Sunday, 15 February 2009

Will the Rogue Traders' fans, left so upset by the departure of their band's frontlady, be won over by her debut solo effort?

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.

Friday, 6 February 2009

The daughter of Keith proves that spending years writing a record really can pay off with her sophomore effort.

Lily Allen - 'It's Not Me, It's You' (EMI)
You know The Fear. It flew to #1 in Britain. People love its celebrity culture references, not to mention that silky, catchy chorus. Much of 'It's Not Me, It's You' continues in the same vain, although parts are better still. Preceedings open with Everyone's At It, a commentary on society's love of drugs which manages to amuse with its good intentions without sounding condescending. The psychadelic synths which open affairs are so easily-imprinted on the mind that the song is an obvious candidate for a future single. Elsewhere on the album, Allen talks about her relationship with her father (He Wasn't There) but that closing song proves much less interesting than the uneasy story of she and her sister, told on the frantic Back To The Start, boasting the most apparent electro vibe on the set, the energy relenting for a moment during a reflective middle 8.

Two songs are so captivating that they demand numerous, immediate repeat listens. I Could Say sees Lily liberated by the fold of a relationship ('now you've gone it's as if the whole wide world is my stage'), complete with piano chords and soaring strings which compliment the emotion in Allen's street vocals like nothing else. Chinese is an ode to the mundanity of daily life spent with somebody special (her mother, some have argued); 'I'll be exhausted so I'll probably sleep / Then we'll get a chinese and watch TV'; a prime example of how easily Lily connects with her audience even when singing of a private and complex relationship which might otherwise seem self-indulgent. Not everything is so successful; Who'd Have Known pinches the melody from Take That's Shine, which was already too cheeky to bear when it dominated the airwaves a couple of summers back. The end result sounds weak and makes for the least-inspired song on the record.

It's a minor blip, though. She's back to her best on Him, pondering how God would cope with modern society; 'He doesn't know who's right or wrong / This has been going on too long'. It's the simple brilliance of Allen's writing, covering topics the rest of us had never even considered, which makes many of the songs here so magical. 22 is a roughly auto-biographical number which mourns the tendancy we have to write-off party animals as losers heading nowhere, whilst Not Fair is a pleasingly seedy tale of a lover who is perfect in every respect - except in bed ('you never make me scream!').

'INM,IY' far surpasses expectations. Few popstars can get away with unleashing a successful debut album before disappearing from music completely for twenty-four months, too busy fronting chat shows or experimenting with new hair colours. Then again, few popstars have the sheer talent or appeal to pull off an album such as this. A mention must go to the undeniably perfect partnership of Allen and her collaberator Greg Kurstin, a producer so flexible he can work with Donna Summer, Kylie Minogue or on his own pet project The Bird and The Bee without sounding anything but at home.

'It's Not Me, It's You' is the album of the year; quirky, majestic, and shamelessly pop.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Never mind her life, it's ours which have been worse off for Kelly's disappearance from the airwaves...

Kelly Clarkson - 'My Life Would Suck Without You' (RCA)

'I know that I've got issues / But you're pretty messed-up too' accuses the original American Idol winner on the first single from her fourth record 'All I Ever Wanted'. Don't be fooled, though; this is not a down-with-men! convention. Kelly has moved on, it seems. Perhaps third album 'My December' was just what was required to get that out of her system because on her highly-anticipated comeback single, Kelly admits defeat; 'You've got a piece of me / And honestly, my life would suck with you'. Progress!

We've got Dr.Luke, one of the handful of pure pop producers in demand in America, to thank for these three-and-a-half minutes of aural joy. Under Clarkson's all-conquering vocal he lays down a pumping, relentlessly energetic electro-pop-rock beat to rival the best of his back catalogue - this is better than 'Hot n' Cold', better than 'Girlfriend'. Clearly it helps that he has an A-grade vocalist at his disposal for however appealing a computer can make Ms.Perry or Mrs.Lavigne's vocals sound, they can't touch Kelly's tones, emotive and effortless in equal measures. The song is, by big comeback standards, simplistic and sometimes even subtle, from the demure guitar-led intro to the retro drum-roll leading into the final chorus. Most importantly it is immensely catchy, sporting a hook - multiple hooks - which won't leave your mind for days, weeks, probably months.

It'd be nice to see that RCA haven't totally eradicated Kelly's clearly-ample songwriting abilities from 'All I Ever Wanted' but, as lead singles go, 'My Life' could barely be more perfectly-conceived. Call it the 'So What' of 2009.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Who said Reality TV can't resurrect a music career? It might not have done the trick for Emma Bunton but Alesha Dixon, the sassy ex-Misteeq lady whose footwork wowed the Strictly Come Dancing crowd, is attempting to shake the tag. Has she done what it takes?

Alesha Dixon - The Alesha Show
'Welcome to the Alesha Show' Alesha cooes over upbeat horns on the short intro song of the same name. It's a pleasant ditty which leads nicely into furious upbeat electropop number 'Lets Get Excited', complete with Madonna references and faux-laughter 'ha ha ha!' chanting. This is camp, noisy and instant, much like the lady herself. The pace slows (fittingly) on 'Breathe Slow', a crisp Soulshock and Karlin production with a subtle vocal echo on the verses. 'Ladies take it in and get composure' she softly advises, ladies anthem-style. 'Cindarella Shoe' is a Xenomania number, and just in case you failed to notice there are maddeningly nonsensical lyrics aplenty; 'what you gotta do, find yourself a clue, cindarella shoe!'. One day somebody will decode this but for now it's easily enjoyed for the fairytale romp it is.

'The Boy Does Nothing', Alesha's big comeback single and Winter resident in the higher end of the chart, slaps all manner of abuse at a lazy beau who can't seem to get to grips with the housework. Joyously silly lyrics along the lines of 'take a sip of dancing juice!' and 'if the man can't dance he gets no second chance' combine to make for a mesmerisingly fun pop song which many with less funk might struggle to pull off. Affairs get just a little more serious on the autobiographical 'Chasing Ghosts' ('I'm just a girl who dreamt of singing / chasing a ghost that doesn't exist') with its building piano beat and instrument-driven chorus courtesy of 60s throwback-specialist Steve Booker, producer to Duffy and Sugababes recently. It's a pretty result which achieves a good balance of meaningful and bouncy.

