Natalie Bassingthwaighte - '1000 Stars' (Sony BMG)
'Here she comes again' remarks Nat Bass (as we'll refer to her for time-saving purposes) as 'Catch Me If You Can' begins. This is a strange way to begin an album. It isn't big, in fact it's pretty subtle. It sounds like the themetune to an action hero movie, perhaps not Bond though, for Bond thinks it's a bit above this sort of mainstream pop. Bond likes to be cool; perhaps Catch Me would be better suited to a teenage spy film. After all, much of Nat Bass' audience are teenagers, roped in by the clever, mainstream rock-pop offered by Rogue Traders, the band she departed in 2008 following the release of their second record together.
'Someday Soon', the album's lead-off single, is a song intended to be inspiring, thus giving us lyrics along the lines of 'someday soon they're gonna write your name in the sky'. It may seem a little repugnant on paper but in fact it's a pretty lovely song, enhanced by a few gentle vocal aerobics; Bassingthwaighte often finds her emotion in the higher pitches. The end result is a song which is inoffensive, instant though perhaps not memorable. Next is the title song, which begins sounding like a slightly more contemporary twist on a Natalie Imbruglia ballad but soon erupts into a shouty chorus on which Nat Bass reminds us that she'll always be a bit of a rocker at heart. Here the lyrics improve too, and whilst 'it takes me to another place, the universe, the endless space above' still may not be rocket science, this is pop and Natalie is not of the pretentious pop variety; listeners have their Sound Of 2009 nominees if that's the sort of thing they're after.
'Alive' is a fusion of 80s with now, and sets the precident for much of the album's remainder. Cheerful synths combine with vague lyrics to make for a song as pure pop as it is unpretentious, armed with a very decent hook. Not ground-breaking, just cute. On 'Not For You', the eruptive chorus formula continues, Nat Bass shouting something about tearing out her heart and wrapping it nicely. These faux-dramatics, far from being embarassing, are enjoyable; when you're equipped with the voice for such things, why not go for it? 'Feel The Flow' is a notable moment, for this is where the album's strength begins to become clear. Nat Bass steers clear of her usual big chorus routine, instead allowing her seductive vocals to wrap themselves around the beat, silky and edgy all at once, the sort of song which could so easily have fitted on the Traders' melancholic electro-rock-pop debut three years back.
'Could You Be Loved?' makes intelligent use of a Robert Miles sample to make for the most club-happy song on the record, the dancefloor beats glowering beneath a stringy verse until the climactic chorus comes around, Nat Bass' spooky backing vocals giving a slight feel of the loss of sanity. This is pop gold and it knows it, but it isn't shouting it out. It's up to the listener to lose themselves, so to speak, in the pounding hook. As if to recognise the ice cool of that song, the next, 'Supersensual', is desert-warm. Bassingthwaighte's delivery is dragged out over a summer synthesiser into a chorus which sees her effortlessly hold and heighten her notes; the advantage of being such a confident and effortless vocalist is truly displayed on pop such as this, where the vocals could so easily be eaten up by the backing music. The chorus closes with a cheeky sample of Blondie's 'Heart Of Glass', and it's not difficult to spot that Debbie Harry was likely one of Nat Bass' biggest influences.
Things mellow with 'Why Do I' ('This is not me at all / I used to be so much stronger') on which Nat questions the future of a relationship, sounding lost and yet captivating. 'Turn The Lights On' employs more a more traditional ballad structure - to it's detriment. None of Bassingthwaighte's ample personality is detectable amid the piano backing and ultimately the emotion in the song is lost, and we end up being shouted without feeling for her. Much more successful is 'This Can't Be Love', a storming uptempo with more than a hint of No Doubt and The Veronicas about it. 'It's getting so hard to deal' she points out as she weighs up the highs and lows of keeping things casual before leaping into a huge, unforgettable chorus. This is number one material, international success-type stuff, and there's no doubt that a lesser powerhouse than Nat Bass would struggle to put such a vibrant stamp onto it.
The Kylie-lite of 'Superhuman' is another winner, benefitting from a building verse and simple chorus; a vocoder topping to her adlibs creates a sad atmosphere arguably more effective than any of the album's slower songs. 'Love Like This' is similar, again bearing resemblances to the work of the more famous Minogue and working the melancholy. Closer 'In His Eyes' is, put simply, a bore. Natalie let loose with an acoustic guitar may seem like the recipe for something beautiful but the result is anticlimactic; Bassingthwaighte could barely sound any less enthused. Nevertheless, it's one of only two disappointments on a fourteen-track record.
That quite simply defines '1000 Stars' - an album with very few disappointments (and certainly a better record than the second Traders attempt 'Better In The Dark', competent but rarely brilliant), and if that seems like faint praise, it isn't intended as such. Nat Bass is a truly great popstar; pop enough to appeal to the masses, rock enough to make herself a name as a live performer and enjoy the subsequent industry credibility. '1000 Stars' is never pretentious, never tries to be clever; it's simply great pop music. It has variation, too. Whilst Nat is most at home on the warm upbeats with the big choruses, she does the downbeat numbers just as convincingly. The likes of 'Could You Be Loved?', 'Supersensual' and 'This Can't Be Love' are easily some of the best songs she's ever put her voice to.
Ultimately this is a pop album - a very good one - but Natalie is more than just your average pop singer. She has huge charisma, and here, it shows.