Rich, sophisticated contemplations of human interaction – a stirring, widescreen, collection of thought-provoking tunes from Laura Groves.
Release Date: 11th August 2023
Label: Bella Union Records
Formats: Download, streaming
You may be more familiar with Laura Groves in her previous incarnation as Blue Roses. Hailing from Shipley, West Yorkshire, she first came to public attention in her previous guise as long ago as 2009, with her ‘eponymous’ debut album, Blue Roses. Since then, she’s released a string of EPs – most recently, her 2020 offering A Private Road – and she’s toured with the likes of Elbow and Glass Animals.
Radio Red is Laura’s first album to be released under her own name, and that’s a highly appropriate step, because this music – rich, sophisticated, intimate and emotional – has no need to hide behind any pseudonyms; this is music that needs to be traceable back to its genuine source.
The ten songs that constitute Radio Red deal, in Laura’s own words, with “…themes of communication – missed and intercepted signals, chance meetings, synchronicities, the channels through which we try to express our true feelings, the outside interference that can get in the way and the joy of letting go and allowing the messages to flow freely.” Like all the best albums, Radio Red requires a bit of concentration on the part of the listener, but, let me tell you, that concentration is amply rewarded; the sound, the musicianship, the lyrical content and, best of all, Laura’s versatile voice will leave anyone who makes the effort in raptures.
Laura is a multi-instrumentalist with piano and guitar her weapons of choice. The songs on Radio Red were all written, recorded and produced at her home studio, albeit with a little outside assistance from mix engineer TJ Allen, who provided valuable advice during the production stage, and from 2017 Mercury Prizewinner Sampha, who adds his voice to a couple of tracks. But Radio Red doesn’t sound like a home-made effort – far from it. There’s real substance to these songs and the sound is stirring and widescreen. The music is an eclectic amalgam of pop, folk, jazz, ambient and electronica and there’s an undeniable influence of Kate Bush that pervades several, if not all, of the songs. There are mellower moments, too and, at times, the spirits of Laura Nyro and Sandy Denny both rise to the surface.
Perhaps it’s Laura (Groves – not Nyro…) herself that provides the best insight to how her musical style has evolved: “There was always a lot of music in the house growing up. Everyone had their own musical passions so there was a range – jazz, classical, pop. My mum gave me her Kate Bush and Fleetwood Mac records and I discovered New Order through my stepdad, who made a lot of compilations. I was always interested in the different technology that came and went and the effect that had on the quality and character of recorded sound. When I started to go out and then left home, I discovered a whole other sonic world, and that expended even further when I moved away from Yorkshire to London.”
Things get underway with the glorious Sky At Night, the album’s lead single, and, straight away, the lush production is in evidence. Piano and swirls of chiming keyboard are underpinned by sumptuous, solid bass and a jazzy percussion rhythm as Laura contemplates the mysteries she imagined amongst the streets where she grew up. It’s a song of genuine substance and an excellent choice of opening track.
We get a huge demonstration of Laura’s vocal capabilities in the intimate, jazzy Good Intention, a song that also features the first vocal contribution from Sampha, before we get to taste her emotional side in the soothing Synchronicity. Backed this time by some nice, effects-laden electric guitar, Laura evokes her New York Tendaberry namesake as she delivers a shiveringly pleading vocal.
Sampha makes his return for the delightful D4N. There’s an ‘Autobahn’ feel as the song picks up pace, but even harsh, Teutonic, electronics fail to dispel the sheer warmth of the song. It’s spacy and dreamy, particularly so as Sampha sings his “Just make me feel good” coda. Laura considers the heartbreak that can come with the breakdown of communication in I’m Not Crying, a gentle piano ballad love song. On an album packed with awesome vocal performances, this is one of Laura’s strongest and she throws everything into the delivery of lines like “I’ve got a lot to give/I’ve got a life to live” and “Can we just get on with it?”
Laura describes Any Day Now as “…a hymn to miscommunication and determination.” It’s one of the album’s more unapologetically electronic songs, and it moves along relentlessly to a crisp rhythm, lazy keyboard flourishes and a soaring vocal. I don’t believe anyone could describe Radio Red as a commercial effort in any way, but if I was to be asked to select the album’s next single, I’d probably choose the poppily accessible Time. Another slice of electronica, the song is lifted several notches as Laura provides her own smooth, heavenly, backing vocals.
There’s something about the beautiful Sarah that reminds me of the late, great Sandy Denny. Perhaps it’s the song’s subject matter – a contemplation of true friendship, togetherness and isolation (albeit in an online world), or perhaps it’s Laura’s delivery of the song as she accompanies herself on piano. Either way, it’s another album highlight, and it gets interestingly creepy as the background communication sounds start to kick in.
The almost-poppy Make A Start, dominated by tinkly electric piano and multi-part harmony vocals is one of the album’s dreamier tracks, before the album’s divine closer, Silver Lining, takes everything almost back to basics. Laura accompanies herself on fingerpicked electric guitar as she considers ‘the power of the redemptive love that always seems to show up when everything seems lost.’ It is, by some distance, the album’s most accessible track; the sparse accompaniment gives the song a folky edge, and the melody, stripped of any jazzy embellishment, is immediately likeable. The song builds slowly as other instruments are added to the mix until it becomes almost anthemic as the “I’m not possessive” refrain is reached. And, to round things off, Laura exposes her vulnerability as she confirms: “You can have it; you can have it all” as the song plays out.
Perhaps the last word should come from Laura herself: “Everything I saw and heard growing up – including the geography of West Yorkshire, which can be lush and green but also harsh and unforgiving – that’s how the album feels to me. I can find a lot of beauty in that contrast. The amazing thing is that music allows me to tap into something bigger that can be shared, and that’s where the catharsis starts to come into it. I walk a lot and feel like I can see the layers of the city all built up, remnants of other people’s stories merging with my own. The magical part of it all is finding out how to listen and learn from that, transform it into something and share it with others.”
Mission accomplished, I’d say!
Watch the official video to Sky at Night – the album’s lead single – here: