MARK OWEN: Land Of Dreams (BMG)
Verdict: Arena-ready anthems
5 SECONDS OF SUMMER: 5SOS5 (BMG)
Verdict: Likeable but formulaic
BETH ORTON: Weather Alive (Partisan)
Verdict: Hazy and atmospheric
With Take That on hiatus, members are busy with solo projects. Gary Barlow is touring his excellent one-man show, which ends its West End run on Sunday.
Robbie Williams, whose second stint with the group ended in 2011, starts a greatest hits tour next month, and Howard Donald was spotted strutting his stuff on ITV’s The Masked Dancer.
As there’s no more collective activity until next year — when a new album is due — Mark Owen is also resurrecting a solo career that seemed to fizzle out after 2013’s low-key The Art Of Doing Nothing, a sheepishly titled album made in his garden shed studio. The good news is that his latest release, Land Of Dreams, is a lot more enterprising.
Owen, 50, is handling the transition from boy band pin-up to middle-aged singer-songwriter well. He played this summer’s Isle Of Wight and Latitude festivals, and today’s arrival of Land Of Dreams, plus a forthcoming tour, suggests a serious return rather than a vanity project.
Having moved to LA, the Oldham-born singer has added an American sheen to his music by employing U.S. producers and session players. The upshot is a sun-kissed pop record that modernises his sound while allowing him room to express himself.
He acknowledges his man-band roots. ‘You only want me for my good looks, bad taste . . . supersonic hip shaking,’ he jokes on You Only Want Me, mocking his stage persona.
Boy is a big, harmony-driven singalong that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Take That album. Mark supplied lead vocals on the Take That hits Babe and Shine, and his new songs reiterate the clarity and verve of his singing. This isn’t the most original record we’ll hear this autumn, but Owen deserves full marks for range and versatility.
He channels Bee Gee Barry Gibb in adopting an unexpectedly funky falsetto on Are You Looking For Billy? and Superpower looks to George Michael’s Faith — a reminder that Michael is still the ultimate role model for teen idols who want to appear grown-up once the screaming stops.
There are detours into electronic dance and pop, while Gone, Gone, Gone opens as an acoustic folk piece and develops into a jangling guitar number.
There’s a clumsy attempt to address the household budgeting crisis on Rio, on which he sings of ‘trying to survive when the cost of living keeps on getting higher and higher’. I’m not sure that his solution — an impromptu trip to Brazil — is an option for most of us.
But Land Of Dreams, with its arena-ready choruses, justifies his decision to go it alone again.
Robbie and Gary might just be glancing nervously over their shoulders.
Australian quartet 5 Seconds Of Summer are another boy band experiencing growing pains. After forming at school and posting Justin Bieber covers on YouTube, they broke through when they toured with One Direction in 2013. Edgy enough to attract rebellious teenage girls, they were wholesome enough not to frighten their parents.
As a cheery pop-punk act, they topped the U.S. charts with their first three albums. But you can only get so far with songs that sound like The Inbetweeners set to music, and a more thoughtful approach surfaces on their fifth album, 5SOS5, a sprawling, 19-song affair produced largely by their guitarist, Michael Clifford.
Having once looked to groups like Blink-182 and Green Day, they tone down the high-octane riffs in favour of twinkling keyboards and strummed acoustics — an oddly-timed move, given the popularity of punky newcomers such as Olivia Rodrigo.
Power ballad Complete Mess employs subtle electronics and Older — a piano duet between singer Luke Hemmings and his fiancee Sierra Deaton — is wistful and tender.
There’s a nod to their hometown on Easy For You To Say (‘the sunrise in Sydney that’s burning for days’), and some likeable, if formulaic, songs of love and regret. But amid the introspection, they’ve lost a little of their old dynamism.
Beth Orton was dubbed the queen of ‘folktronica’ when her collaborations with The Chemical Brothers, Andy Weatherall and William Orbit struck a balance between electronic beats and acoustic guitars. Her first two solo albums, Trailer Park and Central Reservation, were worldwide hits, and she was crowned best female at the 2000 Brits.
Despite reaching the Top 10 with 2002’s Daybreaker, her career has since stalled. Unable to work in lockdown, she needed a bank loan to keep making music and has faced health problems dating back to a teenage diagnosis of the digestive condition Crohn’s disease.
But she wears her heart on her sleeve on her bittersweet seventh album Weather Alive, a series of long, languid pieces written on a ‘beaten up old piano’ she bought in London’s Camden Market. ‘It almost makes me wanna cry, the weather’s so beautiful outside,’ she sings, her voice breaking, on the title track, setting a dream-like tone that is maintained throughout.
With drummer Tom Skinner and saxophonist Alabaster DePlume adding light and shade, her hazy arrangements veer towards the jazzier side of Joni Mitchell. Those seeking bangers should look elsewhere, but Weather Alive is beautifully sung and played.