Monday, September 26, 2011

Nicola Roberts: Cinderella's Eyes (Polydor)

The ongoing Girls Aloud hiatus hasn’t produced much of worth from its individual parts: a West-End stint; some questionable plastic surgery; some Clubcard points; and enough tabloid speculation to outdo the Beckhams. So as Nicola Roberts releases her debut solo album Cinderella’s Eyes, could it finally provide something of worth from a largely pointless interval?

Media-savvy circles have crowned Roberts the poster girl for postmodern irony, hailing her no-nonsense, plain-talking, working-class kookiness and lack of convention as the greatest thing to happen to popular culture in aeons. But to the iTunes-bothering layman, she’s still very much the quiet ginger one at the back.

That’s why opening track and lead single Beat of My Drum needed to be huge and noisy and make a statement. And it did, even if only about four people actually heard it. But it’s not the best indication of Cinderella’s Eyes as a whole. Emotive and understated and tenderly electronic, but simultaneously fresh and forward-thinking, it’s a novel window into an artist we actually knew very little about.

Girls Aloud’s catalogue was, for the most part, swamped by coquettish allegories, Xenomania’s give-away-the-farm production and Nadine Coyle’s tiresome wailing, so it’s a relief to discover something very different here. Glorious melodies, quirky concepts and a substantial dose of candour are the key ingredients of Cinderella’s Eyes, and they come together rather nicely.

Roberts is not afraid to play with intonation, as evidenced on Lucky Day’s lavish ad-libs or the haunting purity of Sticks + Stones, although it doesn’t always work – the shrill chorus of the title track aims for Kate Bush, but makes for genuinely uncomfortable listening. Meanwhile, the metaphor-free Scouse rap of Take a Bite is equal parts cringe-inducing and commendable.

With the likes of Dragonette, Metronomy and Diplo behind the mixing desk, the beats are naturally inventive, although occasionally veer too close to hipsterdom – for instance, the dolphin squeaks that initiate Fish Out of Water. But for such a stellar, buzz-creating line-up of production personnel, there’s little reliance on the acclaim attached to the backing tracks – Roberts is finally the star of the show, and it suits her well.

Girls Aloud were given the best possible start via the decade-defining Sound of the Underground. It was bold, it was distinctive, and it was of a particularly high quality. In the same vein, Cinderella’s Eyes sets Nicola Roberts up as a formidable solo artist, with a considerable talent and some exceptional ideas. Alas, without the publicity machine on her side, it’s unlikely to win fans outside of the knowing industry figures and frothing forums, but for those who’ll experience Cinderella’s Eyes, it’s got the potential to be a humble classic.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Single Reviews 25/09/11

For about a tenth of a second, we considered addressing the split of REM in this weekly blurb o’ nothing prior to the Single Reviews. But we’ll leave that to the inevitable commemorative issue of Q, though how you’d tell a special REM issue apart from any other issue of Q is anyone’s guess. But we digress. Read on for a selection of British rock, some interchangeable girlband Autons, and a Seb Coe-approved musical endorsement of what’s essentially a fancy gas lighter.

You Me At Six
herald their new album Sinners Never Sleep with the marching riffs and snarling vocals of Loverboy. It’s an interesting angle, and an effective one at that, letting the plodding, mesmerising hook do most of the work before the huge rock ideals are unveiled with force when the chorus comes along. And with even the most mainstream of rock acts finding it a struggle to promote in this fickle world of Rihanna, Rihanna and more Rihanna, it’s a nice quirk that’ll get them noticed without even coming close to diluting themselves.

We’ve already addressed the peculiar moniker of Noel Gallagher’s High-Flying Birds on these pages. And with a pretentious name comes an equally pretentious single title in the form of AKA...What A Life! It’s a level of extraneous punctuation not seen since Britney Spears’ early work, but thankfully the song more than excuses such anti-Truss behaviour. An inventive, poised and charismatic number, and surprisingly contemporary for a man usually shackled to 1996, it’s precisely the step forwards from Oasis he needs, and an easily-awarded Single of the Week.

