Brimming with catchy vocal hooks and compelling harmonious moments, Something Blue is a pleasant record, one that revels in its spirit. But for all its charm, a prominent deficiency lies in its production. The album reveals the difficulties of attempting to capture the energy of a live performance on a studio recording. The subdued nature of the bands performance is the converse of what you would expect to hear from a group who share a great understanding of each other’s talents, and it’s this hesitancy that prevents Something Blue from being as accomplished as it should be. The songwriting is often very good—at times quite adventurous—and the instrumental work is technically immaculate. At the forefront is Rob Heron, whose wit is delivered at an amusing pace to keep songs like “Flat Tonic Water” and “Honest Man Blues” thoroughly enjoyable. The production simply doesn’t keep up with the ambition of the tunes here: in its attempt to sound like a raw re-enactment of a live performance, the result is almost the complete opposite. Far be it for me to dictate the artistic vision of such a talented group, but perhaps a grittier aesthetic would have resulted in a more gratifying experience, whilst also establishing a distinction between the studio and live sides of Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra. This is merely a personal contemplation at this point, though reflections like these certainly go to show that Something Blue isn’t as satisfying as it should be, suffering from a lack of dynamism that would ordinarily be found inside these songs during a live performance.
Favourite tracks // Flat Tonic Water
Honest Man Blues
Something Blue joins a frustrating school of albums we’ve listened to in which recording decisions deeply hinder the final product and do a disservice to the talents of the artist. Like Lianne La Havas’s Blood and Savages’ Adore Life, Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra shoot themselves in the foot here by failing to translate their performative energies into a vibrant recorded form. The songwriting is dynamic and fun, the group is delightfully tight on a technical level, Heron’s lyrics are sprite and clever, and I can barely enjoy any of it because it’s like I’m hearing it through a wall. The group has been so cleanly recorded in Something Blue that their collective sound has been reduced to a Disney-style brand of sanitised grit. Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra are by all accounts excellent live, and I believe it, but ‘they’re good live’ doesn’t redeem a flat album. It doesn’t. If anything it makes it more baffling. Everything sounds like it’s on a leash in some way here, which is the antithesis of live energy. After listening to this I dipped into the group’s previous work, and it sounds better. It sounds great. It sounds near. Something Blue songs like “Devil Wears a Blue Tie” and “Flat Tonic Water” will sound similarly lively in the flesh, but in their recorded form they are more engaging on a technical level than a human one.6 10
Favourite tracks // Devil Wears a Blue Tie
Flat Tonic Water
Honest Man Blues
Rob Heron and his Tea Pad Orchestra return with their third release, and there’s a notable polish this time round. Rob Heron’s lyrics have always had a knack for standing out and bringing a smirk to a listener’s face, and Something Blue is no exception, with the title track and “Flat Tonic Water” making for lyrical highlights. To complement this, there’s been a clear effort to vary the vocal sound, with rock and roll influences mixing well with Heron’s voice. Instrumentally, the sound has clearly been bolstered, taking a heavier influence from swing, blues and country of America, where previous material has seen a sound that explores more European influences. This comes as a change for the band: tracks such as “Leftovers”, which is definitively from a country genre, show a clear exploration and development of their sound. The difficulty with recording this kind of music is often trying to maintain the atmosphere without having the live setting that this music works so well in. Having seen the band live, I highly recommend picking up tickets to see them, it makes for a brilliant sound and a wonderful atmosphere, but translating that to a recorded album has left some tracks missing some energy. Something Blue is a release worth a listen, though it’ll likely only whet your appetite to see the full, live experience.6 10
Favourite tracks // Flat Tonic Water
Devil Wears a Blue Tie
GUEST WRITER // Gabriel sutton
My first encounter with Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra was at Koko in Camden Town some four years ago now. They were supporting a favourite artist of mine, Pokey Lafarge & The South City Three, and right then I was blown away. Something Blue intertwines aspects of country, gypsy jazz, Americana, and gospel. For listeners less experienced with these genres, the music of Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra might be considered ‘retro’, a word that Pokey Lafarge openly dislikes. Pokey quite aptly describes his own music as ‘American music that never died’, and I believe the same can be said for Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra. What immediately excited me about them is that they’re not from Louisiana or from New Orleans or Chicago. They’re from Newcastle, UK. As a person who has listened to and played jazz, swing, and blues as soon as my 13 year old fingers could grapple that bar chord, the fact that Rob Heron et al. were young and British was confirmation that there was an audience for a new breed of Traditional music, that talked about current topics.
Something Blue does this in spades. Songs like “Honest Man Blues speak apologetically to political disillusionment. Similarly, “Devil Wears a Blue Tie” is a gospel anthem that vilifies our neighbourhood friendly pig loving PM, in a way that will keep your feet stomping and your hands clapping. Something Blue is the third record from Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra. There are certainly new avenues being explored here, elements of country and ragtime are more prominent than in their earlier works. This of course may not be to everyone’s taste, though their 2014 album Talk About the Weather was a hugely tough act to follow. However, tracks like “Flat Tonic Water” hark back to those classic sounds you hear in Talk About the Weather and Money Isn’t Everything.
The hooks and catches are maybe not as immediate in Something Blue as they are in Talk About the Weather. However, what is clear to me (especially in the title track) is the outstanding musicianship. It is clear that all members of Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra have really become masters of their craft. As a musician myself, I know how hard it is to capture the energy and dynamism that naturally comes with Traditional music, into a recording. In my opinion, it is music to be listened to live, with friends, family, and whoever else is in the bar tapping their feet. However, Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra do an incredibly competent job of capturing that vitality and vigour that comes with a live performance. There are some outstanding tracks on Something Blue and some great song writing. For those unfamiliar with this style of music, this record has hooks that’ll keep you humming and it has current context. However, if you really want to experience Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra, pick up a ticket and see them live. You won’t regret it.