CD Review of South East Side Story by Chris Difford

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South East Side Story
starstarstarhalf starno star Label: Republic
Released: 2006
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There’s a reason Glenn Tilbrook was, more often than not, the lead singer of Squeeze, and it can be summed up with the three-word phrase used in just about every reference to vocals on the band’s song, “Cool for Cats”:

“Chris Difford’s croak.”

That’s perhaps a bit of a harsh description of Difford’s arguably limited vocal abilities, but it’s one that’s popped up repeatedly…and even fans of Difford would certainly concede that, at the very least, he’s no Glenn Tilbrook. Difford was, however, the man behind Squeeze’s often-exquisite lyrics, and, with his new release, he’s decided to sing them himself for a change, albeit with some tweaking to the music this time around to place the songs in an acoustic setting. Since Tilbrook wrote the band’s music, it’s about time Difford had some say in the presentation of his words, but fans might well have seen this coming; his solo debut, I Didn’t Get Where I Am, found him taking the lyrics to Squeeze’s “Electric Trains” and writing brand-new music for it.

There is not, you will be pleased to learn, any croaking to be found here. Difford, playing wisely to his limited range, has found himself quite a lovely harmonizer in Dorie Jackson, who’s also aided him with the arrangements. In most cases, it’s the pedal steel of Melvin Duffy that’s leading the tracks, giving them a loping country feel. Now, admittedly, in some cases, the original versions of these songs are so strongly embedded in your brain – case and point, “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)” – that you may find yourself twitching at this new instrumentation, but hang in there; you’ll quickly find that with very little adjustment, you’ll still be able to sing along just as well as you ever did.

To imagine a more countrified version of “Labelled with Love” won’t exactly tax the imagination, but some of these new takes on old tracks are surprising. “Take Me I’m Yours” may have the most dramatic reinvention, with its transformation from a thudding, trumpeting march into a melancholy plea for acceptance. It’s hard to picture “Hourglass” without the horns that drive it, but it’s turned into a sweet, jangly number that provides Jackson the best vocal spotlight.

The biggest selling point for Squeeze fans – like the words “Chris Difford album” aren’t enough in and of themselves, right? – is the inclusion of a bonus DVD of a live Difford performance, one which includes a handful of songs not on the CD, including “Slaughtered, Gutted And Heartbroken” and his solo single, “Cowboys Are My Weakness.”

Okay, so most of these versions are not going to result in anyone throwing their Squeeze albums into the fireplace. They’re still quite nice. And the sight of Difford grinning in the booklet photos will be enough for anyone to embrace this project for what it is: an opportunity for “that other bloke in Squeeze” to stake his claim on the classic songs he helped write.

~Will Harris