Since the bygone era of Sonny and Cher, the male and female singer-songwriter duo has become increasingly rare, beyond the odd cringeworthy couple doing the rounds of pub open mic nights. But Katie Plus Juan, an acoustic duo hailing from St Albans (but now largely based down the road in London), are seeking to change that. Featuring the team up of singer/guitarists Katie Masson and Juan Fos, their means to break the mould is their debut album, Tom’s Garden. Can it do the business, or should it stay banished to the local boozer on a dismal Wednesday evening?
Well, Tom’s Garden is certainly a big, sizzling pot of genres and influences. There’s soul, pop, blues, latin, and country all thrown in there - and not liberally. Thankfully, Katie Plus Juan pull it off remarkably well. Like many of the great duo albums, this debut follows the ‘his’ and ‘hers’ alternating approach on each track, with the twosome’s voices waiting until the chorus to make a harmonious connection.
On opener Drip Drip Goodbye, it quickly becomes known that a massive selling point of this music is Masson’s singing. An absolute vocal powerhouse that deserves to reach as many ears as feasibly possible, she has the technical prowess of her contemporaries, including the likes of Jessie J, but with a raw authenticity that so many of these showy singers don’t possess. In that regard, her jazzy singing reminds me of one Amy Winehouse, and I’m very aware it’s a crime to make such a comparison lightly. The vocal fills are all in the name of the music, her vibrato oozes emotion, and when her voice cracks occasionally, it hits you hard.
Not that these two are in any way a mismatch – when Fos takes centre stage for When You’re Young, the album’s first latino number, such fears are put to bed. He too shows of a wonderful voice with great range, not dissimilar to Bruno Mars. And an honourable mention to some fantastic bossa nova guitar playing on said track.
And last but not least, the songwriting itself: third track, Better Days, is a huge highlight; a Hammond organ led number in which Masson sings, “on the corner of Hadley Park / lives a fellow with a broken heart”; its chorus is beguiling, and the duo’s harmonies are a delight.
Heart Overload is a fairly heavy nod to Stevie Wonder, but it’s a joyous track that’s arguably worthy of the great man himself. There’s some balladry in the Rhodes piano led Sun Goes Down, and the acoustic Blueberry Lady (Headliner editor's firm favourite) affirm that Katie Plus Juan can make this work in any number of tempos.
The pair wisely end their LP on a cheery note: Favourite Sight is a lot of fun, with its ensemble including ukulele and muted trumpet, and some cracking shoo-wahs from Masson.
Tom’s Garden is unapologetically an album that relies on the strength of its songs and instrumentation, foregoing touch-ups in the studio and overlaying of unneeded effects. And more power to Katie Plus Juan for taking that route. And while a very organic album of blues, soul, latin and country might sound a tad retro, a crisp studio sound and the sheer talent of its two songwriters ensure this music is very relevant. Can Katie Plus Juan resurrect the singer-songwriter duo? Absolutely, and here’s to them making a great success of it.
Listen to: Blueberry Lady (obviously); Heart Overload; When You're Young.