With their second album, ‘Between 2wo Worlds’, Flat Stanley have turned in a melodic rock album that likely will see this Cape Town band imprint their intimately rendered sound on a far broader audience than they’ve already accumulated over the past four years.
Produced, like 2004 debut, ‘Of Secrets And Wine’, by Theo Crous, and featuring the Flat Stanley core of Andrew Mac on vocals, Clinton on rhythm guitar and backing vocals and Neil on lead guitar, ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ offers up near-impeccable songwriting and an, at times, astonishing musicality that surpasses the expectations many have for the band.
But it’s the sheer musical savviness and strength of their material that prevents Flat Stanley from veering even close to the pit of blandness that a great deal of mainstream rock sinks so easily into.
Elevating all 12 tracks on ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ are streaks of sonic inspiration that fall, like tenderly-wrapped gifts, between the folds of the songs – the strings that shadow Mac’s voice on ‘Freedive’, the slow, sparse start to ‘Stereo’, the impossibly gorgeous guitarwork on ‘I, Warrior’ and ‘Outer Space’ and the vocal layering on ‘Song for the Broken Hearted’.
The latter is one of ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ centerpieces, a song about living a life that’s being chipped away at the edges and watching hope fall from an already shaky grasp. What’s most striking about this standout is Mac’s vocal treatment – gifted with a quite beautiful voice (that was, in 2005, voted the best in the country by users of the zaZone.com website) Mac never falls into the trap of supercharging his vocals with enough emotion to drown out the song. That he approaches his delivery and phrasing in this way is something Mac attributes to influences as diverse as Adam Duritz (Counting Crows), Bono (U2), Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Dave Owens (Lithium) and Ed Roland (Collective Soul).
‘I settle on what just feels comfortable and right for both me and the song,’ Mac (who, incidentally, stumbled into singing at a late age) explains. But if Mac’s voice effortlessly occupies the focal point on the album, it’s the songwriting that provides him with just the right vehicle to do this.
Mostly (bar ‘Daytrippers’) the material on ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ was penned by Clinton and Neil – and all the songs were written post-’Of Secrets and Wine’. Explains Clinton, ‘The songs are all new in the sense that they were written since our debut album – which is now two and a half years ago! We don’t ever sit down and say, right, let’s write something for a next album. I think writing is something we do spontaneously in our own time – for fun! Then when it’s time for the next album we just gather the existing pile, and gradually whittle them down.’
Like its predecessor, ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ doesn’t stint on radio singles. Right out of the gate is ‘Paper Thin’, a song that tugs at you, offering morsels of melody and wordplay that are impossible to resist. Also certain to turn up at radio before long is album opener, ‘Daytrippers’, a Celtic-influenced cut that tumbles forward, the strings and Mac’s epic (but never histrionic) vocals stating Flat Stanley’s intention right at the start.
That intention is to create, says Mac, ‘high quality, melody based, mainstream rock’. ‘In this country that’s the genre in which Watershed and Just Jinjer and the like have always operated and I think there should always be a market for this type of music so long as it’s a quality product. It’s also been a while since a band successful in this genre came out of Cape Town, so it’s long overdue!’
There’s little on ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ that specifically locates Flat Stanley in the Mother City. But songs like the wistful, elegant ‘Summer on it’s way’ point to the mood, the emotional brushstrokes of this city that juts into two oceans and, at times, has to defend itself against accusations of being ‘not quite South Africa’. ‘Outer Space’ (with its nod to Flat Stanley’s folk roots) too seems to ask for love to be anchored in a familiar place, as Cape Town always will be for Mac, Neil and Clinton.
What Flat Stanley do so terrifically is bring together melody and lyrics in a way that may nod at the band’s influences (Counting Crows, U2) but are unsullied by attempts to be soundalikes.
There’s nothing wildly avant-garde about the material on ‘Between 2wo Worlds’. What there is a sonic unity that comes from a trio of musicians who have, after one album and many, many gigs, entered a place of ease with each other. That’s obvious in songs like ‘Déjà Vu’ which appears to be a perfect coming together of Mac’s voice, with Neil’s guitar and Clinton’s supporting guitar and vocal work. There are no great flourishes on the song but it’s no less memorable for that.
Crous, who made his name as a hard-rock purveyor, has done a masterful job of allowing the songs to stride into centrestage – and working with the Springbok Nude Girls frontman was an easy decision when the time came to choose a producer for the new album. Says Neil, ‘I wanted to work with him again this time round because the man understands guitar players, and has an amazing ear for anything!’
For Mac, the push Flat Stanley had given Crous into melodic, mainstream rock on ‘Of Secrets and Wine’ provided a compelling reason to work together on a follow-up. ‘We were one of the first mainstream acts to contract Theo to produce our album when we recorded Of Secrets. Up until that time most of Theo’s production credits had been for Hard Rock and Alternative work. He did a fantastic job on Of Secrets and since then he’s built his own beautiful studio and been one of the most prolific producers in SA. When the time came to record our second album we were presented with a variety of options for producers, but the one that made us feel most comfortable, creatively, was Theo.’
Flat Stanley make no bones about their quest for an epic sound and the strings that saturate ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ give plenty of evidence of that. ‘It’s no secret that one of my personal dreams is to see Flat Stanley joined by a full orchestra live on stage one day,’ says Mac.
In the end, ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ is a highly satisfying recording for Mac, Clinton and Neil. Says Clinton, ‘We didn’t set out with a conscious end-goal in mind, other than to create another piece of work that we felt personally happy with – and we’ve done that.’
With the recording over, it’s time to push the album out to the fans – already Flat Stanley has a loyal base in the Cape, as the band’s frequent sell-out gigs testifys to. But, with ‘Between 2wo Worlds’ the rest of the country is set to fall headlong in love with a set of songs that any rock band the world over would be proud to call their own.