Review: Britney Spears – Circus

 

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Every generation has its fallen hero and Britney Spears is ours. Yet despite being released at the height of her madness, 2007’s Blackout proved that Britney could still create brilliant pop moments. Now, just over a year later, Circus arrives with an overwhelming swell of public support behind it.

While Blackout was 45 minutes of eye-rolling, crotch-crunching, but utterly brilliant insanity, Circus is, like Britney herself in recent months, a touch calmer. Sometimes it works, like on the disconcerting ‘Unusual You’, an electro ballad of Robyn-sized proportions, or the serene ‘Blur’, documenting Britney’s last two years through lyrics like “I can’t remember what I did last night”. Other times, like on the sickly ‘My Baby’ – an ode to her children including a mawkish reference to their “tiny hands” – it goes horribly wrong.

To be honest, though, all we really want from Britney is floor-filling pop to live up to ‘Womanizer”s manic sirens. ‘If You Seek Amy’ is a secretly filthy playful romp, while ‘Kill The Lights’ is a scathing attack on “Mr Photographer” who stalks her every move. Our favourite moment lies in the slow-motion middle eight of ‘Shattered Glass’: we can just imagine Britney, in full diva mode, strutting through a icy forest, completely back in control.

Circus is an album of highs and lows, but there’s a danger we’re just so excited about Britney surviving that we’re happy to accept mediocrity. ‘Womanizer’ is probably the album’s only iconic moment, but it certainly proves there’s fight yet in the girl we’d almost written off for good.

Originally published by Orange Music

Review: Beyonce – I Am… Sasha Fierce

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In a world ruled by downloads perhaps the flow of tracklistings, once pored over for hours by record labels, isn’t that important any more. It’s certainly not to Beyonce who, on this, her third solo album, has spread 11 songs over two discs in order to create a ‘concept’. Double albums usually make us pull an ugly face (Back To Basics, anyone?) but we guess at least this has a point, almost. 

Let’s explain. For this album Beyonce has split her personality into two. Disc 1, labelled ‘I Am’, reveals the ‘real’ Beyonce behind the makeup, baring her soul with insecurities about love. The simple, If I Were A Boy, is ably joined by the very strange, but wonderful Ave Maria and Ryan Tedder’s Bleeding Love-lite, Halo. Unfortunately when faced with six ballads in a row, you might find yourself dropping off into a deep slumber, no matter how good they are. 

You’ll wake up sharpish though when it’s time for disc 2, as Beyonce is gone, replaced by the hilariously monikered Sasha Fierce. Sasha is B’s on-stage personality and the hair flicking, stiletto strutting beats of Diva with it’s dictionary defining ”diva is the female version of a hustler” prove it. Yet though the electro pounding of Sweet Dreams or the wild Radio might be standouts here, there’s nothing that announces Beyonce’s experimental side like the raging Ring The Alarm from B’Day 

An attempt no doubt for credibility and importance, I Am … Sasha Fierce ultimately falls short of this goal. In a world where Rihanna seems to have released hit after hit, Beyonce, although the superior on-stage performer, needs to come back with something stronger than this if she wants to steal her sparkly crown back off the young pretender.

Originally published on BBC Music

Review: Seal – Soul

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With 15 million album sales and three Grammy Awards under his belt, you’d think it might be easy for Seal to make a successful album. Yet since the mid-1990s his popularity dramatically waned, with even the super contemporary Jacques Lu Cont produced System last year failing to make much of a mark.

Thus Seal has decided to return to his self-declared roots with his sixth album, the simply titled Soul – a collection of classic songs, produced by legendary Canadian producer David Foster, best known for his work with Celine Dion. Entirely a covers album, it features the work of Sam Cooke, Al Green, Otis Reading and James Brown to name but a few, and here enlies the problem. Choosing such definitive songs, and performing them, on the whole, with such a loyalty to the original recordings, simply makes us want to listen to those originals. Sure, there may be some novelty value the first time you hear a man sing Ann Peebles’ glorious I Can’t Stand The Rain or Deniece Williams’ enchanting Free but a faithful cover of If You Don’t Know Me By Now leaves us reaching for the Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes original, or at very worst Simply Red. Cover albums always face this risk, but Seal could have done with taking a leaf out of George Michael’s Songs From The Last Century album and finding some brilliant, but lesser known songs to scatter through the album.

Though there’s no doubt that Seal has a great voice, perfectly designed for singing soul music, ultimately Soul feels a touch too smooth. In his day Seal was an innovator – constantly pushing the genre boundaries of r ‘n’ b & dance music – but now we’re left hoping he finds some of that magic that seems to have been lost along the way.

Originally published at BBC Music

Review: Take That – Circus

Staging a comeback far bigger than any of us could have imagined, it’s now time for Take That – The Man Band to release their 2nd album since returning to their adoring fanbase looking slightly crinkly. Circus, coincidentally released on the same day as Britney’s album of the same name, is it, and we’re pleased to report it’s pretty damn amazing.

