Each fortnight, leading music journalist John Earls goes deep on new releases, examines the latest vinyl issues and talks to the makers of the best new albums.
STAR PLAYERS: Talking to the makers of the best new albums
This week: Smith & Burrows
Best friends since Tom Smith's band Editors and Andy Burrows' former outfit Razorlight emerged, Smith & Burrows have finally followed up their cult 2011 festive-themed debut album Funny Looking Angels.
Named after a vintage Gibson guitar ad slogan, Only Smith & Burrows Is Good Enough is just that: the only wryly funny, harmony-heavy, new-style Simon & Garfunkel album you need to improve your mood for 37 minutes.
Tom and Andy told The Vinyl Whistle why their return took a while, their influence from cartoons and plans for a farming concept album.
Welcome back! It's certainly been a wait for a new Smith & Burrows album...
Andy Burrows: Thanks! We always thought we'd do a new album.
Tom Smith: Our families are close, and we'd always talk about it.
Andy: We'd always natter about "This might be a good Smith & Burrows idea." There was just never a sense of any external pressure, because we didn't have a record label. So no-one was making any demands on finishing it.
Tom: About three years ago, we stumbled across the sound for the album and the songwriting took a step forward. Smith & Burrows was always bubbling away in the background, and those bubbles got bigger until we thought "Oh shit, this is unavoidable!"
How do you decide if something is a Smith & Burrows song, rather than something for Editors or Andy Burrows?
Tom: I never have those thoughts when I'm writing. It's not that Smith & Burrows is more melodic, because plenty of Editors songs are like that too. It's more about the ideas that flow when we're in a room together. If I'd written Munich when I was with Andy, it would have worked as a Smith & Burrows song, even though it would have gone in a different direction.
Andy: In a weird way, I chuck a song to Tom if I'm more confident about it. For my own albums, so long as I like the song, that's all that matters. I have to have a level of belief that Tom will go "Yeah, I like that."
Some songs, like Buccaneer Rum Jum and Straight Up Like A Mohican, are surprisingly cartoon-like. Were cartoons an influence?
Tom: Yeah, I love the cartoon nature in some of these songs. Some Simon & Garfunkel songs have a similar vibe, which we tried to embrace, rather than be afraid of copying them.
Andy: That's certainly one influence, though I can't say I'm a cartoon nut, apart from the ones I saw as a kid in the 80s and watching cartoons with my children.
Tom: I'm the same. We watch a lot of Teen Titans with the kids.
The album was made in Tennessee with Jacquire King, producer for Kings Of Leon and Editors' album The Weight Of Your Love. What was it like with Jacquire?
Tom: We didn't think Jacquire would do it. He's a bit expensive for us, as our budget is a bit Aldi. Our demos had a personality that Jacquire helped us refine. We spent six weeks in a small place just outside Tennessee. It was so much fun, making a record with my mate in the Deep South with all that heat and culture.
Andy: We're lucky to have experienced a lot of magic from our bands being successful, but this felt like a dream. We're not a massive arena band, so being in America together, hanging out in bars and then being in an amazing studio - what a blast.
What are you up to away from Smith & Burrows?
Andy: The new series of After Life is about to start shooting, so I'll start working on the soundtrack for that soon. Ricky Gervais is always sending me bits of music which he thinks might sound good. And I've got enough music made for a quadruple Andy Burrows album. But nobody wants that from me, so maybe it'll be two double albums, who knows?
Tom: I've a pile of songs ready for the Editors boys to work on. Editors can't really work remotely, we need to be in the room together to make our songs work. The Best Of album we had out recently felt like the end of Chapter Two for the band, and we can't wait to start on Chapter Three.
Will it be 2031 before the third Smith & Burrows album?
Andy: I hereby promise that, by 2031, we'll have at least an album's worth of new ideas.
Tom: A decade is a big old chunk of change. We've got nothing else on, so there's no excuse not to start something. Maybe it'll be a concept album about cow farming next.
Release The Tracks - the best of the new albums released in the next fortnight
It's a good time for Noughties indie veterans this month. Editors and Razorlight alumni Smith & Burrows' second album is investigated further up, and it really is the dream return for anyone who's been pining since the gorgeous Funny Little Angels arrived way back in 2011.
