After dipping his toes into solo waters with 2006's The Fi-Lo Beddow EP, Bluetones frontman Mark Morriss finally takes the plunge with his debut full-length album, Memory Muscle. While his band's recent output remains firmly entrenched in the jangly guitar pop sound of its mid-'90s heyday, the softly spoken vocalist has used his temporary freedom to produce a record that has more in common with the West Coast '70s country-rock of Love and Neil Young than the laddish era of Brit-pop. Produced by longtime collaborator Gordon Mills, its 11 tracks (five of which are re-recordings from his previous EP) still contain the same sweet whimsical melodies and gentle Home Counties-accented vocals he's renowned for, but on this occasion, they're backed by layers of lush strings (arranged by James Bond composer David Arnold) Nashville-tinged acoustics, and shuffling folk rhythms such as on the Kurt Vonnegut-inspired "So It Goes," the harmonica-driven "Buckle Up Baby Doll," and the lilting melodies of "Lay Low." It's a subtle change in direction that suits Morriss' dark dry wit and increasingly world-weary vocals down to the ground, particularly on the brass-fused spaghetti Western vibes of "I'm Sick," the Ian Dury-style campfire singalong of opener "How Maggie Got Her Bounce Back," and the psychedelic leanings of "Digging a Hole." But as accomplished as his self-penned compositions are, it's the two cover versions that best showcase Morriss' new sound, as he turns Teenage Fanclub's shoegazing anthem "Alcoholiday" into a gorgeous Mellotron-led lullaby, and adds mariachi guitars, lo-fi distortion, and a dreamy hymnal quality to a spellbinding Mercury Rev-esque rendition of Lee Hazlewood's "My Autumn's Done Come." The sparkling acoustic pop of "Lemon & Lime" and melancholic balladry of "Unwanted Friend" shows Morriss still remains a Bluetone at heart, but Memory Muscle's simple charm and well-crafted songs show he's more than capable of going it alone full-time.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien