Looking to re-launch their pop careers after long breaks, two American singers turned to Broadway to get their creative juices flowing again.
Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears and San Diego singer-songwriter Jason Mraz release albums today — both after stints in New York musical theatre.
Extrovert Shears donned red stilettos for three months to take on the ‘delicious challenge’ of starring in Kinky Boots, the Tony Award-winning musical with a score by Cyndi Lauper.
Laid-back Mraz appeared, also for three months, with singer Sara Bareilles in Waitress.
The Broadway effect is more pronounced with Shears. His first solo album opens with swirling, show-tune strings, and his recent single Sad Song Backwards is an upbeat break-up song belonging firmly in theatreland. There’s also a touch of music hall to his big ballad Everything I’ll Ever Need.
Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears (pictured) and singer-songwriter Jason Mraz release albums today
But Shears, 39, is a more thoughtful performer than his showy personality suggests. The Scissor Sisters, who broke down barriers as a radio-friendly pop act comprising three gay and two straight members, have been on hiatus since 2012, and he is clearly ready for an artistic detour.
Now living in New Orleans, he made the album with musicians who usually play with Kentucky country rockers My Morning Jacket. Producer Kevin Ratterman is gritty U.S. soul man Ray LaMontagne’s pianist of choice. The overall mood is down and dirty.
When Shears says he was inspired by the Bee Gees, he isn’t talking about their 1970s disco heyday, but an earlier, psychedelic incarnation that produced the 1969 concept album Odessa.
There are surprising moments. Shears salutes his adopted hometown on Mississippi Delta (I’m Your Man). There’s a folky, Laurel Canyon feel to All For What, and nods to ZZ Top on novelty number Big Bushy Mustache.
He’s also more confessional than we’ve come to expect. Lamenting the end of a long relationship, he addresses ‘the grief and bitter pain’ on Sad Song Backwards. The Bee Gees influences are there on Everything I’ll Ever Need. ‘Sometimes I feel as if I’m a stranger to myself,’ he sings.
Jason Mraz, whose Broadway run ended in February is best known for his hit, I’m Yours
With Shears’s falsetto in fine shape, echoes of his sassy, pop past remain. The kitsch disco of S.O.B. — ‘I’ve got sex on the brain, willpower goes down the drain’ — would have slotted perfectly onto a Scissor Sisters album were it not for its country guitar, while The Bruiser reprises the throbbing pulse of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing.
There are moments when he could do with the pop nous of former co-writer Scott Hoffman, aka Babydaddy. Their partnership propelled the Scissor Sisters to success. But Shears is following his own instincts here.
There’s a less theatrical slant to Jason Mraz’s comeback. The trilby-hatted singer, whose Broadway run ended in February, emerged from the same San Diego coffeehouse circuit as Jewel and Gary Jules, and is best known for his decade-old acoustic hit I’m Yours.
His first album in four years suggests he hasn’t exactly moved on. Sunny pop songs dominate, with Have It All and the reggae-tinged Making It Up echoing the ‘happy hippy’ spirit of I’m Yours.
Have It All was inspired by a blessing Mraz received from a Buddhist monk. Making It Up concludes that a boat should be rowed ‘gently down the stream’.
Meghan Trainor guests on country ballad More Than Friends, and Might As Well Dance was part-inspired by San Diego punk band Blink-182 — the closest Mraz comes to anything remotely edgy.
In troubled times, there’s undoubtedly a place for the cheerful troubadour. But this return would have been much more tempting with a less saccharine taste.
JAKE SHEARS starts his tour on Monday at The Forum, Tunbridge Wells, Kent (jakeshears.com). Jason Mraz will play London’s Royal Albert Hall on March 6, 2019 (axs.com/uk).
GORGON CITY: Escape (Virgin EMI)
London producers Kye Gibbon and Matt Robson-Scott are the obvious peers of fellow dance duo Disclosure, and this album combines hazy, electronic soul with bass-heavy house. The pair’s guest vocalists also place a refreshing onus on homegrown talent. There’s a cameo from electronic trio Vaults, while J.P. Cooper and Yungen join forces on One Last Song. Tyneside singer Lulu James stars on Love Me.
THE PROCLAIMERS: Angry Cyclist (Cooking Vinyl)
The Proclaimers received a robust musical makeover from producer Dave Eringa on 2015’s Let’s Hear It For The Dogs, and the Reid twins stick to a similar tactic here. Their harmonies and clever lyrics are given some Dexys-like clout on the title track. Stretch is a breezy number. Such a dependable outlook won’t win many new fans, but it’s hard not to be moved by the romance of Streets Of Edinburgh.
MILES KANE: Coup De Grace (Virgin EMI)
Miles Kane’s solo work is often overshadowed by his links to Arctic Monkeys singer Alex Turner and that’s the case again here. He displays some original character on the eerie, honest love song Shavambacu, but sticks largely to skilful pastiche. With Cry On My Guitar leaning on Marc Bolan, and Too Little Too Late a routine, three-chord punk thrash, there is more style than substance.