New Zealand’s Lawrence Arabia (James Milne) set himself up as an exponent of literate pop on his second album, Chant Darling, and though it was a clever collection of songs, there were moments when they veered into quirky territory that felt a tad contrived. He has learnt from those missteps and taken his writing and arranging to an impressive place on his new album, The Sparrow.
From the opening notes of the superb Travelling Shoes, it is clear that this is an album of lush, ornate pop of the highest order. Strings, piano and Milne’s voice dive and swoon around a pulsing ‘60s bass melody bringing to mind a contemporary like Jeremy Jay but without the sense of pastiche or posturing. His singing throughout The Sparrow is a real revelation with prevalent falsetto that is sweet and full without an ounce of strain or angst while the ghosts of Elliott Smith, Harry Nilsson and John Lennon are often conjured up, particularly on the shuffling ballad, The Listening Times. Milne has also achieved a fine balance between his lighter songs and those that venture into darker territory, like The Bisexual and Bicycle Riding, with its moody low register piano and the glorious repeating refrain ‘the sun goes down again’ dissolving into warm and fuzzy harmonies.
Parallels can be drawn between other clever pop types from NZ like Neil Finn, Bressa Creeting Cake and more recently Opossom. With The Sparrow, Milne shows he is right at the top of his game in terms of his writing and the ability to capture his songs in the studio. This is a multi-layered, mature and endlessly creative album that wholly deserves the attention that will surely be coming Milne’s way in its wake.
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