Paul Heaton - Acid Country

by Clare Stemp Rating:8 Release Date:2010-09-13

Heaton's back! For those of us pining for some left-wing, ever-maturing bitterness in our lives (everyone?), this can be nothing but a good thing. Acid Country is Paul's third solo album since The Beautiful South's demise, and no matter how much anger he's vented in the past, that vent continues to expand. Ooh, matron. The release follows previews of its content during his Pedals and Pumps Tour in May (see the review of the Leeds gig and interview) and now, on record, the songs have been skillfully polished and served up with a slice of technical goodness.

Unsurprisingly, there's no massive departure from previous work here. Heaton continues to be seen as a very British performer, but now encompasses a full range of Americana stylings into his work. His well-documented formula of catchy melody, folk sensibilities and cutting lyrics remain true; and as his loyal fanbase would testify, this is still a winning method. Explained by the man himself, Acid Country is an attempt at defining his own genre: gentle, country-pop with acrid debate fired up against it. And with this level of self awareness in mind, it does it well.

The majority of the 10 tracks are set with a country foundation and then mixed with the unmistakable layers of Heaton pop-flare, of guitar, brass and the occasional synth treat. Opening song 'The Old Radio' sets the scene capably, hinting at the ongoing theme of nostalgia by sampling radio commentary of an old baseball game, and reminisces over past major news events and the integral part radio once played in delivering this. With a few Elvis impressions to boot, the vocals are as distinctive as ever: some may take time to warm to his mellifluous drawl, but the passion behind it suits the songs well. 'It's a Young Man's Game' is a particularly sentimental number, a melancholy look at ageing, and introduces the backing singing of his bandmate choir. Their 'gaggle of builders' sound enhances the expressive lyrics, which are coated in his unique, often bizarre, diction: "Wasps to the nest go the least welcome of guests/ On the scent of tepid tea and iceless gin".

One of the more common themes of Heaton's lyrics is relationships, the changing dynamics of male-female exchanges and what their arguments can reveal about a situation: the stuff The Beautiful South's 'A Little Time' was made of. He's fond of a bit of realism, is Paul, and so these tracks are saved for collaborations with Ruth Skipper ('Even a Palm Tree') and Sally Ellyson ('This House'). Both are strong vocalists, with Skipper's deep, country tone and Ellyson's more feminine, gentle timbre being wise picks. Feminism manages to shine through on both tracks: "Y'all just cavemen in better cars/ But worse clothes" ('EAPT'). As does - no prizes for guessing this would crop up - alcohol: "This love does not need a shot/ of vodka, whiskey, gin/ Just a pair of laced up bovver boots/ to kick its head right in" ('This House'). In previous work, Heaton would lace entire albums with booze. There's less of it here, but 'A Cold One in the Fridge' is an intriguing finale to the album, suggesting a new control, a habit planned more carefully than before.

Standout tracks include 'Welcome to the South', a 50s rock'n'roll number with some lively drum fills, and the ambitious eight minute title track 'Acid Country', which contrasts a selection of genres: acoustic folk meets Eastern Bloc chanting meets bassy electro and squelchy synths. Without the return to hillbilly folk at the end, this song would be all the more impressive, but once the machines take over there's no escaping that 'do the robot' mood - the folky finale is a bit of a damp squib. 'Acid Country' is Heaton's Britain: "A country of contradictions/ with it's heart and soul pulled out/ We're a fountain of useless knowledge/ in a 30-year-long drought". He's stubborn politically and musically, and proud of it.

Acid Country does exactly what it says on the tin. Despite some hardline lyrics and genuine social anger, Heaton's humour shines through. The inlay does a good job to help this, with photos of the band in toilet cubicles, and later a generic band shoot with Heato's inquisitive pout taking away any boring professionalism. The best trick though, is penning offbeat lyrics and making his fellow musicians sing them as profoundly as possible: "The Cornish pasty, the Holland Pie…" Always good for a titter. Put simply, Acid Country is Paul Heaton at his most Paul Heaton. And there's nowt bloody wrong wi' that, lad. Said the, er, cowboy.

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