The Royal Family & the Poor

North-West Soul

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On the heels of a mighty-fine reissue program of his earlier work, Mike Keane released his fifth album in the Royal Family & the Poor guise, compiling a variety of songs from sessions over four years time. In keeping with most of his work, North-West Soul is a solo album in all but name, with Keane handling everything himself with fine results. His voice -- possibly his most underrated quality, thoughtful and gentle without being twee or melodramatic -- gets treated throughout with a slight echo, adding a strong sense of depth and space to the performances. Often the warmth comes through in unexpected moments, as in his narrative praise to another via the chorus of "Midnight Symphony II," perhaps the album's strongest song, though the sense of threat and drama overall in "Hymn to the Right (The Dark Gift)" comes close. Some exceptions aside -- particularly the fairly generic rave attempts "Sol Sonic" and "Starfire," which end the album on an indifferent note -- Keane's general approach to arrangements dates back to his earliest days. Songs like "Falling" and the downright chirpy "Leaves in the Wind" sound like they could have been just easily recorded in 1984 as 2004, and once or twice the feeling is of overly slick "dark" moments from Miami Vice. But given that U.K. post-punk era's rediscovery and repopularization, it's more like a sticking to one's guns that pays off well in the end, especially when he balances sunnier elements with moodier -- the brisk, light hip-hop beats under the ominous tones of "Ratio" being a fine example, as well as the twinkling keyboard and E-Bow guitar blend on "Long Time Coming." Even something as on-the-face-of-it awkward as "Wandering," with Gary Numan rhythms and synth accompanied by wordless backing soul wails mixed with Keane's arcing guitar and singing, results in an unexpected melancholy.

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