Happy 20th Anniversary to Swing Out Sister’s Shapes and Patterns, originally released June 17, 1997.
[Editor's Note: ‘Shapes and Patterns’ was originally released in Japan in March 1997 and multiple sources list June 17, 1997 as the US release date, which suggests that the UK release date was June 16, 1997.]
Sophisti-pop, a vibrant, if short-lived British sub-genre, was (mostly) fixed in intricate jazz structures, but didn't eschew catchy choruses. In the mid-to-late 1980s, the movement was bustling with talent, everyone running to strike the iron while hot, and Swing Out Sister did just that with their 1987 debut album It's Better to Travel.
Manchester natives Andy Connell (arranger/keyboardist), Corinne Drewery (vocalist) and Martin Jackson (drums) were hungry though, the resurrectionist genius hinted at on their first LP couldn't be expressed solely by synthesizers and keyboard programming. Swing Out Sister needed live instrumentation to realize their vision of bringing the past into the present, musically speaking. Jackson ended up leaving the fold permanently, but Connell and Drewery formed an appealing pair all their own and kept working on their second LP, Kaleidoscope World (1989). Their usage of real strings on that project added the dimension they were seeking.
Yet, almost as quickly as they found their beat with 1960s session pop, they exchanged that sound with an early-to-mid 1970s jazz/ R&B/funk flavor on their third and fourth albums, Get In Touch With Yourself (1992) and The Living Return (1994). The Living Return temporarily jettisoned their longtime producer Paul Staveley O'Duffy in favor of Ray Hayden to further develop and incorporate their “live vibe” into their studio work. But, once Connell and Drewery had perfected their capacity to command a band while recording as they did on stage, O'Duffy returned as the plotting for Shapes and Patterns began.
Swing Out Sister served up a lavish feast on their fifth album. Songs swung easily from effervescent, beatnik toe-tappers (“Somewhere in the World”) to airy (“Here and Now”) or dreamlike (“Icy Cold As Winter”) ballads. Drewery's voice was chameleonic, shifting its color and mood to whatever the songs demanded, such as the glossiness of the reworked single “Better Make It Better” from the previous LP or the groovy melancholia of “You Already Know.” The latter composition showcased a fantastic communal, harmonic blend backing up Drewery's own silken timbre. “You Already Know” also reappeared on the LP as the “Shapes and Patterns” interlude and concluding reprise. That sort of studio dexterity acted as proof of Connell's arranging and O'Duffy's production working in tandem.
Further examples of the Connell/ O'Duffy method abounded with “We Could Make It Happen,” its peppery percussion, bubbly piano and sprightly guitar―which later received its own solo in the song's middle-eight ― came off as a lovely send-up to The 5th Dimension, one of their oft-cited touchstones, but it didn't feel like a cheap facsimile. It played well with their spirited cover of The 5th Dimension's hit, the Lauro Nyro penned “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Elsewhere, “Something Out of this World” sprung forth from a traditional jazz backbeat, but was spliced sparingly with inventive sampling and digital effects throughout the song's run time. “Something Out of this World,” and the LP as a whole, was a testament to Swing Out Sister's gift for reviving the techniques of their muses―The 5th Dimension, John Barry, Dusty Springfield, Burt Bacharach―in the present day.
Upon its release, Shapes and Patterns received a warm critical welcome, but commercially, it was a continuation of the duo's diminishing returns that started with Kaleidoscope World. Shapes and Patterns yielded three singles, starting in late 1996 up through 1997―“Somewhere in the World,” “We Could Make It Happen” and “Now You're Not Here.” England and America refused space for these singles, but Japan held fast as Swing Out Sister loyalists when “Now You're Not Here” was used as the theme to Mahiru No Tsuki, a popular daytime television show there. Later, the song garnered the prestigious Grand Prix Award―the Japanese equivalent of a Grammy or BRIT Award―for Best International Single of 1997.
Five albums followed Shapes and Patterns―Filth and Dreams (1999), Somewhere Deep in the Night (2001), Where Our Love Grows (2004), Beautiful Mess (2008) and Private View (2012) ―and the group's forthcoming LP, A Movable Feast, is currently underway. Swing Out Sister's impressive and unprecedented discography predated later vintage purveyors like Saint Etienne, Raphael Saadiq, Emma Bunton and Amy Winehouse.
Nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia? Too simplistic for Swing Out Sister. Instead they preferred the complex endeavor of transferring the aesthetics of their musical heroes into a modern context, and Shapes and Patterns was the crystallization of that design.