The piano returns on Xenomania's ear-attacking 'Play Me', an attempt to recreate Dixon's initial solo outing 'Lipstick'. Unlike that gem, this is hummable at best and wince-inducing at worst, depending on whether you desire to be shouted so relentlessly you'd think yourself the proprietor of some awful crime. 'Hand It Over' is much superior, sporting a clap beat and explosively big chorus. This is the sort of distinctly British pop tailored directly at radio airwaves, so don't be surprised if you hear Radio 1 blaring it out next Summer. On the Diane Warren-penned 'Do You Know The Way It Feels', Dixon poses the question of whether her listener understands the predicament of falling in love. It's beautiful and genuine without coming close to preachy or dull; her voice feels surprisingly at home on such a big ballad.

'Can I Begin' possesses a hint of Nelly Furtado's melodic side; its simple chorus of 'How can I begin? Not trying to win' above humming strings is its greatest ace. 'Italians Do It Better' works a relaxing vibe three decades old as Alesha tells her love he's greater than a nation ('you prove them wrong; you do it better'). The vocal is so chilled-out that you get the impression it was phoned in from a frothing bathtub, which is probably where you'll best enjoy it too. 'Ooh Baby I Like It Like That' does nothing to defy the ill feeling induced by the title, free of any joy or sexyness whatsoever; this one should've remained in the Xenomania vault. At the opposite end of the scale, 'Don't Ever Let Me Go' is the best Xeno number in an age, full of effortless warmth and comfort, and boasting an admirably good-hearted message.

Closer 'I'm Thru' is a cover of a Moonbaby song which never saw the light of day five years back; don't let that put you off. The lyrics are a carless kiss-off to love ('heavens above, I'm through with love; it didn't much for me') which reverses the seeking-romance trend evident in the majority of the music on the radio.

With such talent and charisma to offer, Alesha Dixon has an advantage over many on the scene, but without any previous solo success, she wasn't too hotly-tipped to deliver - and yet that is exactly what The Alesha Show does. It is so loaded with pop gems, dabbling in both the contemporary and the retro, that the odd dud is entirely forgiveable. Songs such as 'Breathe Slow' are so perfect for pop right now that she's more relevant at present than many of the more typical divas.

We've been welcomed to the Alesha Show. We never want to leave.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

What do you do when you're a chart-topping popstar whose third album goes unexpectedly below the radar? You come back with stomping electro-rock-pop tunes aplenty and reclaim your status as a world-beater. What do you do then? Take a year out to make your most varied and personal record to date? P!nk did. Is Funhouse enjoyable euphoria or maddening misery?

P!nk - Funhouse
You've probably only avoided P!nk's smash hit comeback single 'So What' if you've been providing a home for insects living under a rock. It boasts the biggest hook arguably by any song since 'Crazy In Love' (though this will age more kindly) and plenty of tongue-in-cheek husband-bashing lyrics ('I'm gonna drink my money, I'm not gonna pay his rent'). No P!nk album is complete without a healthy dose of Max Martin and on So What he delivers his best spunk yet; this is utterly perfect pop. 'Sober' slows the tempo; it's a sad affair with lonely lyrics softly sung until the chorus explodes, sporting a simple syllables-in-pairs hook. Sticking with one producer may have proved more sensible here; Tony Kanal of No Doubt fame and R&B hitmaker Danja both have (vastly different) distinctive styles, but coming together you'd guess it was made by somebody altogether less prolific. The overly-understated production is the only criticism of an otherwise great song which combines melancholy with radio-friendliness effortlessly.

'I Don't Believe You' is a stripped-back ballad which seems placed irrationally early in the tracklist, killing all of the pace created previously. Despite this it's a truly beautiful reminder that whatever feist there may be in P!nk, she's capable of real emotion and longing - and much more of it than the average pop princess. 'One Foot Wrong', the sole contribution from producer Eg White, is an absolute mis-step, a song so sparse and miserable and so without merit that it warrants no repeat listens. Things improve with 'Please Don't Leave Me', an upbeat love song and an obvious hit. The pleading chorus of 'I always say how I don't need you but it's always gonna come right back to this; please, please don't leave me' is packed with a genuine warmth few others can achieve.

The parade through radio territory continues on 'Bad Influence', a party anthem with throwbacks to 2006's 'U & Ur Hand'. P!nk manages to turn the chorus' generic reverb of 'you, you, you' into something altogether more quirky, once again showing off her ability to take a trend and rip it apart. The album's title track is another uptempo with a glorious hook succeeded by a countdown to 'fun'. It feels so tailor-made for arena performances that any low-key showing just would not do; Tony Kanal did a much better job here and it shows, the influences of his own work not exactly hiding in the corner. 'Crystal Ball' takes an opposing route, all stripped-back guitars and softly-uttered vocals. P!nk is so adaptable that she's just as believable cooing 'i'm not scared at all of the cracks in the crystal' as she is boasting about midnight parties and the punch-ups which follow. On 'Mean', a Butch Walker production with more than a hint of country, she poses the question 'how did we get so mean?'. An acknowledgment of her natural flaws, it's something few will struggle to relate to.

'It's All Your Fault' is the heaviest, most rock-infused song on the album, harking back to 2003's 'Last To Know'. It's an unconventional love song which sees P!nk lose patience as she demands some acknowledgement of her efforts; 'I hold my breath because you are perfect, but I'm running out of air, and it's not fair'. The same vibe is carried forward to 'Ave Mary A', whose theme is not altogether dissimilar from that of earlier hit 'Dear Mr President', highlighting the wrongs of the world. It manages to not only pack a punch but convey severe sadness, as our heroine mourns 'where did you go?'. Closer 'Glitter in the Air' sees the return of the subtle vocal delivery over a tinkly piano beat. As ever it's believable and lovely.

Bonus track 'This Is How It Goes Down' pays homage to P!nk's R&B roots, though not without a heavy drum-led intro, but a final highlight is 'Boring', a joyful uptempo brimming with with delicious parody ('if you don't get it right, I'ma be like really really mad! Insert rap here!'). Perhaps it failed to make the cut because P!nk wanted the album to be a little more sensitive and emotional than her previous work, but all the same it's a gem which deserves to be heard.

