Everyone loves a transatlantic indie-rock supergroup, right? There was certainly a lot of enthusiasm a couple of years back for FFS: Sparks and Franz Ferdinand united together in 2015 and created some really compelling tunes. I don’t know if Eric Pulido from Midlake had that in mind when he came up with the idea for BNQT (pronounced ‘banquet’ – like a smorgasbord of musical treats). There are certainly obvious parallels, Alex Kapranos for starters, but Pulido’s group takes a pair of songs from each of the five songwriters recruited, tempers them through the Midlake machine and then throws them back out as a clever, constantly shifting and yet perfectly anchored album. Volume 1 works far better than you might expect. We’ve got Pulido, alongside McKenzie Smith (drums), Joey McClellan (guitar) and Jesse Chandler (keys) of Midlake; and the guest-writers Alex Kapranos (Franz Ferdinand), Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), Fran Healy (Travis), and Ben Bridwell (Band Of Horses).
Pulido has said of the project that he’s always loved multiple voices on records and collaborations, so after Midlake had found themselves stuck in a loop of constantly making and then promoting their own records it was time to take a bit of a side-step and try out this grand experiment – in a sort-of modern day version of The Traveling Wilburys. Each writer tends to take the lead vocal in their own compositions, which means it’s seldom hard work figuring out who wrote what. Having said that there are always other voices singing harmony in the background, offering up various combinations of the distinct vocal tones available, and the group all sing together on the Pulido penned centre-piece to the album ‘Real Love’. Although there’s also a palpable shift in style from song to song they tend to be held together by the common elements of the musicians performing them and a glorious lush level of production on every number – which seems appropriate for such a project. If you’ve gone to the effort of getting these great writers to all work together you may as well go the whole hog and book the string section too, right?
My favourite groups through the ages have often had more than one songwriter, which helps to create variety and retains my interest when an album isn’t stuck in one mode. In the classic groups of this nature you also sense that multiple writers ultimately meant a little bit of healthy competition: who’s going to write the ones that end up on the record? BNQT manage to side-step that through the process of inviting the chosen collaborators and having a pre-decided number of tunes from each – but it doesn’t stop the whole album having a whiff of the most obvious proponent. The fact is, as much as the different characteristics of the writers step to the front with each track, the glue that binds them together is an inescapable Beatles vibe – and a clear common love for 60s and 70s rock. Perhaps the biggest Beatles reference though is George Martin, rather than the writing of Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison. Although that’s clearly here too, it’s the big orchestration, which is at times achingly beautiful. Just listen to the orchestral parts on the Jason Lytle penned ‘Failing At Feeling’, it’s glorious, goose-bump inducing stuff that feels far more epic than its four-and-a-half minute run-time might suggest.
‘Restart’ opens the album with a fuzzy glam riff T-Rex would have been proud of before taking one of the biggest shifts of the album; Ben Bridwell sings ‘Unlikely Force’ which has a jazzy groove with awesome brass and cocktail bar piano licks, that take it quite far away from what you might be used to hearing Ben do, if you’re a Band Of Horses fan. ‘100 Million Miles’ sounds like Jason Lytle’s channelling Elliott Smith on the verses, before hitting a chorus that would not sound out of place on the recent Grandaddy reunion album Last Place, although again it’s the strings that really benefit it. ‘Mind Of A Man’, which sounds like Fran Healy, showcases some awesome guitar playing and sounds from McClellan. Funnily enough, Midlake are the group I’m least familiar with from the bands represented here and this, along with their performances as backing band throughout, make me eager to dive into their own back catalogue.
Alex Kapranos’ brings some creepy 60s references into play with his track ‘Hey Banana’, making great use of Jesse Chandler’s expertise on the keys, if Mike Myers ever makes another Austin Powers movie I’ll place bets this would be on the soundtrack. ‘Real Love’ is of course the centre-piece of the album, sung by everyone in the band. With a title like that you’re thinking of The Beatles before you’ve even pressed play, but it’s the trumpet that really makes that sound, although the guitar playing on the intro is hard not to connect with George Harrison too. I won’t go so far as to say it sounds like a Sgt. Pepper outtake, but it’s close… there are some Abbey Road influences too! Of course with a title like Volume 1 it’s hard not to expect Volume 2 may already be in the pipeline. When asked that question in a recent interview Pulido quipped that his next four star songwriters would be George Harrison, Harry Nielson, Richard Manuel and Buddy Holly. If that doesn’t give you a sense of what you might expect from this album, or series of albums, I don’t know what will.