If there really are parallel dimensions, and many scientists genuinely believe there are, then this one is surely an absurd anomaly — the only world in which Lucky Soul, whose music is both indelibly catchy and deceptively intricate, have thus far achieved passionate popularity in the indie-music sense, as opposed to complete radio domintion in all cities from Aberdeen to Zagreb. Well… this, at least, is what some have been saying, ever since a limited-edition self-released single called ‘My Brittle Heart’ became one of the surprise critical successes of the mid-noughties.
Speaking of quantum physics, Lucky Soul really do have a strange knack for holding two contradictory states at the same time. It was a beguiling quality displayed in their first album, 2007’s The Great Unwanted, whose motown-tinged earworms smuggled in lyrics soaked in desolate pain; and in 2010’s A Coming of Age, whose lavish, confident production was a bedfellow to songs telling tales not of simplicity and verve but insecurity and ambiguity. And do not be deceived on a cursory listen that the South London six-piece’s long-anticipated new album Hard Lines belongs solely to a tradition of disco escapism that’s been vanished-presumed-dead since the early 1980s: the astute listener soon realises that it is probably more on-the-2017-button than anything else around right now, to the point of probably — who knows! — slipping a bit onto the 2018 button too. Influences: Chic, Fleetwood Mac, early Madonna, Italo disco, New Order, The Smiths and Daft Punk, all repurposed for the fraught and confusing moment — in politics, art, everything — we find ourselves in.
The first swirls of what would become Lucky Soul took place in simpler times, in an early-noughties UK — Glasgow, to be precise — in the imagination of a sound engineering student called Andrew Laidlaw. Inspired by the classic Sixties soul playing at a tiny night club called Papa Cool, he began sneaking into the studios at night, plotting to take a seemingly lost kind of pop music and update it for the 21st century. When the course finished, he moved to London, recruited a few friends and put out a classified ad for a singer. A heartfelt request for “no divas, no faux-American accents” seemed to have little effect, but alongside 300 Aguilera-clones emerged a honey-haired woman by the name of Ali Howard with a voice perfectly poised between power and vulnerability and a look that seemed tailor-made for Laidlaw’s music.
The first Lucky Soul album followed in April 2007. Released on the band’s own label Ruffa Lane (set up with the financial help and know-how of a couple of close friends) The Great Unwanted was a massive critical and commercial success: greeted with 4 and 5 stars – “an immediate classic”, “pop at its most glorious and heartbreaking” – across the board and sold 50,000 records worldwide, picking up a top 10 hit in Japan along the way.
Laidlaw’s pop vision had been vindicated, but the band had also thrown everything at that first record. Once the touring was done and with no financial safety net to fall back on while the royalties came through, Lucky Soul returned to their normal lives. Not for the first time, Laidlaw found himself stone broke and south of the river. This time he had no choice but to live inside the band’s studio, then in a draught-ridden converted fire station on the gloomier side of Greenwich. He played piano til the early hours and showered in the local swimming pool, and put his heart and soul into creating a second album, going by his own admission a bit crazy along the way.
Despite an offer from legendary Bowie producer Tony Visconti, Laidlaw produced the record himself, only turning to outside help for the mixing sessions, handled in New York by Victor Van Vugt (Nick Cave, Sons & Daughters, Kirsty Macoll, PJ Harvey). Months were spent in the studio, as Laidlaw – a synaesthetic to whom music appears in the form of vivid visuals that look “like an avant-garde Russian cartoon” – heaved A Coming of Age into awesome life. The album’s shameless love for pure melody remained, but any hint of knowing pastiche was replaced with big, confident, lean production; a soaring album of modern pop.
That was 2010. Seven years on, the world is a very different place, for the band, for all of us, and Hard Lines reflects this. The initial catalyst for the band’s hiatus came when playing Glastonbury, where Howard stoically battled the early stages of morning sickness for the daughter she would go on to have with Laidlaw. Taking time out to focus on their families, the band would reunite occasionally in the studio, setting no deadlines or expectations but indulging in the sheer treat of making music again – which, this time, quickly moved away from the “Motown meets Morrissey” template of their earlier records for a vintage but contemporary mix of disco, protest-soul and electronica (from Larry Levan and early Madonna to Marvin Gaye, The Bee Gees, Altered Images and Daft Punk). “Disco is night music, but even the days are dark now,” writes Andrew. “I think we’re going through the same loss of optimism as in the ‘70s, so it feels natural to react against the coldness of the times with the warmth of disco.”
Whilst the surfaces may shimmer, at its heart Hard Lines is a record of frustration, anger, and – through it all – hope, written in response to a world which your new family must attempt to navigate. Soaring torch-song ‘(Hurts Like A) Bee Sting’, for instance, was composed shortly after the Tories got back into power in 2010, and completed to the backdrop of Brexit in 2016; the tougher, afrobeat-funk of ‘Livin’ On a Question Mark’, meanwhile, began life as the riot police marched through Camberwell in 2011, and discusses a timeless sense of disillusionment. Yet here are songs, too, of staying together, and pulling the people that matter close to you (see the sultry, progressively-stormy soundscapes of ‘One Touch’, or the bittersweet pop rush of ‘Too Much’).
Its slow-build conception may have led many to assume that Lucky Soul had gone their separate ways, but the steely determination, hard-won patience and self-described “obsession” of Laidlaw’s to get the band together again enriches the textured but instantly-infectious feel to Hard Lines. “Seeing the conkers fall every year,” he says now, “I said to myself: this needs to finish. In the end it took me to some really dark places of creative psychosis and I had to be threatened to finish it! But the last line on the record is “keep it together”, so there is hope too and a belief that love can save us. I guess becoming a parent also makes you think harder about the future.” Quite what that future holds for any of us may still be uncertain, but Hard Lines suggests that it’s one with Lucky Soul back in it, right where they belong.
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