Soft Return

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Rob Smoughton's debut as Grovesnor is a glistening, spot-on tribute to the silky-smooth soft pop and Styrofoam soul sounds of 1980s hitmakers like Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie, and Phil Collins -- one of the few patches of the Reagan-era musical landscape that had not undergone an extensive process of reclamation and reintegration by the early 21st century, at least not without a heavy irony factor involved (cf. Chromeo). Call Soft Return a winking pastiche if you like, but it's not parody and it's not mockery: the degree of artistry and care that Smoughton brings to this material, both in terms of stylistic accuracy and straight-up musicianship and songcraft, is too great for it to come off as anything less than heartfelt homage. Which is hardly to suggest that it's lacking in humor -- indeed, the album's sense of fun is perhaps its greatest quality, coming through in the breezy tunefulness of its hooks and arrangements (replete with lush keyboards, tinny drum machines, and the occasional sax solo), but even more so in the lyrics, which use the appealingly louche Grovesnor persona to skewer playfully the genre's sensitive loverman conventions. These faintly preposterous first-person narratives, delivered in Smoughton's thin but serviceably soulful tenor, could easily be premises for exactly the sort of romantic comedies likely to be soundtracked by Grovesnor's primary influences. In the fantastically catchy "Dan," he's a prospective best man debating how to break the news that he's been kicking it with the bride-to-be, while "When I Saw You Dance" relates the wacky tale of a love affair blossoming at a high-school reunion. Even at his more serious -- and many of these songs do come across as surprisingly, legitimately heartfelt -- Smoughton's still liable to toss in a line like "I'm pretty sure I'm the guy for you baby/That's why I act so nonchalant." The album is somewhat top-heavy -- after the brief, funky, talkbox-aided tone-setter, the three strongest cuts are slotted right up front, including the glitzy, smooth-sailing "Taxi from the Airport" (with a groove on loan from Joe Jackson's "Stepping Out") and "Nitemoves" (which boasts both Smoughton's most sensitive crooning and his most hyperactive beat programming) -- but the quality never dips significantly, even if the obligatory handful of ballads and the Rundgren-esque titular instrumental aren't quite as riveting as these highlights.

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