Typical isn’t it… you wait ages for a Dr Robert album and then two come along at once. The head Blow Monkey’s collection of new material ,‘Flutes and Bones’ is out this week as is ‘Acoustic Blow Monkeys’, a stripped down set of selected tunes from his band’s back catalogue.
Dr Robert’s (aka Robert Howard) ability and ambition as a songwriter and soulful singer have never been in doubt, as any fan will tell you. Sadly though, neither his solo efforts nor those of the recently reformed Blow Monkeys have troubled the charts in years. These two albums might not serve to reverse the trend but they will definitely keep the good doctor’s devotees happy.
Let’s start with ‘Acoustic Blow Monkeys’. Sharp-suited socialists with soul and dance music at their heart, The Blow Monkeys notched up a fair few hits in the 1980’s with the likes of ‘Digging Your Scene’, ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way’ and ‘Choice?‘, their sound and outlook often compared to friend Paul Weller’s then new outfit The Style Council.
‘Acoustic’ strips down some of those hits and favourite album tracks with some degree of success. The bare bones version of ‘Digging Your Scene’, with the odd funky electric guitar lick, works very well, showing how a great song doesn’t need fancy production and frills to prove itself. Likewise ‘It Doesn’t Have To Be The Way’ , which shows that Dr Robert’s charismatic croon is still more than capable of impassioned soul singing when the mood takes.
It is with ‘Choice?’ and ‘Springtime For The World’ however that the huge dance music production – the housey keys, lavish strings and choir-sung choruses of the originals – is sorely missed. Perhaps that is why the infectious dance groove of ‘Wait‘, his 1989 Top Ten hit with Kym Mazelle, is not included here.
Elsewhere though, ‘Come On Down’ (album track from ’89’s ‘Whoops There Goes The Neighbourhood) and the ’89 single ‘Slaves No More’ take on fresh new leases of life with the Dr Robert’s patented acoustic treatment.
After the Blow Monkeys split in 1990, Dr Robert contributed to Paul Weller’s first two solo albums (‘Paul Weller’ and ‘Wildwood’) and was in the electro-folk duo Starjuice with ex-Woodentops drummer Benny Staples before releasing his fine debut solo LP, ‘Realms of Gold’ in 1996. A pastoral, folksome and sublimely soulful affair with guest turns from Weller and Marco Nelson of the Young Disciples it spawned the radio hit ‘The Coming of Grace’ but didn’t achieve great success.
A handful of Dr Robert solo albums failed to fulfil the promise of that debut and in 2007 The Blow Monkeys reformed. Two critically acclaimed studio albums ‘Devil’s Tavern’ (2008, funded by pre-orders by fans) and ‘Staring At The Sea’ (2011) followed.
Originally planned a few years ago when Dr Robert moved to Spain, ‘Flutes and Bones’ was put one hold for the Blow Monkeys comeback and an album withhe recorded with PP Arnold called ‘Five In The Afternoon’.
The title comes from a poem by Spanish poet laureate Federico Garcia Lorca about the death of a bullfighter. Robert says that “The whole album was inspired by my reaction to moving to a remote mountain village just south of Granada.”
A largely acoustic folk-rock-soul affair with the odd dab of sax, and the occasional flurry of eerie sound effects and atmospherics, it finds Dr Robert in fine fettle.
The hypnotic big beats and acoustic guitar of ‘Sleepsong’, the mellow organ and chugging, slowed-down-Stones bluesy feel of ‘What It Takes’ and the Nick Drake folksy feel of ‘Cold Heart’ are all great tunes.
But it’s the slow menace and odd noises of ‘Lay Of The Land’ (Robert’s low growl sounding like Matt Johnson from The The) and the perky, quirky ‘Such A Small Thing’ with its nifty plucking and singalong chorus which provide the album’s highlights.
In a career spanning more than 30 years – at a time when most other artists’ creativity has dried up and they are reduced to performing classic albums from their long since past purple patches – ‘Flutes and Bones’ promises that there’s plenty more quality music to come from from Mr Howard.