Friday, December 3, 2021

Mark Pontin Group - Kaleidoscope

Eek – a concept album!  Prog-phobic readers needn’t panic however – there are no wizards, castles or magic swords to be found on Kaleidoscope.  Instead it recounts the emotional rollercoaster experienced by a fella after he wakes up one morning to find that his baby has, indeed, done left him.  But while musical history suggests that’s a topic destined for a 12-bar blues setting, Mark Pontin has other, rather more grand ideas.
After the brief instrumental intro of ‘Sunrise’, on which shimmering guitar chords give way to the sound of pouring rain, Pontin sets out his stall on ‘Everything (Today)’, with sweeping strings and flurries of horns laying the foundations for a romantic torch song fit to send Dusty Springfield into
Mark Pontin puts his best foot forward
full hand-twiddling mode.  And fair play to Pontin, his own clear and airy voice does justice to the intended vibe, while his razor-edged guitar playing adds a decidedly non-Dusty dimension to proceedings.
Songs like ‘Don’t Sleep’ and ‘Roll With Me Easy’ convey a wistful tone to good effect, the first featuring more shimmering, twinkling guitar backing and gliding harmonies to produce a mellow and sophisticated piece of pop, topped up with a quiveringly processed guitar solo.  The latter outstays its welcome a little, as our hero ponders happy memories of his girl, but it still has a winning intro combining more weeping strings and some ‘Slaughter On 10th Avenue guitar work à la Mick Ronson.
Pontin and co exercise their funk chops here and there too, as on the ironic ‘This Will Never Be A Hit’, which departs from the conceptual narrative, its lazy, slinky beat elevated by bright horns and some squelching, synth-like guitar.  ‘Freeway Fantasy’ is a low-key strut, embellished by some jazz-funky guitar, and Fender Rhodes soloing from Owain Hughes.     Best in this vein though, is ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, on which the lip-smackin’, thirst-quenchin’, breath-gaspin’ vocal of the verses gives way to a very retro, catchy chorus and guitar refrain, like the Fab Four’s ‘Taxman’ given a shot of funkification.
Okay, there are a few more prosaic tunes, though usually they’re perked up by some aspect of the arrangement - my knee-jerk response to the REO Speedwagon AOR of ‘Forever’ is to say “no thanks”, for example, but Pontin’s sharp and to the point solo still appeals.  There’s no arguing though, with three tracks that hit diverse targets with panache.  ‘Starmaker’ has a slowed down, grinding, vaguely blues-rock character, with a gravelly, fuzzy guitar figure shifting into brighter, ringing chords, topped off by Pontin’s light and soulful voice.  But it really hits pay dirt when a couple of twiddly guitar licks turn out to preface a sustained, distorted, Hendrixy wah-wah attack, with James Garvey cranking up his drumming in support.  ‘Everything (Tomorrow)’ returns to Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb territory with more lush strings, but less romantically as the lyric – rather too opaquely – has our hero battling with addiction, while Pontin adds more FX-laden guitar solo-ing over some cool bass lines from Tim Hamill.  And the closing ‘Phoenix’ opens with more bendy, reverb-inflected guitar chords and sweeps of strings to fashion a sense of calm summation and clarity, before lifting off into a sense of renewal with the strings soaring and darting in pseudo-Arabic style, echoed by Pontin’s guitar, while Garvey underlines the epic feel with tub-thumping drums.
Mark Pontin’s reach may exceed his grasp at times, with some of his lyrics not up to the standard of his impressive string and horn arrangements for example.  But I still applaud the ambition, and the Mark Pontin Group make a good fist of delivering on it, with convincing musicianship all round.  All things considered, Kaleidoscope is a breath of fresh air.
Kaleidoscope is out now on Lunaria Records, and can be ordered here.

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