Funhouse is an album shining with artistic merit. P!nk is quite possibly the most skillful of the mainstream pop stars; her large range and gravelly tones allow for almost any kind of emotion; few others could fit as many contrasting feelings into one song without it sounding contrived or false. It seems the public understand her too; five albums in she's at her peak, selling out arenas like she were the Beatles reunited, setting trends Madonna could only dream of, combining the beauty of operatic divas with the electricity of a rock band.

So is Funhouse enjoyable euphoria or maddening misery? It's both. And she wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Now, Britney's seen that we're looking at her like she's some kind of freak so she's decided to do somethin'. That somethin' is the release of her second new album in fourteen months. Is Circus a well-staged show or an elephant-ridden mess?

Britney Spears - Circus
Electronic sirens mark the beginning of Britney Spears' record Circus; apt for an electropop artist whose life has been full of turmoil, hospitalisation and court cases for the past 18 months. That's behind the world's favourite pop princess now though, and 'Womanizer' boasts a clear message of 'I'm back'. It's not a perfect piece of urban-pop a la Gimme More by any means; it's repetition soon grates and the middle 8 with it's disasterous 'maybe if we both lived in a different world / but we don't' lyric is barely worthy of a late-stage demo; however it makes a statement and brings a catchy hook to the masses, so it's job done.

On the title track Britney's monotone vocals are layed over a dingy beat with no climax other than a sensual pre-chorus. It's another almost-but-not-quite moment, and as second single it can't even begin to compare with the almighty 'Piece Of Me', Britney's biggest UK hit since 'Everytime'. Things get a little more old-school next; on 'Out From Under', a Guy Sigsworthy slowie, Brit cooes over tinkling piano beats harking back to the more epic aforementioned hit. It's not a retread though, more of a casual nod, and as such it works. 'Kill The Lights' is a banger with Danja production whose lyrics aren't exactly unlike those of 'Piece of Me', but whose hook is altogether different. It's another fairly decent if unspectacular moment and completes the album's reasonable opening quarter.

'Shattered Glass' is where things really begin to pick up. A fierce kiss-off which sees Spears smirk about an ex-lover's loss and her gain, it packs a fantastic chorus which borders on melancholy. It's ridiculously short and an extra verse or a proper middle 8 could easily have been added, but it sports charm aplenty anyway. 'If U Seek Amy' and it's cheeky title mark the first time Britney has worked with current hitmaker of the moment Max Martin since his earlier peak at the turn of the century, when she was an innocent bubblegum pop favourite with little sex appeal. That is corrected here, the raunch stacked high as Britney sighs 'oh baby baby, if u seek amy tonight' over an electronic marching beat not unsimilar to that of P!nk's world-beater 'So What'. It's brilliantly fun, catchy stuff perfectly suited to Spears.

Brit's frequent collaberators Bloodshy & Avant, responsible for 'Toxic' and 'Piece of Me', return to weave their magic on the album's highlight, the beautiful 'Unusual You', a midtempo with a heart-breaking hook of 'didn't anyone tell you you're supposed to break my heart? I expect you to'. What makes it such a winner is a truly believable vocal; the sad vocoded effect placed on Britney's vocal works perfectly and a cute electro-string-aided middle 8 tops it all off. On 'Blur', a guitar-aided mellow number, Britney confesses 'can't remember what I did last night, everything is still a blur'. She may not be a credited co-writer but it seems a fairly realistic scenario given the trauma of her life up until recently.

'Mmm Papi' is as ridiculous as the title would suggest, and by far the most enjoyable uptempo on the album. Britney sounds sexiest when she's not trying; her slight drawl is hugely appealing. It's the sort of song which will likely draw criticism for being deemed trashy but it's actually hugely fun and as radio-friendly as they come. 'Mannequin' ruins the run of highlights with it's throwaway lyrics sung over a trashy, crashing backing track with no distinguishable melody or hook. It rivals 'Boom Boom' as the most dreadful thing Brit has ever lent her vocals to, and rumours of it being the set's third single are worrying to say the least. On Dr. Luke's 'Lace and Leather', Britney chirps trite lyrics over a dramatic, frantic backing track. It's verging on filler but it's enjoyable all the same. 'My Baby', the album's closer and the second and final Sigsworthy ballad, again falls a little limp. The chorus is nice enough but we're in generic arena here, all guitars and high-pitched vocals. Given the album's electro undertones, 'Unusual You' would've been a far more appropriate closer.

Circus boasts some seven bonus tracks over it's release in various territories; first up is 'Radar', which is advertised as a 'new mix'; in reality the changes are so minimal it's barely worth a listen, especially given that the original wasn't exactly a highlight of parent album Blackout. 'Rock Me In' is a fun ditty with production from electropop genius Greg Kurstin; a fast-paced chorus and short song length mean it's gone as fast as it came, but it's a worthwhile addition to any fan's collection. 'Phonography', a Bloodshy number which sounds more Danja, is dark, sexy and delicious. 'I make no apologies, I'm into phonography', our girl informs us; 'talk that sexy to to me!'. Phone sex anthems don't get much better than this. Of the above, the UK only gets 'Radar', which is something of a shame.

'I forgot my name, I forgot my telephone number' Spears apologises on 'Amnesia', a sweet and summery affair with a massive hook. There's no telling what Larry Rudolph was thinking when he chose this album's tracklist, but he needs some sort of punishment because this is clear hit material, one thing the main album is a little low on. Rising star 'Lady GaGa' contributed to 'Quicksand', another light affair with a large reverb hook of the kind so fashionable at present. Again, the song should've made the main tracklist. 'Amnesia' is on the UK edition of Circus and 'Quicksand' is an iTunes-special.

Two more tracks close the affair; 'Rock Boy', an in-your-face pop-rock moment which sounds more Ashlee Simpson than Britney (not a put-down) and is easily forgotten, and 'Trouble', which is infinitely more interesting and features a heavy sample of Madonna's wonderful 'Get Together'. It's a tantilising glimpse into how Britney doing an album of Confessions-esque dark dance would sound, and it's available as an iTunes pre-order bonus.