With the Olympics less than a year away, the cash-ins and spin-offs are already well underway, once such example the Official Olympic Torch Song from Dionne Bromfield and Tinchy Stryder. A song for the TORCH. At this rate, should we expect an Aquatics Centre Anthem? A dubstep track from Wenlock and Mandeville? Still, at least Spinnin’ For 2012 has its merits – a bouncy, poppy offering much more suited to Bromfield than the considerably more mature soul she’s been peddling up until now.

And finally, we were planning on really laying into Freedom, the BIG! COMEBACK! single from the dregs of the Sugababes. But clearly, they’ve realised themselves what an unimaginative, uninspiring, unequivocal pile of horse-shit Freedom is, cancelling its release and giving it away for free instead. For a song that’s supposed to be a noisy, heartening call-to-arms, it’s more likely to induce diarrhoea than any kind of empowerment. Look girls, the Sugababes brand has been sullied enough, and we know it’s beyond repair. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want you to quit. Take the hint.

Honking Box Review: X Factor USA

Regular readers will know that we’ve had a thing or two to say about The X Factor in the past – rants, round-ups, liveblogs, and posts so venomous and/or libellous we’ve deleted them in fear of Syco’s legal muscle kicking the front door in.

So we couldn’t let the big-money launch of the American version go without a dose of scrutiny, now could we? Admittedly, it didn’t come easy to do so – watching The X Factor recently has felt like such an effort, and that hasn’t provided a huge dose of enthusiasm as the long-touted Fox revision finally hit screens this week.

And while the new British judging line-up has given the show a kick up the arse, the transparency of show has become laughable. The clumsiest re-edits to steer the narrative how the producers want, the rejigging of acts and categories for no apparent reason, and the visible despair of Dermot O’Leary as he longs for the days of waxing indie with Bobby Gillespie on Re:Covered.

So it’s with some surprise that the American version doesn’t fall prey to the same tired standards – or if it does, it at least covers them up a whole lot better than the UK version. Furthermore, it was a relief to see the audition trail handled city by city, in comparison to the “We’re in BIRMINGHAM! No, LONDON! Hang on, LIVERPOOL! No, it was BIRMINGHAM all along!” that saturates each British episode.

One highlight – in terms of talent at least – came in the form of Chris, a former drug addict whose audition was genuinely impressive. But, rather disgustingly, Simon Cowell offered Chris a place at Boot Camp on the promise that he agrees to stay clean. Never mind that he’s already been to rehab, is doing exceptionally well and has a family to think about – he’ll lay off the crack because he wants to be turned into a watered-down Bruno Mars and sent home by Week 2.

The focus as far as ITV2 viewers were concerned was mainly on Cheryl Cole, and her unceremonious axing from the show. Surprisingly, she came across incredibly well – she may not be missed on the UK version, but perhaps the time out of the spotlight (in relative terms, at least) has been of benefit. She was warm, funny, friendly, understandable and confident – not the timid lamb Cowell told us she had become – and evoked the likeable, excited Cheryl of Series 5 rather than the jaded, entitled brat of Series 7.

Her ruthless, opportunistic successor Nicole Scherzinger, apart from being the devil’s own concubine, was actually pretty good value deputising for Cheryl and Dannii on the UK version last year. However, she’s not shown a whole lot in the way of promise Stateside – bland, flat and every inch the dead-eyed slutbag we got to know as F├╝hrer of the Alleycat Trolls.

Elsewhere, LA Reid and Paula Abdul were adequate in their roles, the former yet to reveal his in-show quirk, while the latter has evidently had hers placated by prescription medicine. And the auditionees ticked all the necessary boxes – cutesy kiddies, delusional bellowing, it’s-my-last-chance 40-something belters, sassy divas, over-rehearsed boybands, and of course, mentally unstable pensioners pushed onto the stage with the sole purpose of ridicule.

