You’ll be hard pushed to find more enchanting album than the Runaway Orchestra’s eponymous debut album Runaway Orchestra, which has been rereleased by Brighton’s Mr. Bongo Records on 1st January 2014. I was going to say the Runaway Orchestra give ten familiar tracks a makeover. That however, would be an understatement. Transformation is nearer to the truth. This is Bob Dylan, T-Rex, The Turtles and Sonny and Cher as you’ve never heard them. Runaway Orchestra is akin to alchemy. Songs are transformed majestically. They’re totally reinvented and rejuvenated. Sometimes, they’re given new life and meaning. What’s even more remarkable, is that the Runaway Orchestra is just an adjunct to Sophie Madeline’s successful solo career. Before I tell you about the music on Runaway Orchestra, I’ll tell you about Sophie’s career so far.

Away from the Runaway Orchestra, Sophie Madeline is a ukelele-playing folk singer. The ukelele wasn’t Sophie’s original choice of musical instrument. Like many people, the piano was her introduction to music. Then came the ukelele, which Sophie taught herself to play. Along with her unique, D.I.Y. approach to music, it’s fair to say that Sophie is something of a musical maverick. Eschewing traditional recording studios, her flat has doubled as a makeshift studio. That has worked for Sophie, who divides her time between Brighton and New York. 

Sophie’s recording career started back in 2009, when she released her debut album, the wonderfully titled Love Life, Love Ukelele. Two years later, Sophie release her sophomore album The Rhythm You Started in 2011. Since then, Sophie has dived her time between recording her third album, playing live and recording the Runaway Orchestra’s debut album Runaway Orchestra.

For recording of Runaway Orchestra, Sophie Madeline hooked up with Tom Valentine. They chose ten cover versions, many of which most people will be familiar with. Songs by Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, T-Rex, Sonny and Cher, Pete Doherty and Wolfman were chosen. This however, was no album of slavish cover versions. Not at all. Instead, each song was given a folk makeover. Songs were slowed down, strings added, Sophie Madeline played ukelele and added her breathtaking vocals. The result was both enchanting and spellbinding. You’ll discover that, as I tell you about Runaway Orchestra.

Opening Runaway Orchestra is a cover of The Turtles’ Happy Together, which is totally transformed. The tempo is slowed way, with hypnotic drums providing the heartbeat. String are at the heart of the arrangement. They sweep in, providing the perfect accompaniment to Sophie’s tender, heartfelt vocals. Soon, the drama builds. Pizzicato strings, punchy harmonies and rolls of drums add to the drama, before the strings sweep and swirl. Brief flourishes of harp add the finishing touch to a what’s now a beautiful, dramatic and heartfelt love song. 

Just an acoustic guitar and Sophie’s wistful vocal open T Rex’s Life’s A Gas. Here, the Runaway Orchestra don’t stray far from the original. Soon, the arrangement reveals its subtleties and beauty. Subtle drums, layers of melancholy strings and cooing harmonies combine. They provide melancholy backdrop for Sophie’s bravado. She’s been hurt, but tries to hide it. This she can’t do. Her hurt and heartbreak shines through, despite the bravado of her easy come, easy go attitude. Although T-Rex set the bar high, the Runaway Orchestra pay a fitting homage to Marc Bolan. Their version further reinforces the heartbreak, emotion and beauty of this timeless song.

For Lovers was recorded by Pete Doherty and Wolfman in 2004. It’s quite different to this version. It’s much more understated and thoughtful. Strings play an important part in the arrangement. Slow and lush, they’re joined by a combination of drums, flute and guitar. Seamlessly, they become one, as if forming part of some bigger picture. Sophie’s vocal suits the song perfectly, transforming it into a tender, but wistiful paean For Lovers everywhere. 

Covering such a well known track as Bob Dylan’s It’s Not For You isn’t easy. After all, the definitive version has been recorded. Anything else will come up short. That said, the Runaway Orchestra’s version brings something new and innovative to the song. In doing so, they combine folk, country, Americana and rock. To do this, keyboards, keyboards, guitar and drums create a slow, pensive and spacious arrangement. The space is crucial. It’s akin to a dramatic pause, that adds to what is an evocative arrangement. As for Sophie’s vocal, it’s joyous and soulful, as she gives thanks for the love she’s found.