As a whole, Circus really works. It has a near-perfect balance of fun, sexy, fierce and melancholy, the four ingredients Britney has always done so well. It sports decent songwriting and strong, fresh production and aside from the odd plunker a well-chosen tracklist, although three or four of the bonuses not making the cut is a real shame. Most importantly it tells the world that Britney is still relevant - moreso than ever, even.

She definitely did somethin'.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Continuing with hits collections (and being careful to avoid that dreaded term - you know the one, begins with 'greatest' and ends with 'hits', despite many such CDs being neither great nor hit-packed). The latter brings us squarely on to The Best of Hilary Duff; whilst her greatness as a popstar is up for debate, she's not had many hits; is this collection worth a try?

As a sidenote, I'm reviewing the American edition of the album, since the European/UK edition isn't available yet.

The Best of Hilary Duff
This 'best of' collection will try and fool you into thinking it contains the highlights of Hilary Duff's musical career; I should begin this review by stating that on no account does it do any such thing. It contains a selection (oddly, not all) of Duff's singles, many of which have been far from her best work. With that in mind we start out with 'Reach Out', an unusually-shoddy Ryan Tedder production. Tedder's work is so often glossy, subtle and synthy; this tired retread of Depeche Mode's 'Personal Jesus' (which Jamelia did a much better job of sampling on the almighty 'Beware Of The Dog') is a bit of a slap in the face for the listener; more a b-side than a hits collection-leading single and opening track.

Moving on then, to 'Holiday', the second and final of the collection's two newies, and another Tedder moment. In sharp contrast with Reach, Holiday is glorious; simplistic and beautiful, boasting numerous hooks and crisp production. Hilary's vocal has been cleverely employed here; she may not have the biggest pipes but she more than holds her own against the beat without having to resort to studio robotics. A further strength is the song's lyrical content; 'you took a holiday from us / if your heart went down forever / should've told me where it was' she sighs with great melodrama. This is intense pop at it's best, both youthful and sophisticated.

The three singles from Duff's much underrated 2007 set Dignity follow, playing out in reverse order. First is 'Stranger', a harshly overlooked gem which whilst failing to make waves amongst the public proved to Hilary's not-inconsiderable fanbase she was not going to be written-off if she had any say in it. The pulsating, hard-hitting electro-rock beat compliments a deliberately cold vocal; the high point of the song comes when the music disappears for a moment, allowing Duff to welcome in the second verse acapella with a scorned quiz of 'did I ever do anything that was this cruel to you?'. On 'With Love', the Dignity lead-off (and that album's only true hit), much of the same is in evidence, and although the song initially makes less impact with it's slight non-event of a chorus, it offers a middle eight to challenge the best of them. 'Play With Fire', a buzz (read: flop) single, closes the dignified (sorry) trilogy. It's better than With Love, offering a cool, buzzy beat and a sexy faux-dangerous chorus. All three were co-written by pop genius Kara DioGuardi, whose skills both with a pen and at the mixing desk have made for some of the most exciting mainstream music of recent times; certainly she seems at home with Duff.

'Wake Up', written by Hilary alongside the Madden brothers Joel and Benji of Good Charlotte fame, is a cute, light effort with a pre-party vibe which works nicely; the lyrics of the cut are poorly-misguided ('London, Paris, maybe Tokyo; there's something going on everywhere I go tonight'; perhaps Hilary brought out the Disney in the Maddens) but overall its likeability factor makes it worth repeat listenings. 'Fly' marks the return of DioGuardi's golden hand, and it shows; the song is as tailor-made as any ever could be for an arena audience, providing Duff with her most rocky outing yet. It's not a sound our girl would be advised to do an album's worth of, but as a one-off it's great - and works perfectly on a collection such as this.

It seems to be the trend of late to remix hits for these compilations, but it's a surprise that the song on here found in 'new for 08' form is Hilary's best single, the mighty 'Come Clean'. However, whilst we've lost a classic we've gained a three-minute slice of furious electro brilliance; Duff's vocal blends perfectly with the rave-style beat to the extent that you might even forget about the original's opposingly innocent tones. 'So Yesterday' follows, or at least it does if you can bear to absorb its dated tweeny vibe without throwing your fingers at the skip button. 'Why Not', another cutesy outing which hit the top 20 of the Australian and British singles charts, works its youthful fun factor to it's advantage; the song is so pure and joyful that the primary-school lyrics barely even come into the equation.

The final two songs are remixes of the set's two new openers; don't run, though! Whilst Richard Vission's club mix of 'Reach Out' doesn't merit repeat listenings, Bermudez & Chico's reworking of 'Holiday' absolutely does, for the sole reason that it does not attempt to drag the mournful original onto the dancefloor against its will, but instead merely adds radio-friendly bass and electronica, closing the collection on a hugely addictive note; clearly Duff goes by the mantra of saving the best for last.

Hilary Duff's career has been a rollercoaster; she has suffered as many chart disappointments as she has successes, and she's had to battle to lose the pre-teen audience stigma so long attached to her. However, she's a fighter; she put out an album the likes of Kylie Minogue or any other contemporary disco princess could only dream of with 2007's Dignity, and she's got two perfect collaberators in the form of Ryan Tedder and, in particular, the failproof Kara DioGuardi. And with a departure from the limiting, useless Hollywood Records on the horizon, and a truly strong, to-the-point hits collection under her belt, she may finally get the chance to prove her worth in a scrappy industry keen to dump anybody in favour of the new girl on the block. If anyone deserves a chance, it's Hilary.

Monday, 10 November 2008

It's approaching Christmas which means record labels are bustling to shove out hits collections as a way of making an easy buck - but after just three studio records, Christina Aguilera might not seem like the most deserving candidate. Does the new compilation by the glamorous A-lister with earth-shattering pipes merit a purchase?

