Sunday, August 30, 2009

We Had A Thing - Lisa Donnelly

As the opening track of Lisa Donnelly's We Had A Thing kicks in, you might start to think that you are merely in, say, Sara Bareilles territory. Not that there is anything inherently wrong in that, just that you fear you are in for 45 minutes or so of perfectly pleasant, but ultimately forgettable, Radio 2 music. But even if the lyrics in the opener (such as "open your heart and close your legs, they only want what makes them beg") don't tip you the nod that you're dealing with something else, the funky disco opening of the follow up track, Little Devil soon let you know that this is a whole different kind of ride.

Some might decry the sheer scope of different sounds on We Had A Thing, but when Donnelly can switch so effectively from the delightful up-tempo pop of Naturally to the blues sound of Stuck In A Rut (which reminded me of old favourite Matraca Berg) via the eastern sitar sounds of Blue it would be churlish to complain. And why should showing more invention in the space of one record than a lot of acts manage in an entire career count against her too much?

“Life takes a lifetime,” sings Lisa Donnelly in Naturally, so you've more than enough time to sit down and enjoy this stunning album.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Little Happiness - Aimee Allen

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According to her website, Aimee Allen is described as an “explosive, outspoken voice” which might confuse people who know her purely from her "Cooties" Hairspray turn, or indeed anyone who comes to her new album, A Little Happiness, blind, and hasn't had the pleasure of her "previous" (and largely unreleased career). After all the mostly acoustic and generally lilting pace of the album only just manages to stay this side of Jack Johnson banality.

Indeed one of her new found artistic aims is to "to get people in a good mood and show them life is to be enjoyed" (incidentally this aim was influenced to a certain extent by being the victim of an assault in the summer of 2008 that left her with a broken jaw and serious head injuries) band this album certainly goes a long way to reaching for those aims.

The lilting reggae-lite tones of the likes of Save Me and On Vacation are perfect summer tunes (the slightly off-kilter whistling on the former is disarmingly adorable - hopefully it's not "ghosted" by some bloke in the recording studio...) whilst the perky piano backing and the soulful chorus on Calling The Maker make for something rather wonderful indeed, probably resulting in the highlight of the album.

But really, whilst the quality does slip slightly on occasion there's little here that you wouldn't want to listen to over and over again. Some reviewers have labelled this as a perfect "summer" album but that, to me, would be to do it an injustice. Whilst it certainly would fit nicely on a hot summer's days out in the garden, I'd wager it's just the thing to perk you up in a cold winter's evening as well. As Allen reminds us, the world isn't perfect, but you'll love sharing it's imperfections with her whilst listening to this delightful album.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ready For The Weekend - Calvin Harris

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Most reviews that I have read of Calvin Harris follow up to the rather good I Created Disco have gone along the lines that last time out Harris was chasing the "cool" sound of the likes of LCD Soundsystem whereas this time around he's aiming right for the jugular of populism. Whilst I cannot see the argument that first time around Harris was aiming for anything else, it's certainly true that his stated ambition for his second album to make “stadium dance” music, certainly wasn't wide of the mark.

In places the album is distinctly simple in terms of its tunes but driving beats and cheesy hooks make Ready For The Weekend a shamelessly crowd-pleasing least for the majority of the album.

In all honesty, the tracks work in isolation. Few would cause you to leave the dancefloor when you're out on a Saturday night, but any more than two or three in the comfort of you own home and you're unlikely to stay amused for long. It doesn't help it either that the best track on here is his collaboration with Dizzee Rascal, whose lyrics may be as banal as Harris' but at least have a sense of mischievousness and fun that are lacking from Harris originals. And whilst Harris', erm, lack of a singing voice may be part of his charm, it doesn't half start to grate when you are subjected to it for any continuous length of time.

So whilst Harris has enough on here to keep those top 10 chart smashes coming (even if at times he comes dangerously close to sounding like the Vengaboys) it would seem that his natural position on your MP3 player is as an artist to dip into when you're in need of a big pop smash hit rather than put the whole album on your favourites list.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Guilty Pleasure - Ashley Tisdale

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If Ashley Tisdale's 2007 debut, Headstrong, was exactly what you would expect from a Disney-pushed pop act then this follow up perhaps deserves to be tarnished with the same brush.

Yes, Tisdale is now attempting to prove that she's "grown up" (which shouldn't be difficult considering she's 23 now) and this introduces itself as the kind of lame "power pop" that gives, well, pop music a bad name.

As ever with these kind of things there are a couple of songs that are at least catchy and relatively memorable. Masquerade chugs along pleasantly enough with it's rock riffs and Hair is the kind of upbeat, but slightly odd, pop song that should be a big hit even if it's lyrical content (young Ashley seems to love how her boyfriend twirls her hair) is more suited to the 12 year old girls that this album is presumably targeted at than it is to me.

Of course where the album really falls down is the ballads; other than the slightly brave How Do You Love Someone - which may be a terrible song but at least has the guts to tackle something different lyrically (divorce) the rest just sail by on a stream of dullness.

And that's the crux of the matter; Tisdale has gone to great lengths to "grow up" but the whole product is unable to shake that "corporate" stench. Co-writes from Kara DioGuardi (Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood), Toby Gad (Beyonce, Fergie) and Diane Warren (erm, well just about everyone) simply highlight the desperation to hit the charts and the whole thing is completely devoid of any distinctiveness or imagination.

Last time around I said there Tisdale had a smattering of songs that could be hits in the right hands but that there was no evidence, as a whole, that Tisdale was that right vehicle. Her role in High School Musical might work in the short-term, but in the long-term it seems like I was right first time around.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Travelling Like The Light - V V Brown

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Philosophical question of the day; is it possible to be a "pop" star without having any hits?

Stay with me, because I'm not just being obnoxious for the sake of it. It's because VV Brown, who comes with her fair share of hype, so far has had two singles fail to trouble the charts (Crying Blood and Leave) and one just scrape into the top 40 (Shark In The Water). Does the British public not know what's good for it, or is VV Brown quite rightly relegated to the status of an also ran along side the likes of La Roux, Little Boots (who for all the backlash has a top 10 album and two top 20 singles) and, yes, even Pixie Lott?

To be honest, it's probably a bit of both. Crying Blood and Leave! are decent enough singles, but aren't anything that can't be found better elsewhere. Things aren't helped by album opener, Quick Fix, being intensely irritating. And after an album's worth, Brown's 50's and 60's influenced style is really rather grating. And to be honest, despite the fact that Brown has a good voice and seems to be able to pen a decent enough tune, the whole things smacks of ticking a corporate box for a "pop" version of Amy Winehouse. And that need not necessarily be a bad thing when executed better than it is here, but nothing rises above the parapet enough to really draw you in.

As her version of This Charming Man on the B-side to Leave showed, someone would like you to think that VV Brown is cerebral and vital and bringing something credible to pop music. Take my word for it, she's not.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Jessie James - Jessie James

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Sometimes I do things I'm not particularly proud of. Agreeing to watch Confessions Of A Shopaholic isn't one of them (regardless of the, ahem, reasons), but the soundtrack of that said movie did introduce me to Jessie James, through the track Blue Jeans. It was the kind of sassy, sexy pop tune that grabs my attention from time to time and made me anxious to check out more from where that came.

Well, I had to wait for a while, but finally James' debut album has hit the airwaves and despite some suggestions that James can be classified as a "country" singer this is a straight up pop album all the way (as evidenced by the Katy Perry co-writes on two tracks).

Opener Wanted sounds very much like Christina Aguillera, but thankfully like one of her better songs, whilst second track Bullet (one of the Katy Perry's) is everything a great pop song could be. It's catchy, slightly odd (the use of a banjo, for instance) and very difficult to get out of your head once you've listened to it once. In the space of three minutes it also seems to sum up what James is aiming for. And whilst "is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me" is certainly a cliche is strikes a playful note that adds to the entertainment on show.

The "country" element does, I suppose, show up on the delightfully slinky, almost Nashville Rap style, My Cowboy, whilst the likes of Big Mouth and Burn It Up are the kinds of songs that Pussycat Dolls would kill for (and no doubt take to the top of the charts for weeks).

Ok, so as is almost a prerequisite these days, the album sinks when there's some demographic-grabbing ballads and the album certainly starts better than it ends, but for a good two-thirds or so this really is a special pop album, packed full of catchy hits-in-the-making.

Of course it's easy to be cynical about things like this, and there would seem to be little doubt that Jessie James is shamelessly aiming for pop-superstardom but this cracker of an album should surely help her get there.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Lost Get Found - Britt Nicole

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If you're really paying attention to my ramblings on this site, you may recognise the name Britt Nicole. Her 2007 album Say It wasn't brilliant but it did have a smattering of top-quality pop singles so it wasn't without some anticipation that I gave her new effort, The Lost Get Found, a spin. Much like last time, if someone hadn't told me I'd have had little clue that this was "Christian" music - again Britt Nicole sounds a little bit like Avril Lavigne (back when people liked her) and Kelly Clarkson.

When this "sound" works, we get some pretty good pop tunes. How We Roll is a catchy, upbeat song, Headphones tries to channel the Timabaland effect to surprisingly good effect whilst Welcome To The Show had me hooked with it's carnival intro before hitting out with a heavy pop-rock drive. Best of the bunch, however, is the disco-tastic Like A Star, which would be out of place as a Kylie smash hit single.

Of course as with most things of this nature there is your fair share of pleasant but ultimately forgettable ballads (the one exception would be the really rather beautiful album closer Have Your Way) but if you take the good songs on their merits, there is enough here to please most pop fans.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Dandy Warhols Are Sound - Dandy Warhols

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With the money rolling in from THOSE telephone adverts, 2003's Welcome To The Monkey House was seen as The Dandy Warhols big attempt to become megastars, known for more than Bohemian Like You. As you'll be aware, that never panned out.

It was a mild success, but was largely ignored by those same people who waxed lyrical over their big hit. Like much to do with the Dandy Warhols, however, the whole project was mired in controversy. Mainly that the original mix that the band intended to release was deemed unsuitable for public consumption by their record company, who promptly got a shiny pop producer in (Peter Wheatley, who can count the Sugababes and Sophie Ellis-Bextor amongst his other "clients"), without any input from the band themselves.

Well now in 2009, the "original" mix (mixed by Russell Elavedo) has surfaced on the Dandy's own record label so we can all see how wrong the record company were...well that's the theory anyway.

The fact is that whilst the original mix obviously more clearly aligns itself to the intentions of the band, it's difficult to say that it's either markedly better than the album that hit the shops or that there's THAT much difference between the two. The original is perhaps a little less "shiny" than what was released six years ago, but its tempting to suggest that for once a record companies intervention produced the right result, however much that might disappoint the band themselves.

In the 2002 documentary Dig! Courtney Taylor-Taylor infamously declared “I sneeze and hits come out” but this "original mix" of the album perhaps definitively shows us that those of us who thought that the band treated their, you know, hits as mere novelties that somehow obscured what they really wanted...their credibility, were right all along.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Music For Men - Gossip

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We live in a strange world. "Pop" musicians can get pilloried for having a huge unexpected hit on the back of an advert or being featured on a TV show or for having an "image" that overshadows the music. If you're a "serious" artist however, we'll merely pass on thanks that such attentions have brought your music to the wider audience that it deserves.

As you might gather then, I'm not a huge fan of Gossip. At best they are a perfectly serviceable "one hit wonder" band, with Standing In The Way Of Control being a rather good tune that completely overshadowed anything else on the album of the same name. And when you consider that, as far as I am concerned, the lead single from Music For Men, "Heavy Cross" was little more than a sub-par rehash of "Control" there doesn't seem much hope.

And indeed, there isn't.

At least with Rick Rubin at the production helm things sound clear, but that can't make up for some pretty uninspiring tunes. Those of you looking for anything new here might be more than a little bit disappointed. And in the final analysis I can't imagine that this will change anything in the world of Gossip. They, if indeed most people realise that there is more than Beth Ditto to the band, will still remain more famous for Beth Ditto than they will for their music. Which in some ways is a shame (Ditto does have a wonderful voice) but in other ways is entirely appropriate.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella!

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I bet you woke up this fine morning and thought "you know, the one thing missing from my music collection is a compilation of "a cappella" versions of Ben Folds songs."

What? You didn't?

Yeah, it seems like a pointless exercise doesn't it and there's no way at all that Mr Folds would invite college a cappella groups to send in their cover versions and then collect the best of them on a compilation CD is there?

What? He did?

Of course to those familiar with Folds' live concerts most will recognise that one of the highlights of the night is usually the bit where Folds orchestrates the audience singing along to Army so perhaps it's not THAT much of a surprise.

Your enthusiasm for this concept will of course depend on one of two things; you're either a big fan of Ben Folds (Five) or of a cappella music. If you're not one or the other turn away now. From my standpoint as the former, this has a curiosity value but little more than that for most of the album. There are occasions, like The University Of Chicago's take on Magic when you feel you're listening to something really special. The problem is that as I'm not in the latter of the two categories, there's only so much "Flying Pickets" I can take in one sitting.

In the end, this is periodically amusing if you're a fan of Folds, but you never really escape the feeling that there is no real need for what you are listening to to exist in a commercially available form. Despite Folds' protestations to the contrary, this is mere novelty.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Complete Me - Frankmusik

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Thanks to his support slot on the recent UK dates by the Pet Shop Boys I've had the "pleasure" of seeing Vincent Frank, aka Frankmusik, twice in concert. Prior to this I'd not really got an opinion on him either way. He was just another one of those seemingly endless artists who seem hell bent on taking us back to 1985 with their take on electro pop. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing of course; that was just an observation.

I have to be honest and say that his live gigs didn't really grab me; yes there was a handful of catchy tunes but that was about it. Sadly, for me anyway, the album is pretty much the same in terms of the hit/miss ratio.

For every song that, however fleetingly, grabs me (such as When You're Around - which works perhaps DESPITE it's weird melding of Golden Brown) there's three or four which are pleasant but immediately forgettable.

As the disappointing chart position of number 26 for Better Off As Two showed (and it's failure to become a "hit" meant the album release was put back) the main problem is that whilst there is little on here that is offensive to listen to, there's also nothing that hasn't been done better by some of the other recent "electro pop" throwbacks. Unfortunately for Frank, he may well get lost in the shuffle. Although maybe that Holly Valance (shudder) cameo will push Confusion Girl towards the top of the charts...