The Steamkings: Marmalized

The Steamkings
Not Lame

Ah, to be young, British, in a band, contemplating love and frequently drinking. This is the innocent mayhem that fuels the creative fire that is The Steamkings’ music. If you like your pop whimsy delivered with extreme vitality and plenty of melodic surprises, then I highly recommend you tune into the quirky stylings of Marmalized. This energetic package of 16 songs is the best offering yet from a most talented UK band that promises even greater things to come.

Recorded in Brooklyn NY, far from their native home, three of the four group members met up with session drummers and additional musicians to create this tasty pop treat. The Posies’ own Jon Auer helms the production here (with Ken Stringfellow adding harmonies) and he knows a thing or two about catchy pop arrangements.

On this, The Steamkings’ third release, you’ll hear plenty of musical references from groups past, all processed and sent out to your ears as something new. From the opening “Starting Something”, which ramps up like a car shifting gears into a catchy sing-along of a song, you know you’re in for a fun time. Whether it’s Simon Young’s impressive bass-lines or Justin Cunningham’s great lead guitars, this music goes off in charming and unexpected ways

Still, it’s the lead singing voice of Mark Richardson (who also plays guitar) that dominates the proceedings, and I guess that’s the main factor as to whether you’ll love this. To these ears, the horn arrangements, mostly upbeat energy and higher-pitched vocals recall The Housemartins (with Paul Heaton) or even more so The Undertones (with Feargal Sharkey). Yet Richardson’s vocals often seem more like Roger Daltrey transformed to a slightly higher register. As a fan of this sound, it all works well for me.

Mark Richardson and Simon Young formed The Steamkings in 1990, with a self-financed EP called Dead Like You. Soon after they were signed to Native records, where two mini-LPs and one EP release led to a signing on the NY label Earthling. Earthling released Boom, a full length LP that got big play on the US college radio circuit. This is where Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow caught wind of the music, leading ultimately to this collaborative effort.

On Marmalized, Richardson and Young take their songwriting to a new level, expanding their sounds with well-integrated horns (Gary Olson on Trumpet and Adrian Fry on Trombone), occasional strings, and keyboards. Handling those piano and farfisa moments is master studio veteran Joe McGinty, (ex-Psychedelic Furs and session work with The Ramones and Debbie Harry).

“Garden” lets McGinty loose with a nice solo mid-song, while the lyrics explore a future nostalgia for summer as the singer whose glass is never empty “remembers back to now”. “Boom” is a semi-psychedelic instrumental refrain, deliberate and graceful and backed with tweeting birds.

“Song of a Milkman” relates a pre-dawn story of trysts before breakfast, love on the doorstep (and under the stairs), as the singer instructs his romantic love to “breathe on your window and write in your breath that I’m your one”.

“Piano Song” is a quirky song of promise to save up, get a piano and “stay in and write songs for you”. As is The Steamkings’ way, it goes counter to what one might expect – the song is devoid of any piano whatsoever. The pleasant surprises here are many — mostly a musical twist or an unexpected harmony — but it keeps the music fresh throughout.

The horns are a large part of the fun in “Rickenbacker”, which tells the endearing tale of inheriting a car, then selling it to buy a guitar (he can’t drive). In a hotly contested lyrical line, he buys a Rickenbacker that is black and “just like Paul’s”. For the official record, the lyric refers to Paul Weller’s Rickenbacker, from The Jam’s 1982 Transglobal Express Tour. Many have taken issue, thinking it mistakenly refers to Paul McCartney’s Rickenbacker guitar (borrowed from John) or his Rickbass (nope, that one was fireglo red) or his much-revered Hofner. At any rate, the guitar gets stolen and only then does the singer reflect on his bigger loss.

You get a lot of idiosyncratic jangle pop here that comes across with the charming innocence of youth, with simple lyrics that work well to explore small issues effectively. Sometimes it’s just a small snippet of a song, as in the gentle “In The Hour Before The Alarm” (a mere 1:30), talking of the protected refuge of the dream-state.

As with any good pop CD, there are lots of songs that deal with love. “Surprise Yourself” speaks to the instance when you think there is no love left, yet you go and surprise yourself (using horns and keyboard to great effect). “Happy Full & Fond of You” is an infectious upbeat celebration of being in love (and trying to recall how they ever met), while the lovely “When My Heart Said Yeah” is more of a ballad exploring similar territory (the comfort of knowing you’ll be there). The flip side is evident in the slow tempo of “Heavy Head”, wherein a spurned lover laments his fate.

The other big topic here is drinking, which (one might guess) occupies a lot of the group’s time when not performing. “Drinking Song” is a very direct tribute to the social act involved in drinking, presented tunefully amid pub sounds of laughing and carousing. “Another One” offers up an almost punk rock hard-edge in its exploration of how drinking can turn things ugly. “School Friends” is a cheery upbeat song of bumping into and catching up with an old school friend, wherein the singer confesses what he does: “Nothing much as usual, hanging out with friends, still playing in the band and I get drunk at weekends”.

Sound depressing? Actually, the musical talent of The Steamkings makes it quite the opposite, a happy magical world of sorts. Marmalized serves up these small quirky musical gems in ways you don’t expect, charming you into enjoyment. The music swirls around Richardson’s voice without apology, often with an innocence and freshness that recalls some efforts of the early Kinks.

This is sweet lilting pop that’s not too sugary and sweet, and unusual enough to stand up well to repeated listening (the kind of thing you should hear on your AM radio in an ideal universe). This is a good band that might get even better, already attracting attention from notable fans like Nigel Clark of Dodgy and Liam Gallagher of Oasis. Sample a track online if you can, to see if you like Richardson’s voice. If you do, go out and get a copy — you’ll love the little pop surprises that Marmalized has in store.