It was all passable stuff, generally entertaining and with a decent display of talent, certainly far greater than the train wreck we’ve seen over here these past few weeks. The problem seems to be an arrogant assumption that America will take to the whole X Factor machine the way the UK did. What Simon Cowell seems to have mysteriously forgotten is that The X Factor had fairly humble beginnings on these shores – discreet audition rooms instead of packed arenas; industry-based judges as opposed to shiny celebrities; comparatively modest viewing figures; little in the way of press coverage; relatively low-key live shows, with a sensibly-sized stage and a mere 9 finalists; Kate Thornton. Kate. Thornton.

It’s taken several years for the show to morph into the towering entertainment behemoth we know it as today. But the US version is starting right at the top, foolishly thinking that American viewers will be as susceptible to the media-wide propaganda that fills the tabloids here in Blighty. And while E! or the National Enquirer or The Ricki Lake Show would suggest otherwise, the Yanks don’t buy into that mindset quite as easily. If The X Factor wants to succeed, it’s going to have to absolutely nail every second of its content, because it cannot rely on the hype. And if that doesn’t work, particularly after the gargantuan publicity it’s created for itself, then it’s got a very, very long way to fall, very, very publicly.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Single Reviews 18/09/11

Hey, you! In the mood to see a slightly-bloodshot critical eye cast over some pop music of varying standards? Then behold the Single Reviews! On the proverbial jukebox today, the best/worst member of a certain girlband; a UK rapper who’s equal parts hilarious/piteous; the most overhyped/hypeworthy band on the planet; and... well, one more artist who doesn’t really capture any kind of extremes. But hey.

There was once a time when older-skewing, slightly-introverted, slightly-safe, yet rather talented musicians were politely referred to as “albums artists”. The term, however, is now more realistically “Artists Whose Catalogues Lend Themselves to X Factor Boot Camp Butcherings” – doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, but summarises James Morrison nicely, particularly new release I Won’t Let You Go. Immediate, intense and hugely sellable, it’s every inch a James Morrison song. What else can be said?

Maintaining her flawless record of achieving a Single of the Week with every track she releases, Nicola Roberts scoops it once again. Granted, it’s only her second single, but let's not take such a towering achievement away from her, eh? Lucky Day is infectious, unpretentious, captivating and gorgeously melancholic, her swooning vocals nicely matching Dragonette’s elegantly effervescent production. It’s a shame the polarising Beat of My Drum scared off so many people, as Lucky Day cements Roberts as a talent of an almost surprisingly high calibre.

For someone who’s spent most of their career crowing about their roots, it hasn’t taken Dappy long to shake off his Camden credentials and adopt a done-to-death Stateside sound. Content-wise, the aim of No Regrets is clearly to dole out a hefty dose of maturity, and it does achieve that, but let’s be honest – the only appeal Dappy holds to most of the public is the probability of him putting his foot in it during another Never Mind The Buzzcocks appearance.

And we wrap proceedings up with a new offering from Coldplay, ahead of next month’s Mylo Xyloto album. Paradise sees astral organs make way for a Ryan Tedder-style handclap-beat, before the fundamental Coldplayness overwhelms proceedings. Admittedly, there’s a more twiddled, synthy sound present, but the falsetto ad-libs and swelling chorus make it yet another potential set-closer for the inevitable sell-out stadium tour.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ed Sheeran: + (Atlantic)

Much has been made of Norfolk singer-songwriter-sort-of-rapper Ed Sheeran’s rise to the top, which saw him sofa-surfing as he gigged his way into the public consciousness the old-fashioned way. No X Factor audition, no Usher/Bieber-style celebrity endorsements, no online gimmicks a la Sandi fucking Thom. But anyone who’s caught the Ed Sheeran live experience won’t be surprised that he’s made it, outlet of genius that he is.

