Mondays with Schobie: Paul Weller's Sonik Journey
As a Britpop-obsessed fifteen-year-old in the days when finding even a band’s picture on the internet was not the easiest task, I was hugely dependent on UK weeklies like New Musical Express and Melody Maker, and monthly magazines like Q, Vox, and Mojo.
I can vividly recall being entranced by a backpage ad in Mojo for Weller’s Stanley Road. (Wish I could find it; it's likely in a box at my parents' house.) I was aware of him, and the Jam, but knew little. What I soon found was one of music’s most fascinating and wildly diverse artists, a singer-songwriter who found Mod-punk success with the Jam, did a complete 360 in the (so-so) Style Council, and returned triumphant as a solo star for the Britpop times.
In honor of Weller’s new album, Sonik Kicks, as well as his upcoming concert in Toronto (at the Sound Academy on May 21), I’ve asked my good friend and noted Weller expert Anthony Chabala to discuss why the man is so important, how Kicks fits in the PW oeuvre, and where it ranks. Take it away, Anthony:
As someone who chose “Weller” as his son’s middle-name, and whose sweetest dreams consist of Mod symbols and Rickenbackers, I can say with much confidence that my knowledge and appreciation of Paul Weller's body of work would be difficult to surpass. That being said, when I say that Weller’s latest release, Sonik Kicks, is a collection of songs that ranks as highly as some of the best things the "Modfather" has ever put to record, I mean it.
At the age of fifty-three, Weller has not only named one of his newborn twins, "Bowie," but the now sober and re-energized singer-songwriter seems to be channeling David Bowie’s ability to cross genre and break as much new ground as possible on Sonik Kicks (Yep Roc, 2012). The songs are undeniably Weller, but the mixing and instrumentation is unlike anything we have heard from him before.
Hearing synthesizers where guitars once were may be a bit of a shock to some PW acolytes, but others should find these sounds to be thrilling pieces in a glorious puzzle. A song like "That Dangerous Age" could easily have been a track off of Bowie's Let's Dance, and that’s a great thing.
Seldom does a day go by when I don’t ponder what it takes for a record to be put in the brilliant category. Since no record is without flaw, I normally base my mental rubric on how many undeniably killer tracks an album has. Sonik Kicks slides into the “brilliant” category with a monstrous score of five. “That Dangerous Age,” “Paper Chase,” “Kling I Klang,” and the two Noel Gallagher-featured numbers, “The Attic,” and “When Your Garden’s Overgrown,” catapult this album to the top of this year’s releases. If nothing else, those five would make for excellent iTunes downloads.
Ocean Colour Scene’s Steve Cradock, guitar extraordinaire and one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, backs up fron man Weller and even co-wrote the free-form, twenty-one-second instrumental “Twilight.” When Cradock was on tour with Weller in NYC in 2010, I had the opportunity to interview him about what it was like to work with one of his childhood idols: “That is no longer even part of the equation,” he replied. “It is so much bigger than that. We have become so close after working together for so long that musically and socially everything just fits.”
Just as Cradock has his wife Sally backing him up on his solo project with vocals and keys, Weller has brought his new wife, Hannah, along for the ride. Her soft voice can be heard alongside the Modfather’s on the free-form jazz meets psychedelia “Study In Blue.” Making it a full-on family affair, Weller’s children Leah and Mac sing on the beautiful soul ballad “Be Happy Children.”
When asked recently whether or not this record is groundbreaking, Weller humbly responded, “possibly.” If it is groundbreaking (and I think it is), this is why: Coupled with the substitution of electronic tones where the guitars once were, Kicks brings to Weller’s guitar-driven pop-loving audience a style of creation that is normally found in jazz and poetry.
Although the mixing and instrumentation of this record may not appease everyone that loved the Jam, Style Council, and Weller’s earlier solo work, at the heart of every track is an extremely solid song that would have fit in at any point in his career.
Then there is the design. Sonik Kicks’ artwork is among the finest I've ever seen. Although Dan Flavin is not credited on the liner notes, his award-winning use of fluorescent light in his art must have played a crucial role in making this album cover something that fits in the Disraeli Gears and Sgt. Pepper’s category.
Paul Weller is one of those artists who can do little wrong. If something he does seems a bit different, it is because he is about to set the trend, not just follow the musical bandwagon of the times. Don’t fight it or overanalyze it. Let the Modfather take you along on his musical magic carpet ride. You’ll be happier in the long run.
After all, any record that can get former members of Oasis and Blur on the same track (a task on par with the rejoining of a parted Red Sea) must have some magic to it.
CS: I couldn't agree more.
• Incidentally, here is Weller performing the Kicks track “The Attic” on a Brit TV show last month.
• Now for something completely different: Stewart O’Nan is an author I’ve been meaning to check out for years, partially due to his clear and noted interest in Western New York. For a piece in the June Spree, I read his latest novel, The Odds, and I’m a bit shocked I haven’t heard more about it locally. After all, roughly the entire book takes place in Niagara Falls, Canada, as a married couple seemingly on the brink of divorce decide to spend a few days at a Falls casino. (Fallsview? Sure seems like it.)
The book is a treat, and not just because of the recognizable terrain. O’Nan’s centreal couple is believable and likable, and little moments keep surprising us. (Like seeing Heart in concert at the casino.) It’s a fine, brisk read, and recommended to any WNY reader.
• FYI, the Buffalo Niagara International Film Festival runs from April 12 to 22, and we’ll be featuring reviews and previews for some of the submitted films from Jared Mobarak. For details and a full schedule, visit bnff.com.