Pete Feenstra chatted to James Warren about the album Kartoon World for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio. First broadcast 1 August 2021.
Korgi Music [Release date 16.07.21]
‘Kartoon World’ is the first proper studio album since 1992. And it marks a quantum leap forward in terms of the band’s musical and lyrical scope.
It’s a significant release, in as much as it was recorded remotely and re-states the qualities of an enduring song-driven pop outfit, while extending its reach into the realms of a concept album.
This is organic hand made music ,forged by years of experience and technical know-how, but sparked by renewed creativity and an idealistic thread that spans the 3 decades of their career.
Overlooking the slight irony of an 80’s band delivering their latest opus in archetypal 70’s concept format, they warm to their task with 12 songs that are as coherent as a film storyboard, save for a few quirky Stackridge style eccentricities.
The new creative surge stems from the catalytic collaboration between founder member James Warren and Welsh based Australian multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter Al Steele, who has been in Warren’s orbit since the 90’s.
And it’s Steele’s sense of drive, enthusiasm and effortless abilities that appear to have sparked Warren’s own creative fuse.
The album title and lyrical inspiration also comes from Steele’s daughter, an illustrator whose series of cartoons provided the unlikely catalyst for some of the songs.
There’s also the lyrical and vocal input of John Baker – a Korgi since the late 80’s - who notably contributes a lovely lead vocal on the title track.
The band also benefits from the remotely recorded creativity of Chris Hopkins and a one off ballad called ‘Broken’, co-written by Warren and Darren Parry, which features an enveloping Jeff Lynne style melodic chorus.
In sum, ‘Kartoon World’ is a career high for a band that started out as a studio bound duo in search of pop hits. This album successfully aims higher with a sense of adventure and greater lyrical depth.
It’s built on heartfelt conceptual themes and is glued together by a layered production. The unique Korgi aesthetic extends right through to the thematic art work and of course Warren’s enduring fascination with the Fab 4.
The Beatles influence arguably goes back to Stackridge’s 1974 album ‘Man With the Bowler Hat’ (produced by George Martin), while a late 90’s song ‘Something About The Beatles’ reaffirmed the Beatles influence on both band’s.
It’s a pivotal song in Warren’s career and here he continues to explore a unity of purpose that taps into the 60’s ideal of the healing power of love to overcome social divisions.
So while The Beatles sang ‘All You Need Is Love’ The Korgis beguile us with ‘Bringing Back The Spirit Of Love.’
Al Steele, with tongue firmly in cheek, tells us it’s about: “The Growing movement of love and the world has chosen us to be that conduit to funnel that love back to the people in one movement.”
So while the band continues to dip into 60’s musical antecedents, ‘Kartoon World’ is very much a 70’s style concept album with significant 80’s style pop trappings and what we now call electronica.
Everything is finally refracted in a post-Beatles meets Oasis 90’s prism, with John Lennon remains the musical and political focal point. Warren’s phrasing eerily captures Lennon in his pomp, while his ‘can do’ sensibility and ‘power to the people’ politics gives the album’s ‘love’ theme a potential bigger impact.
‘All Roads Lead To Rome’ is a good example of the Lennon fixation. It starts in a slow bluesy vein, but subtly reveals itself as influenced by Lennon’s ‘Like Starting Over’, via a ‘Walls and Bridges’ era production, complete with a George Harrison slide guitar line.
More specifically the band helpfully comments that: “It is like John Lennon sings gospel, produced by Phil Spector, and George has dropped in to lay down some slide guitar!”
The combination of Lennon’s style phrasing and Fab 4 style harmonies make for quintessential Korgi music. It’s the work of Warren’s enduring glorious pop sensibility and 60’s musical values which he’s continually channelled back and forth between Stackridge and The Korgis and has now updated and reinvigorated with Al Steele by his side.
At times there’s a thin dividing line between nostalgia and a contrasting forward-looking imperative which the central concept of love demands.
So when the band unveils ‘Bringing Back The Spirit Of Love’ (beautifully reprised by a string section deep into the album), they put their concept on the line as a broad based repost to contemporary social divisions.
Al Steele’s orchestrated ‘Kartoon World Overture’ sets a high standard for the album as a whole, as the memorable motif levers us into a coherent musical journey like all great albums used to.
The title track is pure pop, with a Byrds Rickenbacker sound and poignant lyrics that could be Squeeze.
Steele is a man of many talents, not least his inherent rhythmic ability which is self evident on the funky and percussive electro-pop of ‘Magic Money Tree’. The latter is anchored by drummer Paul Smith’s light percussive touch and also features Chris Hopkins spacey bridge with ethereal 10CC style harmonies.
There’s also a sense of chronology as evidenced by the snappy keyboard and synth driven ‘Back In The 80’s, one of several highlights. The song benefits from glistening bv’s and an uplifting stop-time hook, to which John Baker cleverly fits his humorous lyrics.
They explore the same 80’s era on the string-led and didgeridoo intro of the wryly observed ‘This Is The Life’. It opens as another electro piece that could easily be Rupert Hine’s solo work and features Al Steele’s vocals on the verses, Warren’s vocals on the hook and an unexpected animated rap from special guest Peter Karrie (from Phantom Of The Opera): “Staring at our mobile phones, buy it now on your credit card” etc.
Suddenly the 80’s are juxtaposed by an updated barbed political satire called ‘Time (Song For Dom’), which calls out Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson over a harpsichord-driven waltz style piece.
The sumptuous glorious harmonies could be 10cc’s take on The Beatles, before a sudden Keith Emerson ELP style Hammond break in a brief ’80’s flashback.
They rock out on ‘La La Land’ which sounds almost like a shoe-in: “La la land, la la land, it’s another perfect day and there’s nothing planned, maybe rock and roll for you, but it’s not so rock and roll for me.”
It’s a social commentary on LA in particular and the States in general, as we’re suddenly transported Korgis style into a Turtles meets The Beach Boys vocal block and a resolving sax break.
‘Space’ interestingly offers two different perspectives on things from the outside looking in, while ‘This Is A New Low’ initially evokes Supertramp then heads for Pink Floyd on a big production.
‘The Ghost Of You’ has an archetypal 80’s electro intro, before a funky bass line gives it a lovely dance-floor friendly groove which is almost compromised by a cheesy Asia style synth riff.
‘Kartoon World’ flows like a river in purposeful pursuit of the sea. The undeniable swagger and ebullience is tempered by the veracity of its lyrical themes and Warren’s clarity of diction.
They round off the album with a full blown anthem that defines everything that has gone before.
‘The Best Thing You Can Do Is To Love Someone’, features special guests Seye Adelekan (bass player with The Gorillaz) and French jazz artist Laura Prince.
It’s one step away from being too sugary and could easily have come the ‘Live Aid’ era, but you would have to be a cold fish not to be caught up in it’s emotional slipstream.
‘Kartoon World’ stands proudly by its optimistic themes and lingering melodies. We may indeed live in a ‘Kartoon World’, but this album is a monument to the enduring power of love and music, Korgis style. ****½
Review by Pete Feenstra
Radio interview (June 2017)
The latest Josh Taerk live session was streamed on Sunday 26 September. This marked the start of a new monthly series. Josh’s next session is Sunday 31 October.
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 26 September 2021 and includes the Top 10 albums at www.getreadytorock.com for that week.
UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 28 September 2021.
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