So, with a wealth of live experience a musician twice his age probably couldn’t match, and a string of quietly successful EPs, the build up to debut album + has been just short of immense. The airplay behemoth of The A-Team needs no introduction, though whether it was the most accurate introduction to Sheeran himself is questionable. The gentle, lilting twang does crop up throughout +, but accompanied by hip-hop beats, cheeky lyrics and stuttered, 100-mile-a-minute vocals.

On paper, it’s daring stuff. A chubby-cheeked, ginger-haired, white kid armed with an acoustic guitar forging his own extraordinary adaptation of rap probably shouldn’t work. So it’s pretty impressive that he not only pulls it off, but that it doesn’t feel in the least bit unnatural. Sheeran owns every single note with a firm, commendable confidence, and from the outset it’s difficult to imagine anyone else even attempting something similar.

Tonally, the whole spectrum is covered, from the trippy, morose Kiss Me to the contented sway of Grade 8, essentially operating as both an amalgamation of and a follow-on from his EPs. It’s therefore hard not to compare + to his more low-key releases – You Need Me, I Don’t Need You may have functioned better in its initial acoustic guise, but actually brings some punch within the sphere of the album. And at the very least, the tracklist makes for an effective way to cap the journey to full long-player.

Lyrically, + might come across as occasionally gawky and literal, but it actually benefits from this. It feels disarmingly honest, and makes for a refreshing picture of late-teen life, particularly when the general depiction is some sort of Skinsesque, high-gloss fantasy, relevant to precisely no-one.

While he’s been adopted as some sort of voice of the BlackBerry Messenger generation, + proves that Sheeran is in possession of a talent whose reach goes far beyond that. And although perhaps there’s a slight worthiness in the aforementioned “I did it the traditional route!” schtick that comes attached with every mention of his name, it’s hard to imagine Ed Sheeran couldn’t have succeeded, whichever route he took.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Single Reviews 04/09/11

Ah, September. The slippery slope to Christmas begins. Although more recently, The X Factor has sort of functioned as a run-up to Christmas, hasn’t it? Kind of like an 18-week advent calendar, except with Adele songs and clumsy editing in place of chocolate. To ward off thoughts of general Yuletide awfulness, we’re focusing on this week, with a naff Back-to-School selection of Single Reviews...

We begin things with Leona Lewis, and we promise to do our very best to review the song rather than make snarky references to her somewhat torporous personality. MUST RESIST. Collide is the result of a collaboration (translation: theft and ensuing payoff) with DJ Avicii, whose candyfloss trance beats match Lewis’ vocals rather nicely. Particular mention must go to the song’s mesmerizing bridge, which sadly makes way for a big gushy holler of a chorus, but overall it’s passable enough.

While worldwide press, radio and TV burble romantically about their every riff, we’ve always held a more take-or-leave-‘em approach to Foo Fighters. For instance: Breakout, Low, Learn To Fly = ace. Best of You, Times Like These, The Pretender = shut up and go away. However, in Arlandria, they’ve crafted something that falls safely into the former category. A dark, alluring whisper tempts you in, while the colossal, brilliantly belligerent chorus goes for the full KO. A well-played and well-deserved Single of the Week.

The Saturdays are a crafty bunch. We’d always thought they were decent enough, but in hindsight, the only reason we’ve ever given them the time of day was off the back of one great single (Up). It’s taken us eleven singles into their career for us to finally stop and realise that The Saturdays are actually really rather shit. All Fired Up proves the point – while not as inane and laughable as Notorious, it’s meaningless, personality-deficient Clubland filler that’s just about one step up from the Splendabots.

And finally, the neon guitar-pop of Think About It marks a welcome comeback from Melanie C, her first new material this side of the Spice Girls reunion. Clearly it’s kickstarted her inner popstar, thumping rhythms punctuated with engaging bursts of strummage. Vocally, it’s pure Melanie C – namely, if you love her, it’s perfection; if you don’t, it’s a million nails on a million chalkboards. And for those in the pro camp, it sets up her fifth album as a particularly intriguing prospect.
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