Swing Out Sister is musically locked in a long-gone era -- that time in the '60s when a young, handsome Burt Bacharach crafted sweepingly lush melodies for Dionne Warwick. Those years when creamy, dreamy ditties like "Up, Up and Away" oozed from the radio, and acts like Curtis Mayfield and Tyrone Davis concocted a brassy, groove-rich sound in Chicago.
Off-kilter programmed beats, hip-hop textures, odd digital bleeps -- nothing about modern pop trends surfaces on Swing Out Sister's latest album, Where Our Love Grows, the British duo's first American release in seven years. The aforementioned '60s sounds and the music of the 5th Dimension clearly inspired the stylishly elaborate orchestrations and sugary harmonies on the record.
And if you know anything about Swing Out Sister, a 20-year-old group with a sizable international fan base whose biggest hit was 1987's "Breakout," then you know the act has always looked backward to push its music forward. The duo has never paid much attention to what makes the pop charts.
"This new record is a little simpler," says front woman and lead vocalist Corrine Drewery, who's calling from her home in Manchester, England. She and her press-shy partner, keyboardist Andy Connell, play Rams Head Live Sunday night. "It's a sunnier, driving-with-the-roof-down kind of record. My voice has matured. I feel like I can tackle a few more things now. The sound is more relaxed."
The opening (and best) tune on Where Our Love Grows is the stunningly vibrant "Love Won't Let You Down," a horn-driven, mid-tempo number that sets the bright mood for the album. With its nostalgic whoa-o-o-o-o-o chorus, punchy horns and lilting melody, the tune recalls the vintage Windy City soul of Barbara Acklin and the Chi-Lites.
"I think Chicago -- around the late '60s and early '70s, there was so much going on," Drewery says. "You had Ramsey Lewis, Rotary Connection with Minnie Riperton, Charles Stepney. There was this rich musical epicenter there. And that sound, yes, has influenced us."
Vintage soul (the rarer the better) has always been revered in England. Underground cuts from the vaults of Motown and various long-defunct soul labels fuel the U.K.'s Northern Soul movement, in which DJs and hardcore fans trade and practically worship old black music -- records by the likes of Marlena Shaw, Brenda Holloway, Edwin Starr and others generally overlooked in America.
"American music, particularly American soul, has always been there as an influence on us," Drewery says. "This new record has a Northern Soul feel to it. There were always sweet harmonies and horns and a certain drum beat that captured so much energy on those Northern Soul records. We wanted to create that in a way."
Where Our Love Grows -- whose other highlights include the melodically tricky "Happy Ending" and the Dusty Springfield-influenced "From My Window" -- is emblematic of Swing Out Sister's approach, which favors style over substance. The group's music goes down easy. The overall sound -- Drewery's cool, melodic voice, the harp flourishes, the horns, strings and things -- feels hypnotic at times. But a Swing Out Sister album can quickly become aural wallpaper: pleasant, unobtrusive but nothing that lingers in your head too long.
On stage, however, the duo, augmented by five musicians, scales down the sound considerably with funkier, more direct results.
Swing Out Sister, which has released eight albums since its 1987 debut, It's Better to Travel, has yet to produce another U.S. hit as big as "Breakout," which climbed into the Top 10 nearly two decades ago. Since then, the duo has indulged its love for swanky, richly orchestrated productions. The group's music is huge in Japan.
"We'd rather just write the good-times tunes and not worry about what gets on the charts," Drewery says. "We find the songs that move us and hope they move others. If you're going to make a record and mean it, your heart and soul have to be in it. It makes it timeless."
Check out Swing Out Sister at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, Sunday night at 8. Tickets are $25 in advance, $27 at the door. For more information, visit www.ramsheadlive.com / balt imorelive or call 410-244-8854. The duo will also appear at the Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Ave. in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday night at 7:30. Tickets are $25 and are available through Ticketmaster by visiting www.ticket master.com or calling 410-547-SEAT.