Ex-Maniac marks the return, if anyone noticed their absence, of the once critically acclaimed Babybird, the band forever shackled to 1996’s ubiquitous You’re Gorgeous. Struggling to follow a hit of this magnitude, several albums followed, with diminishing success, before they disbanded in 2000.
Songwriter and frontman Stephen Jones was the creative force of the group and, with hindsight, his prolific demo-like releases were reminiscent of a prototype Badly Drawn Boy: BabydrawnBird, if you will. Jones’s prodigious work rate has not slowed over the last 10 years, with solo albums, a film score and two books under his belt. He has also found time to revive Babybird, this time with the help of a guest guitarist, one Johnny Depp.
Depp features on the straightforward rock of lead single Unlovable. The song swings like early Oasis (with whom Depp also played). Despite this, his contributions are not particularly distinctive; Jones should feel safe, at least in the musical department.
The wilful awkwardness of old Babybird remains. On the opener, Like Them, Jones illustrates his concerns about modern childhood by reminiscing about his own lack of cell phones and criminal tags. In less adept hands, references to knife crime and the banning of photographing children in swimming pools might sound like Daily Mail: The Musical, but they actually come across with effortless charm.
Drug Time and Failed Suicide Club share a harmonic swagger, with backing vocals thankfully sweetening the subject matter of each. However, the magically titled Send Me Back My Dreams is anything but dreamy (or magical), suggesting as long as he has said dreams, Jones would be happy losing legs, arms and even ears. This would at least save him from having to listen to indulgent dirges like this, and the similarly unappealing Black Flowers.
Things improve with the delicately touching Roadside Girl, which flirts with the tune of That Hit, while Not Good Enough warns of being too nice over the album’s prevailing mid-tempo beat.
Depp has acclaimed this as his album of the year, and while his opinion’s unlikely to be echoed by many, Ex-Maniac might well resonate with people mourning the lack of succinct, melodic guitar rock in 2010 so far. --Tom Hocknell
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