Halfway through Sweet Baboo’s fifth album comes I Just Want To Be Good, in which the North Wales singer appears to describe himself in glowing terms. ‘I’m a lovely little man,’ sings Stephen Black who, as Sweet Baboo, has written and performed songs of sweet sentiment and charming melody since 2003 but never with such accomplishment as on The Boombox Ballads. Black isn’t celebrating his own loveliness, however. I Just Want To Be Good is by fellow Welsh singer Cate Le Bon, a close friend for whom Black plays bass, and she wrote the song about him. It’s the only cover on an album of otherwise personal love songs that combine kitchen sink detail with universal appeal, and it shows a new side to Sweet Baboo: as the Harry Nilsson of Snowdonia, a gifted songwriter not above lending his dulcet tones to the words of others.
By his own admission, The Boombox Ballads is Sweet Baboo’s naked attempt to emulate his heroes, Harry Nilsson and Dennis Wilson among them. But being a 33-year-old father of one from Trefriw, on the edge of Snowdonia, rather than a drug-addled lunatic from Los Angeles, on the edge of sanity, it is driven by his characters, not those of his heroes. Rich with string-laden arrangements, with lyrics culled from personal experience and resonating with domesticity but imagination and wit too, The Boombox Ballads is Sweet Baboo’s sophisticated pop album: celebratory, a little melancholic, free of cynicism.
You Got Me Time Keeping is Black’s attempt to write a song like Scott Walker’s The Electrician, although Walker’s mordant personality and Black’s essentially sunny one meant that it was never going to come out as he hoped and it’s all the better for it. ‘I really did try to rip off the middle section to The Electrician,’ says Black, seemingly unconcerned about a Blurred Lines-style million-dollar legal case coming his way.
With The Boombox Ballads, Sweet Baboo wanted to explore more what it was to be a singer as opposed to a ‘singer-songwriter’, a term that to him at least seems to have picked up negative connotations. Black worked with an arranger, Paul Jones, for the first time, with Jones helping him paint the most vivid accompaniments possible. This process leaves Sweet Baboo with nothing but his voice to guide him to the emotional centre of the song.
All of this fed into a simple but ambitious goal: to make the perfect album. Originally, Black wanted to make The Boombox Ballads on his own, but then reality set in. Recorded in a Cardiff studio with producer Charlie Francis, and a whole host of musicians including: Avvon Chambers and Daniel Ward on drums; Rob Jones and Huw Evans on bass; a string quartet; arranger Paul Jones; guest singers Zervas & Pepper on Got To Hang Onto You; and Laura Byron of Tender Prey on You Got Me Time Keeping, the result is a vibrant, endearing pop classic.
The Boombox Ballads follows Black’s Motorhome Songs EP, his 2013’s acclaimed Ships and 2010’s I’m A Dancer / Songs About Sleeping �" both nominated for the Welsh Music Prize.