Never quite managing to shake off the huge albatross around their necks that was 1996 Top Three single "You're Gorgeous," Sheffield outfit Baby Bird have become all but a minor footnote in the annals of Brit-pop history, despite the best efforts of prolific frontman Stephen Jones. Ex-Maniac, their second release following their 2005 reunion, is perhaps the best chance they'll get to rectify this situation, thanks to the presence of a certain Johnny Depp, who not only plays guitar on lead single "Unlovable" (whose promo video he also directed), but is also responsible for its production costs and choice of producers: Bruce Witkin (Adam Ant) and Ryan Dorn (Ugly Kid Joe). While Depp's musical CV (short-lived "supergroup" P, Oasis' much-maligned Be Here Now) might not instill the same confidence as his acting abilities do, he doesn't appear to have treated this as your typical Hollywood vanity project, taking a backseat on the album itself and allowing Jones to further develop his trademark blend of macabre tales and melodic acoustic pop/rock. Indeed, one look at the track list proves that the bitterness and resentment he first displayed on his 1995 debut I Was Born a Man hasn't mellowed in the subsequent 15 years, with titles like "Drug Time," "Failed Suicide Club," and "Send Me Back My Dreams" all evoking the spirit of an alternative soundtrack to Depp's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But despite the often-difficult subject matter, much of Ex-Maniac is shrouded in the kind of uplifting Brit-pop that they briefly threatened to produce in the mid-'90s. Opening track "Like Them" may open with the lines "I will kill you -- said the five year old," but its tragic-comic take on the issue of parental paranoia is made easier to swallow thanks to a nagging Arctic Monkeys-esque bassline, a driving anthemic chorus, and Jones appearing to be channeling the impassioned vocals of Noel Gallagher. It's a trick he repeats on "Drug Time," where he confesses "my whole life, I've never been clean" amongst a backdrop of pleasant acoustic folk-pop and a simplistic but infectious chorus which sounds like a potential (if rather inappropriate) children's TV theme, and the self-aware "Bastard" which fuses overtly cocky lyrics with the hook-laden jangly guitar pop of early Travis. Keen to show he has a softer side, there are several tracks which aren't as biting. The honest sentiments of "For the Rest of Our Lives," a gorgeous Coldplay-esque chiming guitar ballad, is perhaps the closest Jones will ever get to penning the type of song that would be played at a wedding's first dance, while closing track "On the Backseat of Your Car" echoes the unfashionable folky chamber pop of the Beautiful South and even ends with a triumphant, free-form jazz trumpet solo. Ex-Maniac sounds like the record that Jones consciously avoided making following their unexpected chart success. It may have come a little too late to restore his glory days, but ten albums into their career, Baby Bird have finally found the perfect sound to complement their unique and distinctly warped lyrical themes.
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AllMusic Review by Jon O'Brien