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.

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