your spirits, without making you feel nauseous.
There are a few minor missteps, though. Lees attempts a holler on the chorus that's audibly difficult for him to reach, and is consequently a little uncomfortable to hear. The other problem, is one that occurs throughout the album, and it's the questionable female backing vocals, which add absolutely nothing to three of the four songs they occupy. They're only taking up space on the funky 'My Mind,' and on both 'Power of a Moment' and 'Safe In The Harbour' the vocalist's attempts to sound ethereal and delicate, actually sound vaguely squeaky and annoying. In all three instances, they muddy the waters and distract from Lees' far superior lead performance.
Thankfully, the female vocals do contribute something, during their final appearance on breathy ballad 'I'll Be With You.' The opening duet of Lee and that delicately-voiced backing vocalist, played over crystal-clear guitar picking and shimmering riffs, is an album highlight. Once the drums are introduced, some of that hush-inducing atmosphere is lost, although, when the female backing vocalist makes her presence felt on the chorus, 'I'll Be With You' once again becomes hypnotically beautiful.
Beyond the dodgy female vocals, 'My Mind' doesn't feature any killer hooks or infectious moments. Instead, it relies on ingenious breaks and changes in tempo, to toy with listener expectations and keep them interested. At several points, the music breaks off for a blast of solo vocals, and you'll be convinced that 'My Mind' is about to kick into second gear. It isn't, it just wanted to get your attention. Similarly, the changes in tempo are all subtle enough to not upset 'My Mind's casual, summery swing, but, together with those breaks, they'll keep luring your attention back to the song. 'My Mind' will have you hooked.
Second track, 'Faith In A Box' is where it first becomes apparent that Lees is on a mission to make acoustic music interesting. It has such an infectiously springy beat, that you'll be torn between clapping and bouncing along - and will probably settle for doing both, simultaneously. The buoyant drums are given that extra boost, thanks to a perfectly-placed, twangy chord, which makes that bounce pretty much irresistible. Lees' vocals are the likeably casual foil to those rollicking drums, and hearing a young man singing openly about his faith, makes a refreshing change in today's music industry.
'Power Of A Moment' and 'Logo's Home' both have a fuller, more mature sound. In the case of 'Power Of A Moment' this is thanks to a cello that rumbles through the standard acoustic guitar clatter, and in 'Logo's Home' a few blasts from a trumpet help to keep things interesting. Both songs are a nice contrast to the one-man-and-his-guitar feel of tracks like 'Safe In The Harbour.'
The first minute of 'Take A Chance,' mixes up the traditional acoustic rattle with so much slide-guitar, that it has character to spare. However, eventually the guitars do slip into that standard clatter and, while there's nothing technically wrong with it, we've heard it all before on this album. The drums are also a problem, as the vigorous drum rolls work against the rest of the song, and in particular Lees' vocals. This is also a problem for the drum-led 'Burnt Out,' where the rolling and rumbling drumbeats and sudden, exaggerated flourishes, are in stark contrast to Lees' casually winding vocals. 'Burnt Out' is one of those songs where the different parts don't really fit together.
'Morning Blue Sky' features a very neat interplay between Lees' jazzy vocals, flicks of the acoustic guitar, and twitching drumbeats. It's an irresistibly well put-together song that'll have you coming back for more. 'Your Own Way' has the beginnings of an equally great hook, in the form of some extreme slide-guitar that bends back and forth across the chorus. It's so mind-numbingly repetitive, that it'll got lodged in your frontal lobe and hang around there for days, after the very first listen. However, it is placed slightly too high in the mix, meaning that it runs the risk of irritating the listener so much, they'll never, ever want to play 'You Own Way' again. Placing it beneath other elements of the song - in particular, Lees vocals - would make it less annoying, and more annoyingly catchy, and increase the chance of repeat listens.
An entire album's worth of rather basic, acoustic-based material, may not sound particularly interesting, but Josh Lees puts several different and exciting twists on the classic, acoustic pop sound, and most of these songs have their own distinct character. Album highlights 'Safe In The Harbour' is a ray of cheery, poppy sunshine, and 'Faith In A Box' is a thought provoking song. One of the rare acoustic guitar albums you could perhaps listen to in its entirety, in one sitting.