1987 was during the peak of the sophisti-pop movement. The movement had morphed to include everyone from veterans like Sting to newcomers like Manchester England’s Swing Out Sister. Still mostly a British phenomenon, sophisti pop had top 40 ready hooks with just enough jazz influence to separate it from teen focused dance and pop music.
For Swing Out Sister, it’s sound would look back to the jet set era of the ’50s and ’60s to create bright horn friendly arrangements. Not as subdued as Sade or as ambitious as The Style Council, Swing Out Sister’s appeal was much broader thanks to it’s stylish retro look and upbeat image the band projected.
The general attitude of joy set them apart when many of their fellow sophisticates were focused on blues (Sade) or academic aloofness (The Style Council). Produced by Paul Staveley O’Duffy, the band’s debut LP It’s Better to Travel struck a chord immediately in both England and America. With “Breakout”, “Surrender” and “Twilight World” singles all making the Top 40 in America. In all, It’s Better to Travel spawned 5 singles and stayed on radio playlists for a span of two years!
The band was made up initially of three members, a keyboardist, drummer and Corinne Drewery on lead vocals. With a sometimes flat delivery, Drewery’s voice was somewhere between Dusty Springfield and Tracey Thorn. Drewery never tries to sound soulful, yet her voice is passionate with a kind of English restraint that we Americans associate with sophistication. It was that casual elegance that was the key to Swing Out Sister’s sound and initial popularity with everyone from adult contemporary to teen pop.
Despite being a trio centered around electronics, the sound manages to be warm thanks to the occasional use of real horns and string instruments. The relatively funky bass on “Surrender” no doubt was one of those real string instruments that was reminiscent of mark King of Level 42. It was funky enough to warrant a hit dance single and even made the rotations of American R&B radio.
Swing Out Sister would up the jazz factor on future releases, just as they opened the door for more jazz influenced pop acts like Johnny Hates Jazz. Apparently the album has stoop the test of time where many of it’s contemporaries have sounded dated. With multiple re-issues (most remastered with new tracks added), there’s no reason not to discover what sophisti pop sounded like at it’s broadest appeal.