Christina Aguilera - Keeps Gettin' Better: A Decade of Hits
Christina is the anti-Britney; the naughty to Britney's nice, the innovator who makes her rival look like a puppet - or so she'd like to think. Her presumptuously-titled Greatest Hits highlights Aguilera's laid-back work ethic; ten years in the industry has seen her release only three studio records, of which two were huge successes. 'Genie In A Bottle' kicks the chronological tour of C-Ag's career off, all sweetness with a hint of sexy. Follow-ups 'What A Girl Wants', 'I Turn To You' and 'Come On Over Baby' fail to make the best use of a vocal as tailored as any could be to power-pop, but Christina shines on 'Lady Marmalade', a P!nk-assisted cover of the disco classic injected with an extra dose of raunch.

'Dirrty', Aguilera's first comeback single and a surprise US flop, offers little in the way of the artistry she boasts of, instead ramming her leather-adorned crotch down our faces in a not-so-subtle attempt to prove that the starlet has become a woman. Much better is 'Fighter', the finest single of Christina's career and one of the most gloriously dramatic pop moments of the twenty-first century; operatic backing vocals combine with a rock soundtrack to make for the highlight of Scott Storch's production CV. It's back to the dreary with 'Beautiful' though, a song more sickening than the candyfloss her hair at the time resembled. C-Ag does ballads better when she's barely even trying, as shown on 'The Voice Within', a beautiful epic which makes more of a statement with it's own shyness than the faux-empowerment anthem which preceeds it.

Christina skips backwards a decade or five on 'Aint No Other Man', designed to highlight the apparent genius of our girl's love for retro. Here, though, it truly is brilliant - the song radiates a relentless, joyful energy whilst packing the biggest hook of its release year. 'Hurt' sees Aguilera embrace the drama again; a soulful ballad with the emphasis firmly on her emotive vocal, its sadness only adds to its appeal. On 'Candyman', the upbeat jazz makes a triumphant return under flirty lyrics - 'met him out for dinner on a Friday night / he really had me workin' up an appetite' - to make for the most youthfully appealing song of Aguilera's entire catalogue, and something of a modern-day classic (and a karaoke favourite).

The four new tracks added to the collection are something of a mixed bag. The title song packs a tight, Goldfrapp-inspired beat and an understated verse before erupting into a huge, anthemic chorus; 'I'm your supergirl / out to save the world / and it keeps gettin' better' she convincingly tells us. 'Dynamite' is a light electropop number with a throwaway chorus and vocals which seem out of time with it's furiously-paced backing track, whilst the re-worked 'Beautiful' is a lazy rehash with a re-recorded vocal which sounds as if it was uttered from Christina's sleep - and we can't blame the girl, the backing track is so hazily dull. The star turn here is 'Genie 2.0', which as the title suggests is an update of her best-loved single. A hard, pounding electro beat is employed under an effortlessly sultry vocal; 'come on, come on and let me out', C-Ag whispers, the result being something so sexy Janet or Madonna would probably sell a limb to get their lace gloved-hands on it.

Christina Aguilera isn't the perfect popstar; she can be too self-indulgent, too reliant on her past-it producer of choice Linda Perry, and too unwilling to admit she's made a shamelessly pure pop song. But this hits collection drives home the point that when she's on form, armed with an immense uptempo and a staggeringly huge vocal, she's a world-beater, and for the likes of 'Fighter', 'Candyman' and the new 'Genie' alone it's worth an hour of your time.

Oh, and most importantly... it's better than Britney's Greatest Hits.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

Once the deluxe edition of her new record I Am Sasha Fierce (!) appears, we'll be reviewing it properly, but for now here are our thoughts on the highlight of the Standard Edition disc...

Beyoncé - Radio
The original child of destiny is back, terrorising the airwaves once again - but hang on, for here is a song (an uptempo!) so devastatingly fierce that you will be begging your local station to spin it. And they'll be happy to. 'Radio' features a relentlessly energetic Jim Jonsin beat and some clever stereo/boyfriend metaphors ('the only one that Papa allowed to hang out in my room with the door closed / and Mama never freaked out when she heard it go boom, cos she knew we were in the zone'). Divas singing about their love for their steroes isn't anything new; singing it with such fire as is present here, though, is refreshing.

Beyoncé probably won't release Radio - so often these days the gems go avoided - but there can be no doubt it's her best uptempo since Baby Boy.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

First listens are always fun - proclaiming a song is the worst you've ever heard only to be licking the screen when it plays two days later - which is why we're going to have a bit of a laugh and review Shontelle's cleverly-titled debut 'Shontelligence' track-by-track, having not heard it until now. Keep your eyes peeled for contradictions over the next few days!

Shontelle - Shontelligence [2008]

T Shirt > The album's opener and lead single has been steadily making waves for a few months now. It's sweet, twinkling, is highly addictive and the idea of wearing her man's t-shirt to tide her over until his return is a nice one. Not a ground-breaking song, but it's not aiming to be, and it can be enjoyed for what it is - a gorgeous, catchy hit.

Battle Cry > This one was used to support the Obama for President campaign. Obviously Shontelle swung it! This is my first listen and it's in a similar vein to T Shirt, with a beat a little harsher. Her vocals are strong and there's a petite rap-ish middle 8 - a good start to the album.

Superwoman > This is the second of the two I knew before sitting down to listen to Shontelligence. It's another summery confection with another pretty message (she seems to be good with her lyrics and themes) and it's extremely instant; it should be a future single without a doubt.

Cold Cold Summer > Well, cold is the key word here! This is an icy, stringy affair with a nice echo during the verses and a soulful, stripped-back sound. It's got quite a bite in a so-over-you sort-of sense. Definitely going to be a future favourite of mine I think, and it's firmly in album track territory.

Roll It > This is an older song which has been recorded with Rihanna, Shontelle's fellow Bajan, in the past, but this is my first listen. The synthy intro sounds distinctly Kat Deluna-esque; the song sounds like a RedOne production to a degree. Shon's Carribean tones shine through here; it's a very sexy, fun song which could be a hit with a proper push.

Life Is Not An Easy Road > The Jamiacan tongue sticks around here for another pleasing, breezy number with a chilled backing track. It's the sort of thing you can imagine would've been a hit in the 1990s, complete with a video portraying lots of muscular people getting high on a beach at sunset. Contrary to how that sounds, it's a good thing! This track treads the gap between filler and decent nicely.

