Review: Seal – Soul

seal_soul

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: 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

Year of the Boots

In one form or another, I’ve been banging on about Little Boots since 2005 featuring her old band on cduk.com, getting ‘Stuck On Repeat’ played on Radio 1 and generally pimping her out to any media outlet I possibly could. Now, signed to a major deal on Atlantic Records, and appearing on this week’s Jools Holland, 2009 will no doubt be her year.

As part of a feature about new female popstars I worked on for Attitude with gaypop, I interviewed Victoria for the mag and here it is. FYI my other selections for the main feature were Lady Gaga, As In Rebekka Maria and Janelle Monae.

Little Boots is as small as Kylie. She’s also going to be just as big. Her mission statement is to create epic disco pop and from what we’ve heard, she’s the best thing to come out of Blackpool since Chris Lowe put on his tight yellow sweater.

We first met ‘Boots, or to give her her real name, Victoria, as part of glamourous Leeds indie band Dead Disco back in 2005. Like an evil version of Girls Aloud, their super catchy tunes, and Victoria’s presence as a frontwoman was incendiary. Despite getting signed up to a major label she decided to go solo late last year, waved goodbye to the illuminations, headed to East London and leaked her first song onto the internet. This was the suitably epic ‘Stuck on Repeat’ and almost immediately bloggers fell in love. Produced by Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard, it was 7 minutes of pulsating disco euphoria peppered with sleigh bells and a hypnotic vocal that got world class DJs like Pete Tong straight on the phone.

But Victoria didn’t want to rush things. As we talk to her in the middle of London Fashion Week, she’s hungover from her very first live performance in front of friends in her studio last night. Instead of getting straight on the road, she’s been writing her debut album with the likes of Greg Kurstin and Pascal Gabriel and learning to DJ. Arriving in London she was skint and after learning to spin some tracks in a pub, she went out as tour DJ for the Wonky Pop Tour and now finds it hilarious that people are flying her to America to play gigs as some amazing electro DJ .

But back to ‘Stuck on Repeat’. Coming out properly now as a single in November, it’s the song that really introduces the concept of Little Boots, even if the album itself is filled with shinier pop songs. Sounding like it’s fallen out of the stars, it reveals Victoria’s obsession with space, unicorns, crystals and the cosmic disco sound of the late 70s and early 80s. Citing people like Dee D Jackson and Klaus Nomi as influences, Victoria isn’t prepared to do things by halves. “Everything has to be epic. I don’t like twee DIY stuff, Kate Nash singer songwriter vibes just isn’t my bag. I’d rather try and do something ridiculous, that ends up being funny. Anything Studio 54 inspired works. My hair’s in braids, there’s glitter, it’s just epic. That said I don’t just want to be the one in the wacky outfit.”

Epic certainly seems to be where it’s at when Victoria tells us about her live show. As well as geeking it up with lots of synths, a Theremin, stylophone and an amazing Tenori-On she’s also got lasers, smoke machines and fake wolves and owls with eyes that light up! Planning to make the shows as extravagant as possible once the money starts rolling in, the dream is to travel up to space and do a gig with Richard Branson in orbit. Obviously!

But don’t worry if you think we’re getting hung up on someone so cool that you won’t be allowed into her gigs unless you’re wearing the right brand of glittery eyeshadow. Victoria’s dream is to be “massive, massive, massive, massive”. Despite being heralded as part of the blogeratti, she adamant that she’s not arsed about the critics. “I hate all that hipster stuff, it means nothing. I don’t give a shit if idiots in London that reckon they’re super cool don’t like me.”

Victoria’s wild imagination means we have no idea what might happen next. But we’re sure whatever it is, ends up being epic. “I just want to make amazing pop songs”, she claims with a glint in her eye. “Whatever anyone says about manufactured pop, it’s rubbish. The people who write pop songs are so talented and there’s no special magic formula to get it right. It’s just a myth. Writing pop music is the most challenging but also the most enjoyable thing I can do.”

