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Album Review: The Stepkids – Troubadour

Once, on a grey day in a London office, I was reading an article in that great San Fran magazine The Believer. I remember Peter Coviello incisively discussing the “million-petaled flower of Steely Dan‘s uncoolness”.  I was struck by this phrase. Not only because it is a completely accurate description of Steely Dan’s musical extravagance, the kind which only the climate of the late seventies could have produced, but also because – I love Steely Dan. Or, at the very least, I have an appreciation of their more accessible and, most importantly, shorter works.

And so, it would appear, do The Stepkids. ‘Lottery’ is sheer late ’70s cheese, with heavy layered harmonies and lashings of synth. It sounds like Fagen and Becker bequeathed this hit to them when they passed on the crown of jazz-rock fusion.

True, The Stepkids are probably guilty of some of Steely Dan’s greatest faults: namely, channelling a sense of grandeur, some might say pretentiousness, that is not entirely backed up by the merits of their oeuvre. Case in point being the name of the album: Troubadour. Bold idea, referencing medieval poets on the front of your album. I mean, Thom Yorke makes the occasional Dante reference, but if you are Thom Yorke, you can do what you like. Of all the tracks on the album ‘Insecure Troubadour’ is probably the weakest, if only because it does suffer somewhat from what I like to call ‘magnum opus syndrome’ – i.e., it wishes it was one. Unfortunately, it is not.

Troubadour, as a whole, however, does manage to showcase why the whole nation, nay, the entire world, has fallen in love again with groove-led pop. Daft Punk and Pharrell have managed to resurrect the kind of funk-infused sound which will hopefully bring bands like The Stepkids to an entirely new audience.

Sweet Salvation‘ is the kind of track that makes this album loveable. With its Prince-style infectious riffs and a slightly trippy middle-eight, it is possibly the strongest track on the album, at least in terms of being ‘least likely to be skipped on a party playlist’. ‘Moving Pictures’ is one song where The Stepkids really earn the right to succeed Steely Dan and inherit their aforementioned crown of jazz-rock fusion. There’s slap bass. There’s jazz flute. There is serious groove.

‘Brutal Honesty’, the album’s final track, is the most subtle. This actually feels like jazz: silky smooth to begin with, then bouncy and joyful. This is where you see them rein things in. It is not as if this is a ‘safe’ track – it’s still distinctively wacky, with some completely gratuitous time changes, but the slightly slower pace allows you to see past the fluorescent shades of madness that colour the rest of album and to realise that The Stepkids are in fact brilliant musicians.

Returning to Coviello and Steely Dan’s complete deficiency in the coolness department -  nothing I do or say here will ever make Stepkids and their slightly nerdy, overly wordy and soaringly ambitious pop seem effortlessly cool. But that’s not what it’s about, is it? Sometimes, you want a good groove, some synth and a damn good time.

- Kate Travers

Troubadour is available now on Stones Throw Records. You can purchase it here.

One Comment on “Album Review: The Stepkids – Troubadour”

  • hlj October 12th, 2013 9:46 pm

    Just a quick comment to say: the phrase “million-petaled flower” is a shout-out to Philip Larkin, and his poem “The Old Fools” which speaks of “the million-petaled flower / Of being here.”

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