Whether you love or detest Babybird, no one could argue that he is not prolific. After a period of well-deserved rest following the slight disappointment of 'Bugged', the last 6 months have seen two boxed sets and a new album awaiting release. The 'Original Lo-Fi' boxed set will come as great relief to those who have discovered the magic of Babybird at a later date as these previously severely limited edition CDs are now available for everyone to enjoy, with the bonus of a CD of previously unreleased material to tempt the die-hards.
1995 was a hugely busy year for Babybird AKA Stephen Jones and 'I Was Born A Man' immediately set the tone for just how brilliant home recordings could sound. The first three tracks couldn't be more different: the angry electro-rock of 'Blow It To The Moon', the cute novelty of 'Lemonade Baby' but between them is the outstanding cut of 'Mans Tight Vest', it is Jones in a nutshell with sexual confusion ("I'm shaped like a knocker on the door of mankind. Bang me once or twice.") and vocals that cut like a knife which reveal - unusually for 'bedroom boffins' - an emotionally-wracked man that makes these disturbing tales all the more believable. Cunningly, Jones slips the same melody on to the end of the album with 'Alison'; a sign that he knew what his best work was rather than a lack of new ideas. 'Baby Bird' and 'Farmer' reveal the most commercial potential as both have warmth in abundance. Also included is the first outing for the later hit 'Cornershop' only here it is in a caustic, frazzled form. This release sets the agenda for soft-sounding songs enriched - rather than spoiled - by uneasy lyrics of sexual perversion and dark matter.
Opening up with Jones's assertion that he is a 'church' it is clear that the man has no little amount of confidence. Even more confrontational than 'I Was Born A Man', 'Bad Shave' holds nothing back by debunking ZZ Top and Heaven 17 to the off-kilter discordant sounds of 'Bad Jazz'. His love for alt-pop, without losing his trademark melancholic croon is well presented by 'Steam Train' (daft but cherishable lines such as loving someone like a fleshy brain, a tea stain and - perhaps more disconcertingly - Michael Caine). 'Shop Girl' has a gorgeous throwaway melody but it's preceded by the chilling strains of 'Valerie' in which Jones curiously affected vocal suggests a dangerous obsession with the titular female. More standouts are on the agenda with the soft electronic touches/depressing lyric formula of '45 & Fat' and 'Sha Na Na' is the beautiful work of a crazed mind. Moreover, Babybird was beginning a knack of producing consistently diverse and enjoyable work that was regularly receiving attention from major record companies.
Fittingly for an album named 'Fatherhood', Jones delivered his most mature work to date even if the album cover of the artist "with child" is a little disquieting. 'Cooling Towers' may possess a wealth of electro-beats but its roots are set in the pure psych-pop of the late 60's. Yet the overall mood on the album is that of lullabies and slightly-warped love songs, none of which are more appealing than 'Dustbin Liner' and 'Iceberg'. Jones is in self-effacing and reflective mood throughout as he pleads "Just me put me down as another fool" on 'I Was Never Here', the only one of the tracks later to appear on his masterpiece 'There's Something Going On'. With the guitar just as dominant as the keyboards, Jones revealed there was another string to his bow on this incredibly intimate album.
As the fourth album released in 1995, a tailing off in quality could only be expected. Yet for the most part Jones keeps up a good ratio of good over bad songs. 'Razorblade Shower' is probably a riotous step too far but 'The Happiest Man Alive' is dotted with brilliant moments of clarity like the creepy 'Sundial In A Tunnel', or the undertstated magnificence of 'Halfway Up The Hill' and 'Seagullably'. 'Louise's lyric of "Get out your shammy, I'm a fake dear. Look into my eyes there's a lake dear." returns to the sexual confusion of his earlier work. Followers of Jones's more recent work will probably find the original version of 'Candy Girl' unrecognisable; it is delivered in a resigned manner whereas it's hit version sounded invigorated. Towards the end of this set the quality control dial dips, signified by an overuse of drum machine and Jones's increasingly tired vocal. After such an intense period of recording activity, surely he can be forgiven for being slightly weary though.
After the commercial breakthrough of the 'Ugly Beautiful' release, Jones went back to his lo-fi roots to produce a work of quiet, semi-ambience that couldn't have been further removed from his newly-acquired "pop star" status. Keyboards are used more subtly than ever and with Jones reduced to a mere whisper 'Dying Happy' is a curious, restrained collection of music. Efforts like the outstanding 'Losing My Hair' possess the merest piano tinkle, male and female choral samples and film dialogue. Jones relies on his falsetto, quietly murmuring in the background in deference to the style of the music. The wondrous 'Grandma Begs To Be 18 Again' is attractively morose whilst 'Lead Cloud' is all floataway dreaminess. It is perhaps a sign of confidence that the average song length here is close to the four minute mark for the first time.
Finally, the mysterious 'Black Album' receives its first outing. Though cynics may argue it's a blatant cash-in for die-hards to delve into their pockets for the sake of 40 minutes of new material (they would have a point, but they would probably buy the box set even if the extra disc wasn't included), it's an extra disc well worth owning and sees a natural progression from the quiet angst of 'Dying Happy'. Amongst sixteen unnamed tracks there are a few shocks and surprises along the way. None are greater than the disturbing tale of the body of Jesus Christ being kept in a fridge and freaks feeding off his blood. The overriding feel is much more palatable with songs about "shining suns" and "pretty little stars". Even if these tracks are slightly sickly at times, the eerie lo-fi resonance is always resident.