“You would not believe how much effort has gone into making it sound that effortless” laughs singer John Turrell in conversation with Sabotage Times about his band Smoove & Turrell’s superb new album “Broken Toys”.
“Broken Toys” has indeed been a while in the making but it is well worth the wait. The amalgamation of perspiration and inspiration prompted BBC 6 Music’s Craig Charles to remark “it would be a massive understatement to say Broken Toys is one of the great modern soul albums”.
The album marks a departure from the sample-based sound of its two predecessors in favour of Smoove’s perfectly produced take on the band’s passionate live sound. It also bears the imprint of their recent work with Nile Rodgers of Chic, adding a disco sensibility to their distinctive modern soul/funk blend. This is most evident on tracks like “Will You Be Mine”, which could slot right in on Alexander O’Neal’s ‘80’s classic “Criticise” album, and “I Just Want More” almost begs to be recorded as a duet with disco-era Diana Ross.
Like most great bands, Smoove & Turrell are brilliant at mining their influences, such as Stax and Philly Soul. But it is their ability to stretch the soul template into a wide range of beautiful new shapes they makes them stand out from their contemporaries.
It is also hard to go wrong when you have so many stunning songs. Each track on “Broken Toys” works wonderfully in isolation. But one of Smoove & Turrell’s great strengths is their ability to assemble their songs into a coherent album that enhances its component parts. Turrell attributes this in large part to Smoove’s experience as a DJ, which gives him “an uncanny ability to find the flow for the audience”.
It stems too from Turrell being one of the best lyricists and singers of our time. His skill as a storyteller allows the band to combine songs exploring deeper themes with flat-out soul stompers like the single “Lay It On Me”.
Their ability to stretch the soul template into a wide range of beautiful new shapes makes them stand out from their contemporaries.
Sometimes this combination comes together within a single song. The first track “Have Love” is an irresistibly funky opener. But its enduring emotional impact comes from it being an eloquent tribute to a friend of Turrell’s who took his own life.
The warm and inclusive “Now or Never” inspires thoughts of what The Pogues could have been like with a better singer. Turrell explains that the pub singalong feel arose very literally when the band were marooned and morose in a remote hostel on the South Downs after a festival appearance. In a desperate search for adventure or, at least, a shelter without rising damp, they stumbled upon a pub and were invited to play a few songs in exchange for free drinks. “Now or Never” was born. And I’m not sure if even Shane MacGowan has ever come up with a more poetic opening line to a song about real life love than “Your face, it stood out like a bombed out house on the terrace….”
In a collection of wonderful songs such as this, it is hard to select a standout. But if pushed, I would have to go for the spine tingling title track, “Broken Toys”, about our failure to take care of the soldiers who return home from fighting for our freedom. Quite simply, it is the most poignant song about war since Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding”. The musical style is different but, as with that classic, Turrell achieves intense emotional impact by deploying his subtly sharp lyrics in an exquisitely elegiac setting.
Perhaps the final word on “Broken Toys” should go to a stunned Robert Elms. When he blurted out “blimey, I never knew that Marvin Gaye came from Newcastle….” after the band’s recent live performance on his Radio London show, he was not speaking entirely in jest.