Coming off of 2013's critically acclaimed Ships and an appearance on countrywoman Cate Le Bon's Mug Museum, for his fifth studio album under the Sweet Baboo pseudonym, Welsh indie singer/songwriter Stephen Black enlisted arranger Paul Jones to help him streamline instrumentation to focus on vocals. The resulting The Boombox Ballads is a smile-inducing collection of mostly lighthearted, romantic ditties with a retro-tinged timelessness. His best-sounding record so far production-wise, there's nothing plain about the presentation -- which incorporates frequent strings, piano, guitars, drums, brass, occasional double-tracking, backing vocals, and more -- but simplicity is key, and old-fashioned charisma leads the charge. With a quirky, agreeable, and diverse songwriting style that's remindful of a mix of Robyn Hitchcock, Ray Davies, and stated influence Jonathan Richman, the sounds of early pop/rock also shine through The Boombox Ballads, an abiding nightclub show of an album. The opener, "Sometimes," is a playful, marching guy-and-a-guitar ballad (with oompah band), and the exquisite "Two Lucky Magpies" features a wistful vocal melody with only strings and piano accompaniment ("I have a girl that I do love/And for me that is enough"). Meanwhile, a full-band serenade crafted of conversational remembrances, "Got to Hang on to You," oozes a retro quality, specifically doo wop. While The Boombox Ballads isn't all ballads, it is all love songs. "Walking in the Rain" offers a traditional country song polished with strings and indie pop sheen. It's about exactly what the title says, albeit with reference to the contemporary 24-hour news cycle, and a big, synthy key change just to keep things merry ("We should take off all our clothes and get dry from this rain"). Album highlight "You Got Me Time Keeping," an irresistibly catchy, Motown-grooved duet with Tender Prey (aka Laura Bryon), incorporates an ominous midsection and dreamy prom slow-dance ending that will result in few complaints for its seven-minute length. "The Boombox Ballad" itself is, ironically, a lively instrumental. Combining Black's unpretentious vocal quality, which delivers tenderness with a high level of sincerity, with his usually whimsical lyrics, which convey both humor and an unspoken self-depreciation, he's charming times ten. With durable songs, classic melodies, an idiosyncratic manner, wit, and a transportive quality to the arrangements, it'd be greedy to ask much more of a singing songsmith.
AllMusic Review by Marcy Donelson