Baby Bird: Ugly/Beautiful (Echo)

This baby’s got wings

David Bennun celebrates a bedroom genius

YEAH. A pop record that bites your legs. Baby Bird/Steve Jones is a vitriolic bugger. He appears to be on a mission to find the weak point in even the least squeamish listener. Maybe that’s why he turns out so much of this stuff — there’s something to unsettle everyone.

A few misconceptions to clear up about Baby Bird first. One: that he’s a pop post-modernist. He doesn’t suffer from the crushing lack of imagination for which that notion functions as a cop-out. He’s a magpie, for sure, but a unique one.

Two: that he’s wacky. Right, like Hieronymous Bosch was wacky. He’s an oddball, but no goofball. Jones is far too poisonous and genuinely strange to be ker-razy.

Three: that he’s lo-fi. His recording set-up is primitive, but you wouldn’t know it, and he hasn’t succumbed to the snooty indie affectation of deliberate shoddiness. Four: that he has no sense of quality control. True, this is his fifth album inside of a year, but as none of them is less than excellent, where’s the problem?

On Ugly/Beautiful — the first release to include his live backing band — Jones has gone for a gentle, tinkling sound, lapping like waves. Perhaps it’s this eerie softness which got the single ‘You’re Gorgeous’ so much airplay, despite the fact that the song gives a clinically seedy account of an al fresco dirty photo session. This is the form for the first half of Ugly/Beautiful — insidious tunes harbouring unsavoury lyrics, best used on the brisk, brusque ‘Goodnight’; on ‘Candy Girl’, a mordantly lascivious rewrite of ‘You’re The Top’; and on the cheerful, nagging ‘Jesus Is My Girlfriend’.

The second half opens with ‘Cornershop’, Baby Bird by numbers, it has to be admitted. Jones has a habit of writing nondescript ditties celebrating predictably unpredictable objects or topics, which is as close to wackiness as he comes. ‘King Bing’ swiftly makes you forget it. This hissing, ragged, 10-minute rant is an evil pleasure, with Jones switching themes, viewpoints (his forte) and voices like a musically gifted Robin Williams.

Ugly/Beautiful deserves its name, alright. It’s pretty hideous, repugnantly charming. Jones Is a rarity, a bedroom-studio boy with talent and a superiority complex. As long as he keeps on tipping the scales the right way, he can be as prolific as he pleases.

© David BennunThe Guardian, 18 October 1996

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