Google Tag

Friday 10 March 2017

Ian McNabb - Star Smile Strong

My informative years were spent around the Liverpool scene at the turn of the 70's and the first half of the 80's. I say scene because there is a lot of hindsight about how great some of the bands were. Don't get me wrong, the live scene was fantastic, it was more about music than most of the UK which was about dressing up and daubing yourself in Max Factor.

One band that never got the credit for how good they were are The Icicle Works. They had nothing in common with what was going on in the UK, they were more like a Paisley Underground band, and that's why they are probably more feted in the States than over here. In America, they are looked upon as a proper band, influential to many. In the UK, they are lobbed in with the one hit wonders for Love Is A Wonderful Colour.

On their night, they could wipe the floor live with any band you can mention, A band that could actually play their instruments. They leave a fine legacy of five great albums including the best album of the 80's, If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song.

After the end of The Icicle Works with the criminally underrated Permanent Damage album, Ian McNabb went solo. His first solo album, Truth And Beauty, was funded by mortgaging his house. That remains my favourite album of his, the jingle jangle summer sound is the perfect pick me up. That debut was part of a trio of albums that stand up with anything around. Next up was the Mercury Music Award nominated Head Like A Rock with Crazy Horse followed by the definitive McNabb album and fans' favourite Merseybeast.

Since then he has continued an excellent solo career. The main problem has been everything has been compared to those fist three solo albums, very unfairly. With the self titled Ian McNabb album, he offered up one of the great Pop albums, his love of Power Pop being well documented. Songs were simpler, riff led and it was a refreshing change. People criticised the album because an artist with such lyrical depth and wit was writing simpler pop songs.

How do you win? Criticism if you change, criticism if you remain the same. Throughout the Noughties, the quality continued to lesser appreciation. McNabb remained a witty live solo turn with a growing back catalogue to call on and part of a blistering live band act. I would add that Hurricane Elaine as a song would be on my Desert Island List, it has everything.

So for album number 18 (including his Icicle Works days), now is the chance for all those people who harp on about that trio of solo albums to hear what they wanted. Star Smile Strong is his strongest album since Merseybeast. Indeed, the opener, Mystic Age, featuring a novel spoken intro by Professor Brian Cox, would fit easily on that album. It's an eight minute joy.

In fact, the whole album reminds me of Merseybeast in it's feel. The beautifully arranged How She Moves is like a sister to Heydays. The vivid lyrics and variation are present throughout the album. The glam riff on Can't Get I Want leads to the trademark singalong chorus, yet Waiting For A Streetcar is pure lounge.

Enabler has one of those McNabb riffs, think Truth And Beauty and Lazy Water would be at home on a 70's Folk Rock album with it's flute outro. I Kinda Like It Without You is one of those classic McNabb love songs, beautifully sung, beautifully arranged, it's wonderful.

Hotter Than The Sun is the first time that the album rocks out and wow does it rock and typically what follows is very different. Women Love A Bastard (Men Love A Bitch) has a real country vibe, lyrically it's similar to something like for They Settled For Less Than They Wanted from Merseybeast.

Wanna Change My Plea To Guilty is all Psychy with one of those McNabb guitar solos that he doesn't play often enough. All through the album, the feeling is that Ian McNabb has rediscovered his love for music, it's a joyous album, positive and forward looking, His love songs shine through as just that, none more so than This Love I Feel For You, a co-write with Crazy Horse's Ralph Molina.

Saving the best until last, the closer Clarabella is one of those epic album closers. Think Presence For The One or May You Always, it's a 12 minute plus song that sweeps and whooshes, almost panoramic. It just builds and builds and builds, truly wonderful.

So what you have here is a real return to top form from one of the UK's most underrated singer songwriters. McNabb will be touring these songs live as part of The Icicle Works Tour and that'll be the chance to see these songs take on a life of their own.

The album has a stellar supporting cast, including a return of Chris Sharrock, Dodgy's Mathew Priest, Black's Roy Corkhill, The Waterboys' Richard Naiff and Martin Winning.

I've been a critic of Ian McNabb when his standards have dropped. I can give this album no greater compliment than to say in March that we may already have my album of the year. It's not just a return to form, it's like he's never been away. Star Smile Strong is stunning, an absolute revelation. In fact it's not a just return to form, it may be his best album yet. Well done that man!

You can pre-order the album here.


  1. Definitely a return to form! Not one average track on the album, they are all outstanding in their own ways...

  2. I've always thought "defeat your enemy" is one of the most under-rated albums of all time and I always include it in my top 20 albums list and virtually nobody reading has heard it. Understanding Jane is the best song to ever come out of Liverpool, and yes, that includes The Beatles. So its lovely too see someone mention that record with the same reverence in which I do

    As for this new record, spot on review, its wonderful and a real surprise to me as someone who had kind of lost touch with Ian McNabb since "head like a rock"

  3. Thanks all. I think it stands up with those first three solo albums beautifully.

  4. His best album since Permanent Damage (McNabb's Scary Monsters, if you will...)

  5. A top album but wait until you hear his latest Our Future In Space it makes this one look average! Makin silver sing and the title track being 2 of the stand outs.