Watch Little Boots on this week’s Jools Holland doing a very melancholic version of ‘Stuck On Repeat’.

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.

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.
(more…)

Review: John Legend – Evolver

As the owner of possibly the sexiest voice in music, John Legend has got it going on. Now releasing his third album shows that he’s lost none of the magic that gave his debut, Get Lifted, such crossover appeal.

Here in the UK, we’ve now got a special soft spot for John thanks to him signing Estelle and transforming her into a superstar. She returns the favour by lending her vocals to the reggae tinged ‘No Other Love’. Being John Legend, it’s not hard to attract guest stars, but we’re impressed that Evolver manages to avoid overcomplicating with so many ‘featurings’ that the main artist is relegated to second place. The other chosen two are Andre 3000, throwing a futuristic spanner into the unusually upbeat Green Light and a vocoded Kanye helping him ditch his lady in We’re Over. Impressive.

Confirming his position as an elegant ladies’ man, the dreamy Good Morning leaves us feeling that we couldn’t turn down any request made by this man. His seductive qualities are further cemented as he tries to turn his best friend into his lover in Cross The Line, begging her to stop, ”dancing ’round the moment”.

It’s not all love and ladies though – a fierce Obama campaigner, the album ends on an epic note with If You’re Out There. Originally performed at a Democratic convention, John rallies his listeners to change the future and, ”stand up and say it loud”.

Although we might miss the piano solos that made songs like Ordinary People such classic show stoppers, Evolver is a colourful burst of soul. Packed with incredible melodies and exquisite arrangements it’s yet another step to further confirm Legend as one of the most talented songwriters of the moment.

Originally published at BBC Music

Review: Boyzone – Back Again… No Matter What

When Boyzone were first about, a decision had to be made. It was either Boyzone or Take That. To like both was the ultimate sin in the life of a teenage girl, and if you were foolish enough to choose the Boyzone option, you weren’t really worth hanging out with.

Now wanting a piece of TT’s comeback pie, they’re back, playing a sold out tour to their adoring public, and releasing ‘Back Again… No Matter What’ – a compilation of their greatest hits, plus three new songs, and a live version of Ronan’s ‘Life Is A Rollercoaster’.

While the bad are either hilarious (Love Me For A Reason) or coma inducing (You Needed Me), the good amongst Boyzone’s 16 consecutive top 5 hits still make us smile. 1998’s #1 ‘No Matter What’, penned by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Jim Steinman for musical Whistle Down The Wind, was a highlight, particularly as Ronan finally let someone else sing the main part. Ronan’s traditional growl is, of course, omnipresent, especially in ‘Baby Can I Hold You’, one of four covers. When it comes to new songs, ‘Love You Anyway’ recaptures the motown fun first heard in ‘Picture of You’ but ‘Can’t Stop Thinking About You’ is an awkward electro song that doesn’t fit the band at all.

Ultimately there’s no denying the greatest Boyzone song – ‘A Different Beat’. We are not even slightly being sarcastic here by declaring this one of our favourite pop songs of the 1990s just for it’s extreme randomness. Yes, for some unknown reason, Boyzone, bored of soppy ballads, decided what they were missing were African drums, chanting, foreign languages, thunder, a rousing middle 8, lyrics to solve work peace and a trembling piano. Everything is forgiven just for these 4 minutes. Amazing doesn’t even cover it.

If you love Boyzone, you’ll love this. If not, well you might just find yourself a bit surprised by how many songs you’re happily singing along. Perhaps after 9 years of Westlife, Boyzone sound like a treat.

Originally published at BBC Music. I hated Boyzone as a child, apart from ADB obv, but this was oddly enjoyable.

Review: Kaiser Chiefs – Off With Their Heads

When we heard the Kaiser Chiefs‘ 3rd album was going to be produced by Mark Ronson, we were worried. After all hasn’t everyone grown a bit tired of Ronson and his relentless trumpeting? Fortunately we can report that, thanks to co-producer Eliot James, the wonky parping has been kept in check.

