English troubadour Keith John Adams couldn’t have come up with a better title for his debut album than Sunshine Loft. The album definitely lives up to both words in the title. Even when singing about potentially depressing topics such as dependency, lost friendships, and failed relationships, Adams’ tunes have enough wit, melody, and joie de vivre to make even Eeyore crack a smile. Keith’s voice, which sounds like an older, more nasal version of Spoon’s Britt Daniel, sings his songs with the rhythmic elasticity of a jazz singer and the arch pronunciation of XTC’s Andy Partridge. He is more than capable of carrying a song with just his voice and nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitar (as songs like “Deserve It”) prove, but his backing band definitely deserves props. Matt Armstrong’s bass lines are often as tuneful as Paul McCartney’s. Drummer Dave Ross’ playing is understated yet agile, though his ride cymbal sounds almost as trashy as Lars Ulrich’s snare on Metallica’s St. Anger. Last but not least, Rhodri Marsden utilizes potentially gimmicky instruments like saw and glockenspiel with a subtlety that your average Elephant Six band would do well to imitate.
The second word in the title reflects the album’s claustrophobic recording process. The credits proudly boast that the songs were “recorded live onto mini-disc with one stereo microphone in [drummer] Dave’s loft.” By no means is this album a big-bucks major-label production, but it ain’t “low-fi” either. They must have used a really good microphone, because the vocals and instruments are clear and distinguishable from one another. They must have also put great thought into room acoustics and instrument placement, because the instruments are panned in the same eccentric way that many 1960s recordings were. They must have rehearsed a LOT before pressing “record,” because the singing and musicianship have a tightness that most bands can’t even muster with ProTools, click tracks, and months of overdubbing. Although four musicians huddled around one microphone can produce a lot of clutter, Adams’ band wisely makes use of silence and open space in every song.
The album begins with “Sunshine,” a type of song that Keith seems to excel at, a lighthearted ode to the pleasure of a woman’s company. It sits on the right side of the divide between effortless and lazy. Although I sense that Keith could fill a whole album with pleasant songs like this, only two other songs on Sunshine Loft are in the same vein. One of these, “Looking at Pictures,” is more notable for Keith’s hilarious birdcall of a falsetto than for its lyrics. Fortunately, his other songs about women have more depth. In “Love Me,” the protagonist spends the verses rattling off lists of random chores that he’s asked his lover to do for him. The chorus seems to be the defiant response of a lover who’s tired of being bossed around: “Do you know my name ‘cause you love me?” “Deserve It,” which examines the dissolution of a relationship, has a biting couplet that Cinerama’s David Gedge would have killed to write: “And you asked me if there’s someone else/I said, ‘Yes, but I haven’t met her yet’.” Other songs examine more mundane topics. The trickily polyrhythmic “Drift” is an extraordinarily concise summary of how friendships based solely around social or organizational structures (jobs, schools, and music scenes) dissolve over time. “Murmur” is sung from the point of view of two children staying up late without permission while their unsuspecting parents socialize downstairs.
For an album that doesn’t even crack the half-hour mark, it’s surprising that Sunshine Loft contains filler. “Flood” is a pretty but insubstantial accordion-driven waltz. “Throwaway” is precisely what its name says it is (Keith even admits it in the song’s lyrics), though it is saved by some nice tempo changes and particularly deft drumming. “Other Things” is even flimsier, but its brilliant guitar riff could start a swing dance party within seconds. This brings me to another thing I like so much about Keith John Adams: instead of being another home-taper trying obsessively to recreate the Beatles’ glory days, he instead takes their strengths and applies them to his own sound. He has the Beatles’ knack for imbuing even their “potboilers,” as George Martin used to describe them, with enough musicality to ensure replay value. He also shares the latter-day Beatles’ fetish for sound collage: album closer “This Album” might as well have been called “Revolution #10.” What’s not to like about a staunchly DIY collection of well-written, well-recorded, and well-played pop songs? Forget Tullycraft, folks: this is “indie-pop” par excellence.