Beneath its well-ordered surface, Glenn Tilbrook's new collection Pandemonium Ensues seethes with the instability that makes for compelling pop, and lives up to its title. The record works as light entertainment in the tradition that Tilbrook continued as vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for the English pop band Squeeze, but Pandemonium evinces the depth, compassion and humor you'd expect from a master musician. Its nods to Memphis soul and '60s vocal groups never feel like formal exercises, and if Tilbrook isn't quite Al Green, he still sings his head off.
A Londoner born in 1957, Tilbrook cut Pandemonium in his brand-new studio with his efficient quartet, The Fluffers. "I've always lived in the same area, and my studio is in the area where I grew up," Tilbrook says. "I'm weirdly conscious of place. This record is the first thing we've done in my new studio."
Tilbrook says his latest digs made for a collection that sounds different from solo records such as 2004's Transatlantic Ping Pong. "Because of the lack of space, what it ended up being was just me in there, for quite long periods of time," Tilbrook says of sessions at his former studio, where he had recorded for 15 years. "For this one, I didn't want us to learn anything before we recorded it and I wanted to keep as many vocals as possible, live. I sing differently when I sing with a band."
On "Best of Times" the band plays a modified Texas two-step, with Stephen Large's accordion a foil for Tilbrook's peppery tenor. Like the rest of Pandemonium, the song has a unique and subtly retrospective cast. "With everything we've been through / We've seen the best of times," he sings.
"I've been into old Ronnie Lane records," Tilbrook says. "I really like what he did. That does come out, particularly on 'Best of Times.' And on this record I wrote more lyrics than tunes, so that totally swapped around what I do. That's a big change, but I do feel there is a continuity that goes through the whole thing, you know."
With Squeeze, Tilbrook supplied music for Chris Difford's lyrics. Tilbrook's new songs owe a debt to Difford's style, down to the overlay of humanist wit that Squeeze perfected on such tunes as "In Quintessence" and "Annie Get Your Gun." Tilbrook says that's no accident: "Lyrically, my biggest influence is Chris Difford. I can't help it. We grew up together, and went through many different phases. I'm always conscious of him when I write."
"Through the Net" appears to be about social mobility, and doesn't shy away from the greasy, unsavory details. "Her parents were acquainted, yes, with the Social Services," he sings. Meanwhile, the gorgeous "Relentless Pursuit" evokes The Beach Boys and The Association while communicating what sounds like sweet regret. It's a theme that colors Pandemonium.
Tilbrook also knows something about stardom, as "She Makes Me" demonstrates. His clearest lyric, the song is something of an American adventure and features a woman who is an up-and-comer. "She became a movie star / She tried not to break down too far / To a quiet home in Raleigh-Durham," he sings.
After all, Tilbrook is a natural star, even if he had to reinvent himself after Squeeze packed it in for good in 1999. (Since then, the band has reunited for tours.) "Touring America, that's where we really bonded," he says of his relationship with The Fluffers. "The bus breaking down, sleeping on people's floors. All the stuff you do normally in your teens, I did in my 40s, really."
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