Dave Rowntree brings variety and depth on his debut solo album.
Admit it, you didn’t see this one coming.
Before their uber-gigs at Wembley Stadium later in the year, it seems like the members of Blur are keen to remind us of their solo projects, or perhaps they are simply clearing their decks.
Within the next two months Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz release ‘their’ latest album, while Graham Coxon’s latest project (The Waeve) unleash their debut album in February. Indeed, the only idle member is Alex James but the state of the world is bad enough without adding new Fat Les music to the mix.
Which just leaves the band’s drummer Dave Rowntree, who is anything but idle. Most famously a former councillor for the Labour party, he also has strings of lawyer, composer (wonderfully, he composed the soundtrack 2018’s Bros documentary) and light aircraft instructor (among others) to his hefty bow, to which he can now add ‘singer’.
Singing drummers may be an acquired taste, but Rowntree has taken lessons in preparation and his weary sadness and exhaustion adds real emotion to these already-moving ten tracks.
On the dusty Downtown he jadedly scorns that, ‘frozen minds will win the day and dream a dream of yesterday’, (yes folks, the stench of Brexit still lingers) but the intensely felt emotion shines through as he recalls his memory of the toxicity of 1970’s Britain (or ‘Bitterville’ as he dubs it) while history repeats itself.
Similarly the hazy instrumental layers of Devil’s Island accompany a restrained diatribe about the 1990s and those who, ‘roar like lions, die like lambs’, although the spindly percussion, complete with choir, ironically evokes Gorillaz rather than Blur.
Understandably the songwriting of Blur does influence certain parts of Radio Songs, most notably on London Bridge with a catchy chorus of ‘la la la la’ which could be found anywhere within their canon.
Sonically however it comes from a different place entirely; the synth-driven neo sheen comes straight from the 1980s and, although upbeat, there are undercurrents of dread which exemplify its composer’s belief that unsettling things happen around the titular area of the capital.
Speaking of titles, Rowntree states that Radio Songs is inspired by his childhood in Colchester spent putting together makeshift antennae and spinning through the dial to capture whatever music he could.
As such the musical influences are hugely varied: the glitchy electronic pop of Tape Measure (featuring Juliyah) broods until a striking Bollywood hook redirects it, while the instrumental HK is a collation of several musical styles – with strings and bongos bristling in tandem, it best captures the intended effect.
But where the soundscapes are eclectic, the lyrical content is all personal. The achingly sad 1000 Miles encapsulates the emotions post-argument with a partner, taken from a real-life experience before Rowntree before departed for a world tour (‘whatever held the two of us together can also tear the two of us apart’).
Similarly the piano-led Black Sheep is a family therapy session set to music, while two more experimental offerings round off this splendid piece of work. The pensive Volcano burns slowly, naturally, shimmering to its climax, while the fully instrumental Who’s Asking, an unused choral piece for a movie, recalls the elegance of Moby’s God Moving Over The Face Of The Water.
It’s fair to say that an album by the drummer from Blur comes with minimal expectations by virtue of it being an unknown quantity but with Radio Songs, Dave Rowntree proves he can more than hold his own against his more prolific colleagues.
A welcome surprise.