The Boston Phoenix
England’s Baby Bird invade America
September 11 – 18, 1997
True Brit. Steven Jones is sitting on the 27th floor of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, a long way from the small bedroom where, between 1988 and 1995, he patiently and painstakingly constructed 400 songs on “a four-track studio the size of a briefcase.” Behind him rises the sloping white roof of the Citicorp building, a very different backdrop to those he knew growing up in the English midlands.
Jones and his band Baby Bird are now signed to Atlantic Records, which is introducing the group to America with the two-CD retrospective The Greatest Hits (Baby Bird Recordings).
The blond, stubble-faced 34-year-old can’t help wondering how Ugly Beautiful, their first proper full-length for the major label, will fare when it’s released in October.
“I can’t quite think where Atlantic are going to pitch us,” he admits. “I make it easy for them to present me as an English eccentric, but then I’m not sure how America is going to take to songs like `Man’s Tight Vest’ or `Jesus Is My Girlfriend.’ ”
Baby Bird first made ripples in Britain in the summer of 1995.
The story emerged of a brilliant maverick who’d recorded hundreds of surreal little gems on primitive equipment (mostly with guitar and drum machine) and never even attempted to get them released. Then the extraordinary I Was Born a Man, a more-or-less random assortment of tracks recorded over seven years, was issued with the promise that four more such albums would follow within a year, each, like the first, released initially as 1000-copy limited editions on Jones’s Baby Bird Recordings.
And that’s what happened: English audiences were soon treated to the albums Bad Shave, Fatherhood, The Happiest Man Alive, and Dying Happy, which offered such sad, mad, deliciously pretty songs as “Valerie,” “Too Handsome To Be Homeless,” “Bad Blood,” “I Didn’t Want To Wake You Up,” “I Was Never Here,” and “Grandma Begs To Be 18 Again.” These were bizarrely beautiful `finished sketches’ that tread an ambiguous, sometimes discomforting line between melancholy and black humor.
Two years of cult acclaim in the UK paid off when, earlier this year, the Baby Bird single “You’re Gorgeous” lodged itself in the British Top Five for three months and made Jones such a star in Manchester that he opted to move to London. By the time American A&R men began calling, the singer had assembled a proper band comprising guitarist Luke Scott, drummer Rob Gregory, bassist John Pedder, and keyboardist Hugh Chadbourne.
Dressing everyone in black suits and frilled shirts, he described the group’s image as one of “dirty glamor.” Live shows were jolting, confrontational affairs, with Jones adopting the persona of an obnoxious northern English comedian completely at odds with the loveliness of the music.
“I’ve toned down the heckling a little,” he reports.
“When we did our first gigs, I thought, well, why not talk to people? So many bands play in a goldfish bowl. It was the Britpop thing to be cool and uninterested, but I think you’ve got to try and make some connection with the audience without being patronizing. I don’t think Americans are too impressed by the whole Oasis can’t-be-assed attitude.”
Some have pointed to Jones’s past as a member of “anti-theater” performance troupe Dogs in Honey as evidence that his stage manner is a contrived, Brechtian device. He disagrees: “It’s always about breaking down the fourth wall and talking to the audience without intruding on their space, and without coming across like some rock god.”
The secret of Baby Bird is that their music borders on the taboo without quite touching it.
“A lot of the humor gets me into trouble, because the music isn’t taken as seriously as it should be,” Jones admits.
“Everything I write about starts from a serious point of view, but I use humor because I don’t wanna ram things down people’s throats. It’s a real fine line: `Which way is he gonna go? Is he taking the piss or what? ”
Whatever Atlantic thinks it can do with Baby Bird, the label clearly believe that Jones — whose doodly, shimmering songs suggest a strange interface between Beck and Bono, or between Morrissey and Guided by Voices — has the musical goods to follow Prodigy and Spice Girls into the US charts on the back of the failed Britpop invasion. The label’s strategy is to release the cheekily dubbed The Greatest Hits as a kind of low-key primer and then hit America with what Jones calls “the first band album proper,” Ugly Beautiful, sometime next month.
“Ugly Beautiful is the step toward the proper band sound of Baby Bird,” explains Jones.
“But it’s important to get The Greatest Hits out so that we’re not portrayed as just another British band. And then I need to get on and start writing some new music . . . some proper music! Christ, I sound like my dad . .
by Barney Hoskyns