Album Review: Laura Groves – Radio Red

[Bella Union; 2023]

Did you get the message?

Growing up in Shipley, West Yorkshire, Laura Groves watched a radio tower opposite her house. “I would look out at the network of streetlights winding up towards it and it all had a sort of mystery to me,” she says in the notes for her new album Radio Red. “It was a kind of escapism and a comfort, with an undertone of melancholy that was hard to put into words. I think that glow, that strange feeling, is what I’m always searching for and exploring through making music and artwork.” 

Radio Red takes that feeling and maps it out. Lyrically, it is a story of (mis-)communication in a relationship. Like that radio tower, these songs tell tales of distance, static, and noise. But Groves’ voice is clear as day, and her range continues to delight 10 years after the release of her debut EP.

Groves’ track record speaks for itself: After making a splash in the blogosphere with her 2009 project Blue Roses, she spent the next decade releasing a series of EPs under her birth name. This culminated in the 2020 EP A Private Road, which resounded with a smooth sophisti-pop sheen not unlike that of The Blue Nile. That release, her first for Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union label, stands out in her catalog with excellent songs and an array of captivating production qualities like the synth excursions of “Faking It” and the drum machine of “Sunset”. The partnership with Bella Union is fitting for her dreamy style, and now we finally have a Laura Groves full-length.

At her core, Groves has always been a great songwriter, and it takes less than two minutes of listening to Radio Red to hear this trend continue. Opener “Sky At Night” is an arrestingly beautiful song, her “Cloudbusting”. The self-directed video shows skies real and imagined, and a video projector casting and losing its signal, reflecting the album’s thematic metaphor of interpersonal communication imagined as radio transmissions: “Did I wake up dreaming I’m / hearing you on that wavelength baby?”

Sweeping as it is, “Sky At Night” is a bit of an outlier on an oft-muted album. Many tracks lack drums, like “Synchronicity” and the ballad “Sarah”, which leans into the album’s quiet late-night vibe. The standout “Time”, gentle and swirling, moves with the depth and grace that is characteristic of her best work. Elsewhere, “I’m Not Crying” is a snoozy ballad. While pretty, it bears that some of the album could stand to be more upbeat. Other tracks split the difference, with the rhythm of the Sampha-featuring “D 4 N” building midway, giving it a successfully propulsive feel. 

“Silver Lining” ends the album in a slightly cheeky fashion, with the lyric “I’m not possessive anymore” reverberating over and over as a truncated message: “Not possessive / not possessive / not possessive…” Shimmering brightly, it closes the book on a story of conversation, connection, confusion and regret. A solidly realized full-length record, Radio Red is a welcome addition to an already outstanding catalog.