Kate Jackson is the former frontwoman of The Long Blondes and now a solo artist in her own right. Her debut album, British Road Movies, was written and recorded with one music’s most frequent collaborators, Suede guitarist, Bernard Butler.
The basic’s of the sound are arguably exactly what you’d expect from a collaboration between Kate Jackson and Bernard Butler, in the foreground tying all the songs together are Kate’s instantly recognisable vocal melodies and Bernard’s soaring electric guitars. Beneath those two binding agents though it’s an eclectic mix of styles, taking in the unsurprising, glacial synth-pop and arena worthy pop-rock, as well as more surprising dabblings into alt-country and minimal piano explorations.
Kate may be famous as a resident of Sheffield, has worked in Rome as an architectural painter and have recorded her album in West London, but she is originally from, and currently based out of, Bury St Edmunds. Bury St Edmunds is the cityless county of Suffolk’s third biggest town with a population of nearly 70,000; it is one of just twenty-six town’s in the United Kingdom that have a cathedral, bonus points if you can name the other twenty five. The town’s name can be traced back to the ninth century King Of East Angles, Edmund The Martyr, who met an unfortunate end at the hands of Viking invaders, believed to be led by that rather brilliantly named Ivar The Boneless. The town’s largest industries are the production of sugar and beer, so presumably the locals are unhealthy but happy. Famous offspring of the town include Bob Hoskins and, err, the footballer Andy Marshall, the town does have a musical claim to fame though as the site of John Peel’s funeral; Peel famously, and with tongue firmly in cheek, described Bury St Edmunds as, “the new Seattle”, during the early 2000’s heyday of bands like Miss Black America and The Dawn Parade.
Whilst Kate has been alive since the (very late) 1970’s, it was only following the demise of The Long Blondes in 2008 that she started work on solo material. She released her debut single back in 2011, and last week finally shared her debut solo album, British Road Movies, which came out via Hoo Ha Records.
When Kate started recording the songs that make up her debut album she had little idea of what linked the seemingly disparate ideas contained within them, but quietly a concept of sorts emerged. The months and years spent touring the UK, and further afield, in her previous band, has led to Kate spending many hours staring out of windows and experiencing the open road, through no conscious decision this had infiltrated her songwriting. The road, such a potent symbol within American culture, is, as Kate points out, often ignored in British culture, as she explains, “as an island our roads lead somewhere far too quickly to hold adventure. We are not the land of Jack Kerouac but of Antiques Road Trip. But who is to say our roads can’t be cinematic?” Across the album Kate attempts to discover the glamour and grit in our winding trunk roads and propensity for building a roundabout wherever possible, and in doing so discovers the human side of this island of travellers.
It’s perhaps this sense of constant motion that drives the albums eclectic soundscapes; the pounding drum beat of Metropolis that recalls the speed and freedom of the motorway, the alt-country meets The Shadows swagger of Lie To Me is the B-road winding past endless village greens. Thankfully that’s about where the metaphors end, because, as anyone who has sat through the truly dreadful film Brown Bunny knows, a road movie without human stories gets pretty dull pretty quickly. British Road Movies is at it’s best not when it reaches for the open expanse, but when it taps into human emotion. The End Of Reason builds from a slow intro into an electro-pop floor filler, with shades of Gwenno, it culminates in a stunning outro, Kate spitting lyrics rapidly over a pulsing drum beat, “sign of the times, the world is unkind, and nothing can stop this happening.”
Elsewhere on the album, Wonder Feeling is rock’n’roll given a Human League-style makeover, with gorgeous pop-harmonies the Pipettes would be proud of; Last Of The Dreamers is dramatic, cabaret-tinged piano ballad which showcases Kate’s inner Amanda Palmer. Closing track Velvet Sofa From No.26 is a heart-wrenching thing, building around little more than a stunning guitar line and vocal, it explores a past flame, moving on whilst still tinged with misgivings about how the relationship made her feel, “you never read me any books, I always tried to look good, as you hoped I would.” Ultimately as she notes, “you never looked back”, it doesn’t resolve musically or emotionally, merely fades away gradually into the ether, it’s a spectacular piece of songwriting. Best of all though is the fabulous 16 Years, over a steady drum-beat, Kate delivers a spoken word monologue, her voice taking on more than a hint of fellow ex-Sheffielder, Jarvis Cocker. It’s littered with the feel of a Kitchen Sink Drama, as Kate recalls the up’s and downs of a youthful friendship, “too many drugs, you got so thin, I didn’t know you then, how did we ever let that happen?” It’s littered with love, and guilt, and nostalgia, and ultimately friendship, that feeling that through the ups and downs, the distance and the difficulties, you’re still those kids in your bedrooms, with those snapshots of memories, “your house was bright with dirty, patterned carpets from trainers and ballet shoes, I wish I’d said how much I wanted to be ordinary, like you.”
There’s the odd miss-step; the glam-pop stomp of Stranded is verging on Scouting For Girls territory, while Homeward Bound sounds less inspired by the 1990’s and more stuck in them. On a wider note though, this is a more mature record than The Long Blondes output, and arguably some of it’s nostalgic-charm has been lost, certainly it’s not got as many smutty thrills. Like her audience though, Kate has grown beyond sticky dancefloors and dank indie-clubs, whether you want to grow-up with her is entirely up to you, but either way it’s delightful to have one of Britain’s most talented songwriters back.
British Road Movies is out now via Hoo Ha Records. Kate Jackson and The Wrong Moves play live dates at the start of June, click HERE for details.