Focus Pon Me > Oh, fierce! It has to be said Shontelle's vocal during parts of this sound extremely similar to Rihanna's whisper-singing voice. The middle-Eastern beat works remarkably well under Shontelle's silky tones. It's another welcome album track, and a departure from the rest of them in style.

Plastic People > This is another summery one, with guitars and a lovely verse. Somehow though the chorus lacks the punch you feel has been build up to. It sounds demo-like too; a definite filler.

I Crave You > Unless I'm very much mistaken, this samples Sting's 'Shape Of My Heart' - how utterly random! Aside from the well-applied string sample, it has a dark reggae beat and an emotive vocal. It reminds me so much of 'Shape' though! This is a good thing however.

Ghetto Lullabye > A haunting flute compliments the drum beat on this one, which sounds as if it was recorded somewhere between the rainforest and the pyramids. It sports a smooth vocal which remains cool and monotone until the slightly raised middle 8 section. Not very commercial at all, and probably all the better for it.

Flesh And Bone > Not quite the epic closer I had desired; instead another reggae-infused song. It's perfectly competent.

So to sum up, Shontelligence is, on first listen at least, a reasonably good debut. It has it's highlights and it's fair share of Filler, but said filler is at least perfectly listenable, and when it is great, it's really great.

I'm going to say singles should be Roll It second and Superwoman third. Overall 7/10 - a good start for a girl with big promise, and a good point from which to build on next time around.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Continuing with a bit of a UK R&B theme, it's time for a look at the comeback of the King of modern UK soul, that Lemar guy. He's been responsible for a couple of truly great songs ('If Theres Any Justice' being a true classic) and also for getting a bit shirty with poor James May on Top Gear, but with the likes of Taio Cruz on the scene, is the ex-Fame Academy finalist still relevant? And if she knew what exactly?

Lemar - If She Knew
Where is there to go when you're a lone male on the UK R&B scene who has already taken his dedicated, sizeable fanbase on a voyage through modern soul? Well, add a little electro to the mix. On 'If She Knew', his first single in 18 months, Lemar croons over a subtly sparkling beat which the likes of Timbaland or Darkchild could well have produced. So, this comeback is more polished than ever before - but, as ever, Lemar is no puppet singing 'sex me up' lyrics over an instrumental worthy of better. No, when he sings 'if I ever let her go, I wouldn't make it a single day' in those silkily emotional tones, we really believe it.

The pop/R&B landscape isn't one of much justice, but with UK contributions so few and far between, stellar efforts like this deserve to be rewarded, so here's to the soulster - one of the few reality TV emergants who has managed to continue releasing music and to shake the tag - getting the hit he deserves.

Friday, 31 October 2008

On the verge of a potentially huge comeback, dancing queen Alesha Dixon of Mis-teeq fame is about to release her third solo single, 'The Boy Does Nothing'. Question is, will this song do anything?

Alesha Dixon - The Boy Does Nothing
Alesha Dixon has a man with two left feet. It doesn't seem to be causing her too much stress though; in fact she seems to be loving it. During a cleverly-constructed chorus, she chants 'he never brushed up; he does nothing!' with glee. This is a topic every woman across the land is going to be able to relate to, although whether the public has good enough taste to appreciate the stunning, high-energy middle 8 which follows remains to be seen. Xenomania may be famous for building the careers of Girls Aloud and Gabriella Cilmi but going by this frantic outing, they should divert all of their efforts to Alesha; her stunningly sassy vocals match their bouncing beats perfectly. Here's hoping the album continues this successful formula without suffering the messy production of previous outing Fired Up.

Friday, 24 October 2008

This week, the latest album of Europe's most successful girl group this decade went on sale. Most have heard lead-off single 'Girls', and not all like it - is the album going to split opinions in the same manner?

Sugababes - Catfights & Spotlights [2008]
The Ernie K Doe-sampling UK top 3 hit 'Girls' opens proceedings, all funky 'girl power!' lyrics and uplifting instrumentation. There's a nice ode to previous, more electropop offerings with the 'ohh, water, don't need no lemonade' vocoded intro, after which the cries of 'here come the girls!' get underway. Though the song has split opinion, it's a funky, fun affair which, though not their best album opener or lead single, gets things off to a good start. 'You On A Good Day' is a gloriously unashamed declaration of love despite a man's flaws. 'Baby, that's you on a good day' coo the girls after listing a number of downright outrageous crimes their (presumably) fictional boyfriends committed, including selling the wheels of their car (in the car park behind the bar). It's a wonderfully batty idea which works surprisingly well, and the hint of Supremes-esque soul introduced during the middle 8 is perfectly done. The fun continues on 'No Can Do', another brassy number with some of the girls' sweetest vocals. 'Forget forever' is the advice offered; this kiss-off is brutally executed, gently wrapped-up. The final minute is particularly enjoyable, with Amelle warning to avoid attempting to reach her by telephone whilst Keisha reinforces that 'no can do'. All girl group anthems should be like this.

'Hanging On A Star', produced by the boys from Orson, is the purest pop song found on the record and strikes a fine balance between bopping beats and slight retro influences. The lyrics are charmingly, presumably intently, inane, and when Amelle shrieks 'tell me baby baby!' and Heidi echoes 'tell me baby', it's the sort of disco-infused magic that audiences have come to expect from the trio. 'Side Chick' follows and pushes Buchanan to the forefront; her versatile vocals set light to the R&B melody as if it were a fire, and for two verses she keeps the hooks for herself, but it's when Berrabah interrupts with a gloriously ridiculous rap-like delivery ('he's not committed so i'ma tell him baby bah-bah') of the final verse that this becomes a fully-blown Sugababes classic. 'We could just be friends; you know how that ends', the song closes with. Let's hope it doesn't end if the result is so sublime!

On the Klas Ahlund-produced, Max Martin-assisted 'Unbreakable Heart', shimmering production and glossy vocal effects take centre stage - that is until the big chorus erupts in the listeners' ears like a musical bomb. Again Berrabah steals the show with her delivery of the chorus following a significant key change, and Range's vocoded ditty of 'then again, what's another little sin?' is a welcome touch; without it we'd barely know she had even been present at the recording, so little is she heard here. The tone adapts for 'Sunday Rain', a Steve Booker (the man responsible for Duffy's explosion onto the mainscene) production with notable 60s instrumentation and chilling harmonies. The cold verses slide into a warm chorus effortlessly. The most typically Sugababes ballad on the record, the song is bound to appeal to the girls' hardcore fans, the ones in it since the beginning and who look more for perfect melodies than glistening production.

