Ian McNabb – ‘Star Smile Strong’ Album Review

Ian McNabb, perhaps one of the most underrated and gifted musicians in Britain, returns with new album, ‘Star Smile Strong’, a twelve-song feast of eclectic songwriting which serves as a lesson to any aspiring artist. McNabb is a prominent force on a range of cool sounding guitars throughout the album, but the variety of instruments used in the backing adds real dynamism to each and every track. It’s no surprise that McNabb enlisted the help of former Icicle Works members, as well as musicians he’s trusted for over a decade to help produce ‘Star Smile Strong’, and it’s that familiarity with his band mates that harnesses chemistry and musicianship, creating the sort of magic that only comes when talent, experience and trust collide.

Magic is a suitable word for the opener, ‘Mystic Age’, sounding exactly like what the title suggests – dreamy, chilled and reflective – the sort of song to cap the end of a night whilst looking aimlessly at the stars, pondering your own existence. The track is quite unique in relation to the rest of the album, layered with spacey, atmospheric sound effects to enhance the mood. Dialogue about the sun from Prof Brian Cox adds something a little different towards the end, driving home the wistful and cosmic notion of the song’s essence.

‘Can’t Get What I Want’ is next, stepping up the tempo and noise into vintage McNabb territory. This is an apt tune given the recent election result, which ‘may’ (pardon the pun) reflect what the Prime Minister is currently feeling. However, the song has nothing to do with politics. Instead, it’s McNabb at his best, using intriguing narrative to take us into the world of a man who smokes, drinks, sells drugs, plays in a band, sleeps rough, works on a film set, writes a novel – you know, your average everyday guy. The idea of this character seeking a better way of life is quite a frequent topic in the album. Other songs address this idealism of the search for peace and harmony, whether that be in a specific place or time. Songs such as ‘Waitin For a Streetcar’, ‘Enabler’, and Lazy Water’ exemplify this.

‘Waitin For a Streetcar’ marks new ground for McNabb (certainly in recent years) carrying a funky groove with the odd harmonica rendition thrown in to add a bluesy element. ‘Enabler’ picks up the pace with a highly captivating, swirling psychedelic rock riff which forms the song’s heartbeat. ‘Lazy Water’ is a fantastic piece of song writing predominately on acoustic guitar, asking the water to whisk us away to another world. The use of flutes supports the calming and contemplative nature of the song’s tone.

Love is a major theme and backbone on the album – twisting between the cynical, the yearning, the heartbreak, and it’s all consuming power. ‘How She Moves’ is the first song to address the subject, a shortish string based ballad about wanting and dreaming of the girl who’s the inspiration behind the words.

‘I Kinda Like It Without You’ is a charming tune, seemingly about a man far happier without the girl he once loved, and the freedom he feels now that he’s single. Again, this is another classic example of McNabb’s ability to tell a relatable, true to life story within a song.

‘Hotter Than The Sun’ is an old school rock classic type, with a consistently hypnotic riff rousing throughout. It’s not necessarily ground breaking in its delivery, but it’s a tried and tested approach that serves to get the foot tapping and the head bobbing – just a good old-fashioned onslaught about a classically sexy girl, who fittingly struts down Sunset Strip of all places, who is “hotter than the sun.”

Changing the attitude on the love theme once again is the self-explanatory, ‘Women Love a Bastard (Men Love a Bitch)’. Again, another wonderfully charming muse with lyrics drenched in honesty and cynicism, observing the laws of attraction in how a lot of relationships transpire and end up. The guitar lurking in the background really adds a cutting edge to the track, giving it a slight country feel, which makes it a personal highlight on the album.

‘Star Smile Strong’ is Ian McNabb at his very best, seamlessly switching between the soft and heavy, and the sardonic and poignancy. What strikes me the most after a few listens of the album is the use of different instruments on each song that usually wouldn’t be used together. For example, the spacey and atmospheric opening on ‘Mystic Age’ eventually has a sax solo. A guitar based love song on ‘This Love I Feel For You’ has Latin based trumpets embodied into it. The final twelve minute track, ‘Clarabella (Come to the Window) twists and turns through strong guitar influences, before switching to sax solos, gentle piano interludes and organ backed verses. The funky upbeat grooves on ‘Waitin For a Streetcar’ has the bluesy element of a harmonica layered on top. Yet it all works and makes the album even more compelling and fascinating than the initial listen reveals. This is a highly recommended album – one of the best of the year from a man who’s no stranger to producing excellence throughout his illustrious career.

Ian McNabb will be back touring in the Autumn with The Icicle Works – see dates on below poster.

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