by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
One of the most intriguing and brave sophomore outings from any ‘80s band, 1989’s Kaleidoscope World, from the British jazz-pop duo Swing Out Sister, didn’t chart as high in the U.S. as their debut album (It’s Better to Travel) and failed to yield any Top 40 hits on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s every bit as good, if not even better than the debut.
It’s Better to Travel did manage to make some waves on the strength of its leadoff single, the Top Ten hit “Breakout,” an irresistible slice of danceable, jazz-tinged adult contemporary pop. As great though the single was and still remains to this day, it (along with equally great album cuts like “Fooled by a Smile” and “Blue Mood”) was also noticeably akin to the kind of pop Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine were doing right around the same time, i.e. “1-2-3,” and could even be mistaken for that band. Consequently, the single doesn’t really define the distinctive Swing Out Sister sound nearly as well as its follow-up, the Top 40 hit “Twilight World,” a stunner of a song that featured an arrangement unlike anything else on pop radio in the late ‘80s, including a sweeping orchestra that plays in tandem with a big-band-style horn section that occasionally punctuates the mix with fills you almost could have sworn were arranged by Burt Bacharach. The single sadly stopped at #32 on the American charts, but it was undeniably one of the coolest and more interesting singles to hit mainstream pop radio in 1987.
The trio lost one of its members (drummer Martin Jackson, formerly of the renowned British new wave band Magazine) in the middle of recording its second album, but lead singer (and, interestingly enough, former fashion designer) Corinne Drewery and Andy Jackson soldiered on as a duo. What makes Kaleidoscope World so astounding and unpredictable is that the duo resists the urge to craft a sound-alike of its biggest hit and instead uses the bulk of the album to go even further than “Twilight World” did in creating sweeping orchestral kaleidoscopes and revisiting the spirit, sound, and melodic sophistication of adult-contemporary pop from the late 1960s, especially that penned by master pop craftsmen like Bacharach or Jimmy Webb, and the duo even recruits Webb himself to arrange two of the best tracks here.
It’s a shocking tactic – this album came out in 1989, remember – and one that you imagine must have made their label flinch at first; they had to be hoping for a carbon copy of “Breakout,” and they got an album featuring string arrangements by the guy most famous for writing songs like wrote “Up-Up and Away,” “The Worst That Could Happen,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”? It’s also an absolutely ingenious move, though. Even if the album failed to yield any Top 40 hits, it’s also likely that the band would have been really short-lived had they just tried to keep churning out clones of “Breakout” into the ‘90s, and Kaleidoscope World makes one heck of an artistic statement: it’s the sound of the duo saying “This is the kind of music we really love, and this is what we want to be about.”
The change in direction earned them a respectable cult following that enabled them to go on making albums for the next several decades and made them a favorite at more adult-oriented pop and smooth-jazz stations with their stylish and classy remakes of ‘60s tunes like Barbara Acklin’s “Am I the Same Girl,” the Fifth Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic,” or the Delfonics’ “La-La Means I Love You,” and first-rate originals like the lovely “Somewhere in the World.”
The closest thing on this album to a “Breakout” is the single “Waiting Game,” which still retains a slight Gloria Estefan-like flavor in its light late-‘80s-disco sound but couples it with a melody that’s distinctly old-fashioned and that you could just as easily imagine being sung by, say, Marilyn McCoo or Dusty Springfield, and the same thing goes for the sweeping orchestral pop of “You on My Mind” and the album’s finest cut, the stunningly beautiful ballad “Precious Words,” both of which have a heavy Bacharach flavor to them and the latter of which boasts a lovely orchestral arrangement crafted by Jimmy Webb.
“You on My Mind” is an especially bold track for the duo to have chosen to open the album, since even its opening bars, featuring the same dazzling combination of strings and horns that made “Twilight World” so impressive, make the song sound much less like a 1989 pop song than the soundtrack to a Broadway production, so much so that, by the end of the first chorus, you nearly expect Corinne Drewery to segue right into the title theme from Promises, Promises. The arrangement is absolutely brilliant, even if it’s completely atypical of its own era.
The twinkling ballad “Forever Blue” nearly sounds like it could have been a lost cut from one of Dionne Warwick’s earliest albums. Even the more contemporary-sounding cuts here, like “Between Strangers” or the more dancefloor-minded “Where in the World,” still experiment with fusing distinctly old-fashioned melodies into their more modern pop settings and succeed at it more often than not.
This may not even necessarily be the best Swing Out Sister album – and, really, you can’t go wrong with any of them – but, like most of their discs, it’s jam-packed with masterful pop hooks, and it’s arguably their most fascinating album, especially when listened to immediately after digesting the equally solid but considerably more different and more distinctly-contemporary-minded debut. If you’re not sure that the album is quite for you, do yourself a favor and at least check out “Precious Words.” I’m willing to bet even Bacharach himself wishes he had written that one.