After the massive success of the usually ‘notoriously hard’ 2nd album, ‘Off With Their Head’ is the Chiefs going at it old school with quirky British rock influences a plenty. Jaw-dropping lead single ‘Never Miss A Beat’ could easily be mistaken as a forgotten Beatles demo with it’s call and response hook (best bit – ‘What do you want for tea? I want crisps!’). ‘Tomato In the Rain’ gives a hammond organ it’s best use in years, and Ricky’s Northern charm shines in the comical ‘Addicted To Drugs’.  Ronson’s star pulling power is in effect too, with Lily Allen providing backing vocals on the summery swagger of ‘Always Happens Like That’, orchestral maestro David Arnold looking after ‘Like It Too Much’ and grime boy Sway pulling in a star turn on the XTC reminiscent & surely future #1 ‘Half The Truth’.

A sprightly 35 minutes, it’s yet more proof the young pretenders have nothing on this lot when it comes down to personality, wit and intelligence. Tunes to get your converse dirty to.

Originally published in Attitude Magazine.

Review: Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke

Want to be the coolest kid on the block? Next time you get asked who you’re loving, Ladyhawke is the answer. Wobbling on that titchy kerb between underground and mainstream that the likes of MIA hover, twenty something New Zealander Pip Brown is the latest cool female chick to release some amazing pop music that will unfairly sell about 700 copies.

Signed to ultra hip label Modular, Ladyhawke has taken the best bits of the 80s and re-imagined them for 2008 with the likes of Stevie Nicks and Cyndi Lauper all in the mix. There’s a dance feel to most of the album with the Pascal Gabriel produced ‘Magic’ pounding it’s way into your brain –  it’s powerful chorus reminding us of Ladytron’s criminally ignored ‘Destroy Everything You Touch’. This and the similarly urgent sounding ‘My Delirium’ are stadium sized pieces of pop rock that make you want to hit the dancefloor and own it.

More intimately, the likes of former single ‘Back of the Van’ and the funky ‘Paris Is Burning’ show off Pip’s knack for writing instantly memorable lyrics.  ‘Dusk Till Dawn’ is like catching Peaches on a happy day, with it’s pulsating beats and bells oozing unnerving East Berlin vibes, while ‘Professional Suicide’ mashes CSS style guitars and drums with a hypnotic vocal.

Ladyhawke‘ is a rare case of the real thing living up to the hype. This shouldn’t be an album just for bloggers to swoon over, it’s good enough and mainstream enough to be huge.

Originally published at Orange Music

Review: Katy Perry – One Of The Boys

You know when you go a club, make eyes with a boy and then he gets distracted by some hussy who’s snogging other girls just to get the boys? That’s Katy Perry all over. With her pin-up looks and in your face attitude, she’s captured the attention of an massive audience hitting #1 in 20 countries.

Although initially compared to Lily Allen, there’s none of her cheekiness and wit. Instead ‘One of The Boys‘ falls neatly into your CD collection somewhere near Avril and Pink. Expect a straight mixture of all out rockers  and ‘woe is me’ angst ballads that will warm the heart of any teenage door slammer.

‘Hot N Cold’ is the best of the hard hitters. With pop anthem producer Dr Luke behind it, it’s a shout-a-long romp that’s far superior to the all conquering ‘I Kissed A Girl’.  The lyrically stupid ‘Ur So Gay’ might be irresistibly catchy but is full of face scrunching gay stereotypes, and while the likes of eyeliner anthem ‘Self Inflicted’ and ‘If You Can Afford Me’ are musically dull we’re sure her young audience will be able to empathise with her boy problems.

At fault is Katy’s insincerity. She thinks she’s like, ‘oh my gosh soooo alternative’, promising that she ‘belch her way through the alphabet’. Ultimately, though the ideas might be there, ‘One of The Boys‘ just feels like a very cleverly thought out idea. Calculating, corporate pop at it’s most effective.

Originally published at Orange Music