Modern day Take That are like the drama faces of Melpomene and Thalia. Gary Barlow, the graceful swan of the group, is cementing his position as the country’s premier pop writer by dripping tragedy over soaring, epic ballads. Melancholy lament ‘What Is Love’ has Howard shining on lead vocals, questioning ‘the science of fate’ while title track ‘The Circus’ says it best with ‘I’m the only clown you’ll ever know. I love you was too many words to say’. The brilliant ‘Rule The World’ might be hard to top but opening track ‘The Garden’ and the perky ‘Hold Up The Light’ have that same magical feel. With songs like this, we’re left curious why they went with the relatively lacklustre ‘Greatest Day’ as lead single.

Then there’s Mark Owen, representing comedy, still happily bouncing about like ‘Clementine’ was as big a hit as it should have been and creating adorable upbeat pop songs Paul McCartney would be proud to sing. If Morrisons have ruined ‘Shine’ for you, then the cheeky ‘Hello’ will happily take its place in your heart. ‘Julie’ puts Mark in story telling mode and almost feels like a sequel to Babe, but the real highlight is the utterly catchy ‘Up All Night’ complete with a proper oom pah pah band and skip down the street chorus – we can just imagine the video with Take That clad in drummer outfits with big shiny silver buttons.

A stunning album, Take That are the vintage champagne of pop fizzing with playful bubbles and happily maturing with age.

Originally written for BBC Music.

Review: Girls Aloud – Out of Control

Even before Queen Cheryl of Cole sharpened her perfectly manicured judging nails to become the nation’s new sweetheart, Girls Aloud were adored by everyone from misery guts Noel Gallagher to toff David Cameron. Now teaming up with hit factory Xenomania again for their fifth studio album, our girls show no sign of giving up the hunt for the perfect pop song.

That perfect song might not, however, be exactly what you’re expecting. Instead of compelling us to race to the dancefloor and jump on our tutu, Out of Control has taken its lead from the success of icy ballad Call The Shots and brought us a shimmering album of heartbreaking electro pop with the tearstained melancholy of the Ashley baiting Love Is Pain its defining moment.

Forgetting about hugely disappointing Neil Tennant collaboration The Loving Kind, the Balearic bliss of epic seven minute marathon Untouchable and the haunting swirls of Turn 2 Stone (which cries out for a big trance remix) prove that you don’t have to be brassy to be brilliant. That said, if you’re running back to Tangled Up frantically searching for Girl Overboard, you need not fear. Although there aren’t as many stompers as usual, the sarcastic country of Love Is The Key and drum and bass anti-anarchy anthem Live In The Country, in which Sarah begs for a ”stall selling strawberry shortcake” will go some way in cheering you up. Miss You Bow Wow impresses as one big non-stop chorus and the dancehall mayhem of Revolution In The Head mean there’s no chance of an overly serious ‘we are no longer pop’ edict being issued.

Pop music at its finest, Girls Aloud have opened up their hearts, and finally won their battle against drippy, re-hashed ballads. Long may they reign.

Originally published at BBC Music

Review: The Saturdays – Chasing Lights

When The Saturdays appeared on our pop radar we felt sorry for them. Here were five girls dreaming of being the next big thing in a world where the Girls Aloud & Sugababes monopoly showed no signs of letting up. Then we heard the kick-ass music, and suddenly The Saturdays felt like a viable proposition.

First single ‘If This Is Love’ seemed to spring out of nowhere with it’s Yazoo sample shining an electro-pop beacon but there’s been plenty of behind the scenes work going on. Signed to Fascination Records, home to Girls Aloud, they certainly have a pedigree with Rochelle & Frankie alumni of S Club Juniors, the irritatingly enthusiastic Mollie, an X-Factor reject, as well as soloist Vanessa. Then there’s Una – eight years older than the others, she’s a singer songwriter who already oozes disinterest in the project, and could be their Siobhan Donaghy.

If we’re looking for a word to sum up The Saturdays, it’s feistiness. Although nothing can beat the robot disco of 2nd single ‘Up’, there are only really one or two soppy ballads like ‘Issues’ that let ‘Chasing Lights’ down. Instead it’s the fierce chorus of ‘Keep Her’ and the sass of ‘Set Me Off’ that get us excited. ‘Work’ is an irresistible dancefloor puller destined to be a single,while ‘Lies’ is an electro-ballad that proves these girls will be taking no mess from the boys.

Energetic and fun, ‘Chasing Lights’ is a promising debut. It’s not perfect but it’s better than any of us could have expected.

Review: Sugababes – Catfights & Spotlights

Pop groups rarely make it to six albums, but Sugababes have managed just that.  Sometimes described as a brand rather than a band, their distinctiveness has faded through the years – culminating in the personality-free, but very successful ‘Change’.