It's back to Ahlund with 'Every Heart Broken', an incredibly witty take on murder; 'boy three worked at the cemetry...all things must end now he is six feet deep', charms Keisha with the purity of an angel. The basic chorus is the most distinct and catchy on the album and the tinkling, building production is as fresh as a winter's morning. Whilst Range and Buchanan sound perfectly at home singing of the 'deed' they have committed, it's Berrabah with her derranged delivery who yet again sneaks in and attracts all of the attention. From her sincere calling of 'arrivederci baby!' to telling how she slit the throat of the director who offered to write her a slasher flick, it could not get any more deliciously ridiculous. Much credit must rest with the song's producer and sole writer, who is a clear creative tour-de-force. On 'Beware', an orchestral warning to avoid messing with the girls, Buchanan forcefully advises the man in question to cross the street. It could so easily have been delivered in a camp manner, but instead the end result is haunting and dark, and it's over as quickly as it began, a bell's chime echoing through the song's final note.

Heidi returns to the forefront on 'Nothing's As Good As You', the final Orson production, which begins with a near-acapella verse before bursting into a chorus where syllables are broken down into pairs for maximum effect. It makes for a very catchy song and the near-reggae, lightly-summery beat is perfectly judged; upbeat without being too happy; the Sugababes always function best when a little tinge of sadness is injected. The soulful vocal delivery featured heavily at the beginning of the album makes a welcome return in the middle 8 here; these are girls inspired by the all-female groups of old; their iTunes libraries likely comprise more Diana Ross than Danity Kane. That's a good thing, by the way. On the slightly sombre ballad 'Sound Of Goodbye', a love comes to an end. 'I know I said that I would love you til I die, but that was then and this is now, that ain't no lie' affirms Range. It's an honest account of a spark gone missing which doesn't indulge too heavily in it's own upset.

Closer 'Can We Call A Truce', a final Ahlund production, is achingly sad. Over a clicky beat and distant strings, a broken relationship is again called into question. Berrabah's reflective chorus of 'I just wish this god damn mess...we could try and play it cool' feels genuine and Range's muffled, subtle vocal delivery on her verse only adds to the effect of sheer sadness induced by listening. It's the finest moment on the album, the definitive Sugababes ballad, no mean feat given their extensive and impressive back catalogue of slowies.

Against all odds - just two months were available to write and record this sixth studio effort - Catfights & Spotlights is the finest Sugababes album of all. It combines the chirpyness of Change and the youthful hooks of Taller In More Ways with the skilled production of Three to make for their most cohesive record to date, and yet whilst it has a clear direction - the girls introduced an 'electropop ban' during recording with the aim of achieving a more natural sound which focused on the harmonies and emotive vocals - it also boasts something for everybody. Furthermore, songs such as 'Side Chick', 'Unbreakable Heart' and 'Can We Call A Truce' are career-bests.

This is the album on which newest member Amelle has well and truly found her place in and brought her influence to the group. This is the album the girls have been striving to achieve since their acceptance in the mainstream all those years ago. This is the album of 2008.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

With lead single 'Right Here' having yet to take off Stateside, Brandy's new label Epic have launched her second single in attempt to make a dual assault on the charts and get fifth studio record Human off to a strong start in December. Does 'Long Distance' satisfy, or will you be left wanting to put miles between you and it?

Brandy - Long Distance
Tinkling piano ballads have been the in thing to try and replicate ever since Mariah reignited her career with 'We Belong Together' some three years ago (though it feels like a lifetime); some cut the mustard, some are clear and poor imitations and nothing more. Of course, Brandy isn't an imitator, she's an innovator, so it's no surprise that 'Long Distance' falls under the umbrella of future classic in it's own right. From the moment ms.Norwood's trademark emotive vocal opens the song with the immortal utterance 'there's only so many songs I can sing to pass the time', we know we're in for an epic. The beautifully soft verse builds up to a longing chorus with a hook which likely won't leave your head for weeks. Cleverly the lyrics tap into a theme which has been little-explored of late, but which many thousands will be able to relate to, though make no mistake that this is no calculated move; it's a world apart from the likes of Madonna's 'Miles Away'. A song both subtle and heartfelt in equal measures, 'Long Distance' adds to the promising portfolio of songs taken from Human, sure to be the R&B album of 2008.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Most men on the planet would certainly like these dolls to, um, dominate them - but will we still be wishing our girlfriends were fun like them after a listen to their sophomore attempt?

Pussycat Dolls - Doll Domination [2008]
At some sixty-two minutes long in standard form, or a further twenty if you opt for the deluxe edition, Doll Domination needs to be a strong record - eighty minutes of sex talk will not do. Thankfully we get a nice mix of themes (under the obligitary umbrella of love, of course), but kicking proceedings off is 'When I Grow Up', very much the dirty sex-fest many have come to find typical of PCD. Producer Darkchild does the honours and gives the girls one of their best singles to date. Electro synths boost the chorus and rocket along at furious pace, whilst the cheeky lyrical attempts at words of wisdom raise a smile and create a huge hook. A good start, then.

'Bottle Pop' begins nicely enough with a brief rhyme from Snoop Dogg, collaberator on past smash single Buttons, but you'd be forgiven for thinking this number was distinctly second-rate - until you get half way in when a further compliment of synthesisers add a real buzz. The song builds and builds and the chorus, initially repetitive, becomes distinctly addictive. This is good as any song featuring such inane lyrics as 'with my bottle pop, shake me' could possibly be. 'Whatcha Think About That' features a stale rap from an off-colour Missy Elliot with references to Katy Perry's 'I Kissed A Girl', but it's neither fresh nor clever; in fact it smacks of desperation. The song would be an improvement minus Elliot, and it's fairly good, but fairly good is not what the group we have come to love are all about - they're about bloody brilliant. Skip over this and return to said brilliance, for 'I Hate This Part' is PCD balladry at its finest. Beginning with a tinkling piano intro before Nicole belts out untypically restrained sentiments regarding driving through snow, the song is super-sweet and tinged with sadness. It's 'Stickwitu' for 2008, but much improved, and it's surely destined to provide Nicole and her posse with a further global smash.

