Smith & Burrows: Angelic Upstarts

19 November 2011 by

As collaborations go, the announcement that Editors frontman Tom Smith would be teaming up with We Are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows for a winter-themed concept album certainly raised a few eyebrows.  And rightly so, as their ten-song collection of original compositions and covers, Funny Looking Angels, is an engaging diversion from their day jobs.

It’s not the only indie pairing in search of that holy grail of a seasonal royalty cheque this year, however. Emmy the Great and Tim Wheeler have also attempted to pen a lucrative Christmas hit, just as Shane MacGowan and The Pogues managed with Kirsty MacColl nearly three decades before.  But whereas Wheeler and Emmy the Great are more unabashed in their embrace of woolly jumpers and chestnuts-roasting-on-an-open-fire merriment, Funny Looking Angels strikes a more sparsely atmospheric, if reassuringly traditional, yuletide tone.

Released on the B-Unique label at the end of November, Smith & Burrows are under no illusions about a record they insist is anything but a light-hearted vanity project. “Me and Tom had often talked over the years about making a record together,” declares former Razorlight drummer Burrows. “Tom’s sung with me at various shows and radio sessions so it seemed like a natural progression to work together. We went in and recorded Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ and it turned out really well, so we decided to do a couple more covers and eventually started writing together.”

It’s certainly an unusual mix. Combining traditional Christmas songs like ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and Mel Torme’s ‘The Christmas Song’ with covers ranging from the aforementioned Black number, to eighties synthpop duo Yazoo’s ‘Only You’, Britpop stalwarts the Longpigs’ ‘On And On’, and Delta’s ‘Funny Looking Angels’, from which the album’s title derives. A varied assortment far beyond either’s comfort zone, the album was recorded  throughout the summer of 2011 – “whenever we could find the odd day both of us were free,” admits Burrows – when the pair were forced to prematurely enter into the festive spirit during the height of summer. “We started the record in May and it kind of got really Christmassy by the end of July!” recalls Smith.

Crispin [Hunt] from the Longpigs said our version of ‘On And On’ moved him to tears,” Andy Burrows proudly recalls, though not all of their attempts were quite as successful. “There were a few covers that didn’t make it such as Elvis Presley’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’. It’s one of our favourite tunes but for some reason it really didn’t fit. We also tried ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Silent Night’ but they didn’t work either.”

The cover of the record depicts its two creators sat on a park bench wearing angel’s wings. “I think it has a Tim Burton-esque otherworldly quality about it,” says Burrows. “For me it’s similar to the way Jason Pierce wears an astronaut’s suit on the inside cover of Pure Phase,” adds Smith. “It isn’t meant to be jovial.”

One notable contributor on Funny Looking Angels is Danish singer/songwriter Agnes Obel, whose vocal performance on album closer ‘The Christmas Song’ is particularly heart-warming. Having recently picked up five gongs at the recent Danish Music Awards, Smith and Burrows feel quite honoured to have her singing on the record. “Originally she just wanted to do backing vocals on ‘Only You’, but we wanted her to sing a lead part and eventually she agreed and sent us this wonderful version of ‘The Christmas Song’, which seemed like a perfect way to close the album.”

Their live show also promises to be an equally special event, featuring not only the album in its entirety, but also material from both Smith and Burrows distinguished back catalogues. “It’s going to be quite hit-tastic,” enthuses the latter. “We’re currently foraging around antique shops looking for stage props for the shows!” adds Smith. “I kind of visualise the live shows being similar to REM’s ‘Bingo Hand Job’ performances from the early 1990s.”

But with Funny Looking Angels in the bag, both Tom Smith and Andy Burrows remain eagerly excited at the prospect of recording a follow-up together, “Although I don’t see it being another festive record,” admits Smith.

“We wrote ‘This Ain’t New Jersey’ and it was quite a big deal penning a song together for the first time,” adds Burrows, cautiously. “It’s like you’re crossing a threshold, particularly when you’ve been friends as long as we have and there is a worry things may not work out.”

Fortunately for them and us, it has, and as festive collections go, Funny Looking Angels is up there with the finest released in many winters.

Words: Dom Gourlay

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