Uninteresting lead single ‘Girls’ aside, ‘Catfights and Spotlights’ could be the album to make us fall back in love with them. We wouldn’t normally praise an album so ballad-heavy, but if there’s one thing the these girls can do well, it’s a killer ballad, the likes of ‘Stronger’ and ‘Too Lost In You’ still sending shivers up our spine. The Karen Poole penned  ‘Sunday Rain’ is an epic tearstained tale with a nod to Sam Brown’s ‘Stop’, while Klas Ahlund (who produced Robyn’s album) introduces quirky sounds and swelling strings on ‘Every Heart Broken’. Newest member Amelle has finally found her position within the band, her smoky voice adding a dangerous edge on the haunting ‘Side Chick’ and self-penned ‘Beware’.

The tempo lifts only occasionally and even then it’s somewhat forgettable. While ‘Hanging on a Star’ could be a Dana Dawson B-side, second single ‘No Can Do’ will certainly bounce its way into the heart of your favourite radio station.

The girls claim they’ve grown up and ditched pop. Not at all – they’ve just added some Motown horns and a twinkling of eighties funk. The result is an album that sounds the most like the Sugababes since ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’. We’re glad you’re back.

Originally published at Orange Music

First Listen Review: Girls Aloud – Out Of Control

A new Girls Aloud album is a surefire way to put a smile on my face so I was super excited to receive their new album Out Of Control this week. I’ll be reviewing it for the BBC later, but here’s my first listen thoughts.

Overall you might be a bit disappointed if you’re a fan of the ‘Girl Overboard’ and ‘Biology’ side of the girls. They’ve cut back on frantic-ness and replaced it with gorgeous, soaring electro pop that’s just as good.

1. The Promise – It’s so exciting that they’re about to have their 4th #1 with this song. You’ve heard it though, although the album version has a longer intro and a repeat to fade ending.

2. The Loving Kind – This is a collaboration with Pet Shop Boys and the first of quite a few synth ballads. Being a GA & PSB collaboration it’s kind of a disappointment as it should be amazing. It has an epic verse but then the chorus doesn’t quite cut it. There’s no great hook.

3. Rolling Back The Rivers – Starts with a really strong big vocal almost acapella. I have no idea who is who though when they sing. Then when the music kicks in it sounds a bit like ‘Somethin’ Stupid’. It’s really smooth sounding and makes me roll my shoulders all about. Has a great ‘a-wooooo’ sound.
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Review: The Long Blondes – Singles

 

Far more glamorous than your average indie band, there was a time when it looked like The Long Blondes were going to make it big. NME and Radio 1 loved them, three singles from Somebody To Drive You Home went top 40, and ‘Once & Never Again’ was the soundtrack to every indie disco. Then came Couples; album number 2; and everything seemed to unfairly dry up.

So, presumably to renew some interest, the band are going back to basics with Singles – a compilation of their first four 7″s released on small labels like Thee Sheffield Phonograpic Corp, Angular and Good & Evil, and thus essential only for your most die-hard fan.

Like so many Sheffield bands before them, Kate Jackson and her fellow scarf wearing pals make intelligent indie music with some of the wittiest lyrics in town. Now we hear them at their rawest form, before the likes of super producer Erol Alkan got hold of them and added unnecessary whizzes and bangs.

The very first releases New Idols and Long Blonde are, in fact, so rough and ready that the distortion hurts your ears. But Autonomy Boy soon presents their delicious melodies that we that made us love them so, with the original versions of the complicated ‘Giddy Stratospheres’ and ‘Lust In The Movies’ a definite highlight. On the flip side, the shoutier riot grrl side of the Long Blondes blasts through on tale of heartbreak ‘Separated By Motorways’.

Distinctly English with tales of Peterborough and darts, The Long Blondes should be a national treasure. Despite having lost their way, this compilation shows that going back to basics isn’t perhaps the step backwards it might seem.

Originally published at BBC Music

Of course, having a promo copy, little did I know that once you took the CD out of the case underneath it said ‘We have split’. Here’s the sad story.

Review: Fall Out Boy – Folie A Deux

I was lucky enough to be given a preview listening of the new Fall Out Boy album a couple of weeks ago and my review will be appearing in a magazine next month. To give you a bit of insight, normally you get sent albums to review either in hard copy or an internet stream. They’re normally watermarked so if you leak it onto the internet the label can figure out who to murder.

There are certain levels of albums that they won’t let anyone have. If you want to hear it, you go to them, and for some reason the FOB album fell into that category which seems a bit extreme. So along I went to Universal Records where I very excitedly bumped into Nicola from Girls Aloud who’s super red hair at the moment is amazing and slightly less excitedly listened to the FOB album, in a small room, alone, once, with my mobile taken off me. It’s pretty hard to review an album in these conditions and get it spot on so if it turns out to be bloody shit, I apologise. It does mean that you’re constantly scribbling things down though, and you end up with some random statements. The last time I did this I went on a bit so look after the jump for the track by track review that hasn’t been made pretty so don’t start on me for not writing well. In short, 4/5, 13 tracks, very long, angry but poppy, noisy but tender, pretty great, 27 is A.M.A.Z.I.N.G. Annoyingly the record has just been pushed back to December 16 which kind of leaves my actual review making no sense. Bugger. Real review will appear in a couple of weeks anyway.

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