It’s a Beautiful Day has a much more contemporary sound than other tracks. There’s even a broken-beat influence. Sophie delivers another joyful, thankful vocal. Strings veer between subtle to lush. They’re complimented by a harp. Meanwhile, the rhythm section create a choppy arrangement, which is reminiscent of a summer’s day on the beach.

Run With Us was written by Steve Lunt and was the theme tune to eighties television show The Raccoons. It was then covered by Lisa Loughheed in 1987 and Spray in 2009. This version is quite different. Sophie’s tender, impassioned vocal is accompanied by her trusty ukelele, glockenspiel and cooing harmonies. Providing the heartbeat are drums and booming bass. Seamlessly, this all fits beautifully together, just like a jigsaw puzzle. What makes this the definitive version of the song, is the interplay between Sophie’s vocal and the cooing harmonies. They play their part in making this the highlight of Runaway Orchestra.

What makes a project like Runaway Orchestra so compelling is how a familiar song is transformed into something the writer never imagined. This is the case with The Beat Goes On, written by Sonny Bono. It’s a much more subtle song. That’s down to the understated drum arrangement. Then there’s the way Sophie’s vocal and lead melody interact. They’re like a musical ying and yang, They also play leading roles in this compelling cover of a familiar track.

The River Song has a jaunty, mid-tempo arrangement thanks to the guitar and drums. The drums are played by Miggy Barradas of The Divine Comedy. This makes sense. Their influence is all over the track. Sophie’s vocal is equal parts power and emotion, while a standup bass helps power the arrangement along. A wonderfully wistful trumpet solo, adds a jazzy twist to the arrangement. It sets the scene for the rest of this thoughtful, but quite beautiful song.

True Love Will Find You in the End was written by Daniel Johnson. Only ninety-seconds long, it’s a tantalizing glimpse of Daniel Johnson’s skills as a songwriter. Strident guitars, drums, bass and piano accompany Sophie’s vocal. Hopeful and reassuring, her vocal becomes pensive and almost unsure. A mandolin is added at just the right time, as Sophie hopes, but isn’t convinced, that True Love Will Find You in the End.

Closing Runaway Orchestra is Two Of Us written by Lennon and McCartney. It featured on Let It Be, Anthology 3 and Let It Be…Naked. Rather that reinvent the musical equivalent of the wheel, the Runaway Orchestra stick closely to the original song. Accompanied by just guitars, percussion and bass, Sophie accompanied by backing vocals delivers a heartfelt and hook-laden homage to The Beatles that’s best described as Beatles-esque. 

Rather than slavishly recreate ten familiar songs, the Runaway Orchestra have taken a very different, unique and innovative approach on Runaway Orchestra. They’ve taken ten original songs and in many case, totally transformed them. The best examples are The Turtles’ Happy Together, Pete Doherty and Wolfman’s For Lovers, Bob Dylan’s It’s Not For You and Sonny and Cher’s The Beat Goes On. In the case of Happy Together, For Lovers and The Beat Goes On, I much prefer the Runaway Orchestra’s version. They’ve revitalized and rejuvenated both tracks. For Lovers with its understated, lush string drenched sound takes on new meaning as its inherent beauty shines through. On other tracks, the Runaway Orchestra take a different approach.

While many tracks on Runaway Orchestra saw the Runaway Orchestra reinvent and rejuvenate songs, other songs are akin to paying homage to the original artist. However, this is far from a slavish cover version. Instead, it’s the original with a captivating twist. Two examples are T-Rex’s Life’s A Gas and The Beatles’ Two Of Us. Both are a fitting tribute to two of Britain’s most successful groups. Along with the reinvention of familiar songs, Runaway Orchestra is an enchanting and captivating album. For anyone yet to discover the delights of Runaway Orchestra, now is the time to do so.

Playing an important part in the success of Runaway Orchestra, which was rereleased by Mr. Bongo Records on 1st January 2014, are the understated, folk-tinged arrangements which feature a compelling and eclectic selection of instruments. The piece de resistance is Sophie’s vocal. Variously tender, wistful, melancholy and joyous, it helps breath new life and meaning into the ten songs on Runaway Orchestra. What started off as a adjunct to Sophie’s solo career could turn out to be something much bigger. Given the plaudits that have come the Runaway Orchestra’s way, Runaway Orchestra can’t be a one-off. There must be a sequel to Runaway Orchestra. Surely, given the quality of music on Runaway Orchestra it won’t be long before we hear from Runaway Orchestra again? Standout Tracks: Life’s A Gas, For Lovers, Run With Us and True Love Will Find You in the End.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: