Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Sloppy Dog Spicewatch

Truth be told, we didn't think we would ever be bollocksed to roll out another article for our short-lived SpiceWatch column. Aren't you lucky, then, that an article submitted to Record Collector magazine got rejected? Not so lucky for us, mind...

As the Spice Girls shift their nostalgia behemoth into fifth gear, it’s worth examining to what extent their phenomenon translates into strict 21st Century provisos. A greatest hits album, showcasing all nine number ones. A world tour, which, lest the press releases forget to mention for a millionth time, included London dates which sold out in 38 seconds. But how much does this high-yield homecoming project actually do the Spice legacy justice?

Early live reviews would suggest they’ve nailed it pretty well. All the classics are on show, some displayed in full 90’s regalia, others sympathetically updated for a contemporary audience. The Times called them “consummate entertainers”, the Toronto Globe & Mail said they “wowed fans with a tightly staged and ambitiously choreographed performance”, while the Evening Standard remarked “one has to conclude that this is ebullient pop music of a very high standard, presented with panache.”

Thumbs up all round, then. And yet their Greatest Hits album has failed to steamroller its way to Number One, as the above hype would’ve suggested. Admittedly, they probably hadn’t foretold a release the same week as champion robo-diva Leona Lewis, which goes some way to explaining a very respectable No. 2 placing, but it’s a far cry from the power-platinum debut that surmounted the globe.

Spice (Virgin, 1996), while heralded into play by the exemplary gaudy Wannabe, carried an overall sophistication far surpassing the playground chants of its lead single. The shadowy, near-macabre Naked and the raw comic feminism of Love Thing - never mind the fact that this album earned them a place on the Mercury Music Prize shortlist and an Ivor Novello award - were clear indications that early one-hit wonder labels couldn’t have been any wider of the mark.

Second album Spiceworld (Virgin, 1998) paradoxically feels less mature than Spice. A comprehensive take on a number of musical genres made for a friskier disposition overall. Nods to rock (Move Over) and Motown (Stop), via pseudo-disco (Never Give Up On The Good Times), Spanish lullabies (Viva Forever) and cringe-inducing brass (The Lady Is A Vamp), Spiceworld saw the phenomenon prolonged significantly, profitably transporting them to their first world tour.

And so onto the urban overtones of Forever (Virgin, 2000), complete with heavy vocal layering, harder beats and peppered with the chatter of Rodney Jerkins. Their first (and only) album without Geri Halliwell, Forever wasn’t received particularly well, in terms of critique or units shifted. However, it led the way for an R&B re-reading of Spice, which on revision, was similarly feline, soulful and slinky, albeit with a touch more twinkle. Ginger-absence aside, what was the major difference?

Examining Forever, it underlines a contradiction indicating that perhaps the British public won’t ever be happy. The Spice Girls have been all but sent to the Tower for comeback single Headlines (Friendship Never Ends), an archetypal golden-era Spice ballad, which has despondently imparted their worst chart performance to date - something which the tabloids have leapt upon with a morbid verve. It all sounds a bit “old”, apparently. And yet, when Forever was launched by the highly-fashionably R&B squelcher Holler, the girls were similarly panned for attempting to be something they weren’t.

But then, in seven short years, music consumption has changed drastically. Fly-on-the-wall talent shows, a la Popstars or Totally Boyband, coupled with insider-driven websites such as Popjustice have crafted a generation of backseat A&R men, littering messageboards with how much better they’d have handled the Greatest Hits project than Simon Fuller or EMI did.

The aforementioned Headlines, which redefines the term slow-burner, with the second new recording, the horrific Voodoo - an aural representation of a low-rent Blackpool hen party - just weren’t going to cut it. Cyberspace had been abuzz with far greater expectations. Where was the live favourite W.O.M.A.N., criminally never committed to record? The Elton John-penned My Strongest Suit, given a Spice-over for his 1998 Aida soundtrack? The Spice-era recordings Feed Your Love and C U Next Tuesday, initially shelved thanks to their somewhat objectionable titles?

Alas, the Sandra-Bernhard-in-The-King-of-Comedy-style followers have had to make do with the two supposedly sub-par new tracks. Still, for the more casual fan, or more importantly, the layman with one eye nonchalantly on the CD chart at Sainsbury’s, twelve memorable singles (plus the additional Pepsi anthem) makes for quite an impressive anthology of buoyant, quality pop songs.

Meanwhile, given that their respective solo projects are often dismissed at the first mention, it’s easy to forget that the Spice Girls clocked up a total of 13 solo albums between them. And while some (Brown’s kitchen-produced LA State of Mind; much of Halliwell’s cartoonish catalogue) are arguably deserving of such reproach, moments of pop magnificence shine out from a number of these records.

Bunton’s affable nods to Carnaby Street exquisiteness, showcased brilliantly in the 2003 single Maybe. Chisholm’s versatility and musicianship (This Time’s flamenco-inflected Don’t Let Me Go; Northern Star’s sincere, affecting Feel The Sun; or the strident call-to-arms Last Night On Earth from Beautiful Intentions) soundly elucidating her lead. And perhaps surprisingly, even the debut (and only) album from Beckham, an eponymous assortment of R&B-lite - if somewhat overtwiddled - pop pearls.

While their solo ventures vary from the ludicrous to the sublime, none are necessarily true bearers of the Spice kitemark, post-split. And yet, their effects as a band have still been very much felt during their non-attendance. Girls Aloud’s last tour saw them performing a Spice medley in tribute to their adolescent heroes. Less in-your-face girl groups such as the Sugababes and Destiny’s Child have each hailed the influence of the Spice Girls in their own careers. Even the aloof, icy superiority of All Saints would have been unlikely to turn many heads had it not been for the Spice Girls, acting as an antithesis to their day-glo pandemonium.

But for now, the original article is back to show us how it was done. It may only be for the duration of a (speculatively) farewell tour, but it’s nonetheless a fitting opportunity to revisit a catalogue of pop majesty that’s so often overshadowed by its own brand. Even if the Spice Girls are finally closing the book on their career as a group, there’s plenty of life in their Greatest Hits - and each preceding album - for a long while yet.

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