It is no secret that the majority of musical artists and bands thrive on touring and performing live to earn a livelihood. This is particularly true of music acts that rose to prominence in yesteryear. They are victims of an ageist bias that is deeply entrenched in the modern musical mainstream. As a result, many of these artists rely on touring on the strength of stellar back-catalogs to propel sales of their new material. Hence, in a world wherein the Covid19 pandemic has led concert venues across the globe to shut down leaving the concert industry in a state of indefinite hiatus, it boggles the mind what the incentive of artists would be to release music at this time. Clearly, the incentive cannot be financial. The decision to release new music at this time has to be rooted in a belief that music can be an anchoring and uplifting force which can at least momentarily provide the escapism from the chaos and uncertainty that has underscored our collective reality. In the case of Newcastle duo (formerly a trio with Steve Hillier) Dubstar, the beauty of this spirit is only surpassed by the sonic grandeur of their new uptempo single “I can see you outside”.
Before diving into the new single, it is worth taking a quick look at the band’s history – which dates back to mid-90s Newcastle. Labels such as Electro-romantic, dream pop, and alternative dance are inadequate in their ability to describe the signature sound of Dubstar. Their musical cocktail of crisp songwriting, synth rock arrangements, smoldering electronica, lush harmonies, the angelic voice of lead singer Sarah Blackwood, and the exquisite production of hit producer Stephen Hague (on their first two albums “Disgraceful” and “Goodbye”) made for remarkable radio fodder. 90s hits such as “Stars”, “Not so manic now”, and “No more talk” made them irresistible to pop music connoisseurs. They struck the perfect balance with thematically heavy lyrics adorned with hook-laden melodies. On their third album “Make it better”, they made the audacious decision to hold the reins of production. Sadly, this album while darker and artistically credible diluted the momentum generated by their first two albums. It also coincided with a fracturing band dynamic – which led the band to go on an indefinite hiatus. It seemed like they were slated to return in 2008 but those plans did not materialize. Just when it appeared that Dubstar was going to be conclusively relegated to the past, they emerged as a duo (featuring Chris Wilkie and Sarah Blackwood) with their strongest material on the 2018 album “One” featuring the sonic gems “Waltz No. 9” and “Why don’t you kiss me”. At the time, it was unclear as to whether or not this return was a one-off project but the surprise release of “Hygiene strip” (the first single from their upcoming album “Two” and hands down one of the best pop singles of 2020) this summer emphatically suggests that the duo is on an upward trajectory. Having reunited with Stephen Hague, they seem to be on a quest to dive into the same sonic headspace that helped them churn out hits that they have become synonymous with. They are doing this without rehashing the past. Hence, when they announced the release of their new single “I can see you outside”, fans were beyond elated.
Written just as lockdown was being lifted in the UK for the first time, the song appears to straddle the line separating anxiety from optimism through its somewhat schizophrenic lyrics. This schizophrenia is also reflected in the cryptic nature of the song’s verses which offer a striking contrast to the chorus wherein songwriter Chris Wilkie appears to be more literal – although this is likely more by coincidence than by design. According to Chris, by the time the duo got to mixing the track, people in the UK were allowed to see each other outside (as explicitly referenced in the chorus):
And if they close the ride
I can see you outside
Seeing through the road signs
And beyond the fault lines
When they close the ride
I can see you outside
You won’t need to take outsides
And delete the old crimes
Or explain the high tide
The “ride” mentioned above, according to Chris Wilkie, was a way of life – which has increasingly been characterized by more doomsday scenarios than we can keep track of. That being said, given some of the anxiety songwriter Chris Wilkie has grappled with as he has attempted to navigate the new Covid reality, it doesn’t seem to have restrained the duo from indulging their uptempo sonic mojo and drenching it in a defiant optimism. A listener would have to consciously peel the shimmery layers of the song to find its darkness.
The vocal delivery of lead singer Sarah Blackwood is goose-bump inducing to say the least. Her voice has not aged one bit since the band’s early days. It drifts effortlessly in the scintillating electronic soundscape that producer Stephen Hague has meticulously constructed.
Comparisons of newer material to the stellar back-catalog that brought a band (especially one with a history that dates back over two decades) fame and success is inevitable. In the case of Dubstar, releasing music is clearly NOT a diminishing return. Their new offerings are an essential expansion of their legacy. Furthermore, the release of their last single “Hygiene strip” followed by the new single “I can see you outside” together make for a stronger commercial for the upcoming album than the lead singles from the last album “One” did for that album. “Hygiene strip” was a stunning return to form but the new single “I can see you outside” has left us salivating with unbridled anticipation for their upcoming album – which cannot arrive soon enough. Dubstar is clearly penning one of the finest chapters of their musical history.
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
In case you did not pick up on this earlier, the blog you are reading is affiliated with Radio Creme Brulee – an online radio station that features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. Alongside newer artists, we also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s and the 90s. Noteworthy examples include Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Kylie Minogue, Dubstar, Tears For Fears, Duran Duran, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, INXS, Depeche Mode, Suede, The Corrs, Jamiroquai, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.
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