Meanwhile, Maximo Park are revitalised on their seventh album Nature Always Wins. More laidback than their past couple, it sees the gang ease their best ballads back into the mix among the reliable fizzing energy of their indie bangers. Pre-order Nature Always Wins here
Mogwai would doubtless chafe at being called indie veterans, but life wouldn't be the same unless Mogwai were perennially discomfited. Produced remotely by Dave Fridmann, As The Love Continues is Mogwai at their most approachable, as evidenced on recent single Ritchie Sacramento. Don't get too comfortable, though: beautiful unease is never far away. Pre-order As The Love Continues here
As the producer for Dua Lipa, Clairo and Ray BLK, SG Lewis has become one of the most in-demand new names around. His debut artist album Times is a winning mix of vintage disco, chillout and big old kickdrums. Featuring a collab with Nile Rodgers, it's a charming tonic for these times. Pre-order Times here
A new Tindersticks album is always cause for celebration, especially after previous album No Treasure But Hope saw Stuart Staples' collective re-energised. Distractions is more minimal, both in its sparser sound and the number of covers on the album. But the keyboard-heavy influence suits Staples, a singer you suspect was born for lockdown. Pre-order Distractions here
The eternal goodtime bar band, The Hold Steady are in "the best form we've ever been" on eighth album Open Door Policy, according to singer Craig Finn. Slowly becoming a rock & roll version of The Fall, they're unlikely to get any bigger, yet their fanbase is rightly devoted and rabid. This is as good a place as any to start Pre-order Open Door Policy here
February 26 is a fairly quiet week, dominated by the return of Architects. The metallers' ninth album For Those That Wish To Exist was previewed in November with a live stream from London's Royal Albert Hall - which highlights just how far the Brighton band have tunnelled into the mainstream. Succeeding the old-fashioned way, expect the word-of-mouth to get even bigger here. Pre-order For Those That Wish To Exist here
News of The White Stripes' Greatest Hits arriving on Feb 26 is intriguing. Is Meg White about to come out of retirement? Just how many limited edition boxsets will Jack White's label Third Man Records issue of it? The 26-song compilation is strangely light on unreleased tracks, but it does include the previously standalone early singles Let's Shake Hands and Jolene. Pre-order Greatest Hits here
The pick of the week's releases comes from Ed Dowie. Peers of The Beta Band and even more woozily gorgeous at their peak, Ed's old band Brothers In Sound are a beloved cult among those lucky enough to remember their hazy magic. Ed then became a music student, and his new solo album The Obvious I marshals a world of spectral beauty from jazz, electronica and neo-classical. More impressive is that Ed's innate gift for melody still shines through. Beautifully packaged as ever from boutique label Needle Mythology, it's a record destined to be cherished by anyone lucky enough to meet it. Pre-order The Obvious I here
Let The Records Show: Going behind the myths about vinyl
This week: Is Jack White the only person keeping American vinyl alive?
The impending release of The White Stripes' Greatest Hits is time to examine the story of how Jack White's record label Third Man really is revitalising vinyl in America.
When vinyl was at its nadir in the '00s, The White Stripes still insisted on vinyl releases, while Third Man's subscription club The Vault began issuing gorgeous limited editions that seemed to give Record Store Day a few ideas. (They're still at it, as anyone lucky enough to get one of just 333 copies of Paul McCartney's new album McCartney III on recycled vinyl from Third Man can vouch for.)
Third Man's pressing plant opened at the label's second shop in Detroit in 2017. Consisting of pressers imported from Germany, the plant was described by Third Man co-founder Ben Blackwell as the first significant new home for pressing vinyl since the early 1970s.
Most American pressing plants rely on automated machinery that was state-of-the-art in the '60s, but is a little creaky to operate now. Third Man took it back to basics, with their plant manually operated by workers who insist that any individual record not up to scratch is binned. Certain other plants could learn a lesson there.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT: Unearthing hidden treasures on the shelves This week: Pip Blom - Boat Order Boat here
A Dutch quartet whose guitarist Tender was named after the Blur classic, Pip Blom's debut album on Heavenly should have been huge. Flitting between Amyl And The Sniffers' punk, The Lemonheads at their fuzziest, Jarvis Cocker's wit and Patti Smith at her most imperious, their inability to be pigeonholed shouldn't detract from an alt-pop delight. Hopefully volume two is incoming soon.