Make a list of the qualities that define great pop music and you've got a pretty fair description of the Beautiful South's debut release.
From the first track to the last, the album brims with good old-fashioned melodies, the kind of chirpy, slightly jazzy music that helps get a person out of bed in the morning. Lead singer Paul Heaton mixes the high-register emoting of a '50s teen heartthrob with more sophisticated soul, in the style of Fine Young Cannibals vocalist Roland Gift. Harmonies and guitar solos, like carefully rationed punctuation, enhance Heaton's singing without ever obscuring the melody.
This British quintet performs its best trick by hiding a tough core underneath the candy-sweet surface: Heaton's wickedly satirical and sometimes impassioned lyrics. "Song for Whoever" is a merciless parody of a songwriter who can't remember the names of the lovers he immortalizes in his effusive lyrics. "Oh Blackpool" makes fun of people who know it's cool to be political but aren't sure which cause they're supposed to favor at the moment.
Taking his tongue out of his check, Heaton sings "Woman in the Wall," an appeal for vengeance for a wife who suffers silently from the beatings of her alcoholic husband. "I'll Sail This Ship Alone," the album's most beautiful tune, captures with insight the mixed feelings that follow a romantic breakup.
The Beautiful South's success rests on more than beginner's luck.
Experience is one obvious factor. Heaton and backup singer Dave Hemmingway were in the Housemartins, a quartet that released a couple of excellent U.S. albums.
For another thing, Heaton and Hemmingway made a shrewd decision by sticking with the wit and bright pop music that made the Housemartins so appealing. And that's what we like about the South. (Elektra)