'Takin' Over The World' is a sheer tragedy, overflowing with poor lyrics about a night in a club and suffering a truly dated beat. You'll likely remember it, but for the fact that it's one of the worst songs you'll be subjected to all year, not for its non-existant melody. 'Out Of This Club' is arguably no less generic but is certainly a vast improvement; the song defines sweet with its twinkly midtempo beat and soft, appealling vocal. Even an unnecessarily sordid rap from Polow Da Don boasting about faking intoxication to get a girl into bed can hardly ruin the song's sugary appeal. 'Whose Gonna Love You', an outtake from Nicole's solo sessions, is a near-epic affair sporting a combination of sad strings and subtle synths on which Nicole kisses off a lover with the promise that he'll never find another her. The quality is unsurprising given the song's pedigree; the aforementioned Da Don is on production duties, with a co-write from lyrical genius Kara DioGuardi.

'Happily Never After', another Nicole solo, is a Ne-Yo production and pretty much an 'Irreplacable' re-write, and whilst this lacks the huge hook of that hit, it does sport lyrics which are empowering without sounding patronising, never an easy feat. 'Magic' is a dark (joyless, it could be said) banger which feels like a retreat of the likes of Beep or Buttons, although ironically it lacks the magic of said hits. Sticking with Timbaland productions but moving from a dud to a gem, 'Halo' is the highlight of the record. It's a genuinely beautiful song with an epic introduction and truly flawless production throughout. It's the sort of late-night break-up anthem which would sound good playing with the rain pattering against the window and the fire on, and indeed it does warm the heart. Not wanting to get us too sentimental though, 'In Person', another Timbaland banger, follows. In sharp contrast to 'Halo' it's entirely meaningless and painfully shouty, though the threats contained in the lyrics are amusing and it's a given that we wouldn't want to be the man who scorned Nicole!

'Elevator' is a joyful Darkchild number whose hook relies on an elevator metaphor; 'We go up, we go down, touch the sky, hit the ground'. Notably it's one of the record's few songs allowing the second-most prominent singer within the group, Melody, to showcase her vocal skills, and the contrast between she and Nicole's delivery, especially in the back-and-forth middle 8, is a treat. 'Hush Hush' is a typically huge ballad which in theory should be unremarkable but in fact gets under your skin with it's lustful, longing strings and curiously regretful chorus. A late highlight follows; 'Love The Way You Love Me' is a recreation of the very best 80s pop, complete with uplifting synths and a memorable, soothing vocal. Again, the contribution from the endlessly talented DioGuardi is evident. The final Timbaland creation, 'Whatchamacallit', is a fun, silly uptempo which sees Scherzinger adopt a tone of cheeky faux-urgency; if you can't figure out the meaning behind the likes of 'I got mine on Sunset Strip from that hotspot, whatchamacallit', then worry not, for here the lyrics proudly take a back seat.

It seems Nicole is quite the fan of soaring balladry. Closer 'I'm Done' is a further example of this and is possibly the best of the big ballads evidenced here, aided by romantic lyrics about finding herself unable to prevent being swept off her feet by a lover. It's almost generic in theme and wouldn't be worth a second look in the hands of most others, but Scherzinger's vocal is so very enchanting that it's hard to think bad of the melody beneath the acrobatics.

If you've plumped for the Deluxe Edition, you'll enjoy the better package, for five of the best songs from the album sessions are to be found here, in the form of a solo from each Doll. Jessica's 'If I Was A Man' tackles the newly-popularised subject of switching gender roles, but by not taking itself too seriously and employing an infectious 80s synth-pop beat, it's much too delicious to ignore. Melody's solo is a soft downtempo; on 'Space' she concludes she needn't bow to her man's demands and lets him know that the space he requested has come at a price. It's a lovely theme and it's encouragement of independance is to be admired. Kimberley's cover of Jane Child's 1990 US #2 hit 'Don't Wanna Fall In Love' is a guilty bubblegum-pop treasure, making the most of her perhaps limited vocal range. Ashley shines on 'Played', a sweet slow jam which allows her to show off a surprisingly strong vocal and which comes with a memorable hook containing metaphors aplenty; it seems they're the current 'in' thing on the pop scene. Nicole's solo, another reject from her failed solo project, tackles the theme of self-love; similar to Christina Aguilera's 'Beautiful' in theme if not execution, it's another dreamy affair with a lovely sentiment. Group effort 'Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps' offers nothing new in terms of interpretation, but instead wisely stays true to the classic original, whilst a fresh remix of Nicole's solo single 'Baby Love' is a more-than welcome closer with it's glorious vocal and big, friendly hook; why this wasn't a bigger hit will likely remain a mystery.

If you can approach this record with a willingness to put aside the fact that for an apparent girl group, a shockingly high proportion of vocals are given to just one singer, then the chances are you'll be able to enjoy it hugely. It's bursting with hooks and boasts a sound which harks back to the pop of the 80s in a fond fashion. Doll Domination builds artistically on the group's debut PCD; whilst that album made their name and sported some brilliant club bangers, this should be appreciated for working it's hooks in a more subtle manner. If there is any justice in this fickle business, then Doll Domination will go down as a brilliant and varied record paving the way for the Pussycat Dolls to enjoy a continued, successful career.

Friday, 10 October 2008

We're about to review an album for you which means this is our last chance to crack a bad joke before going into serious mode. That'll be a nice Change won't it? Ahaa!

Sugababes - Change [2007]
With their sixth studio album just around the corner we thought we'd look back on last year's Sugababes album. Change was preceeded by About You Now. It is believed that no new word has yet been invented which can properly highlight the amazingness of said song but certainly it is beyond amazing, and that is that. Never Gonna Dance Again, a Xenomania number set somewhat unsurprisingly on the dancefloor, may just be the biggest wasted oppurtunity of the girls' career to date. Brimming with hooks and sad melodrama, the song was destined to be #1 had anybody behind the scenes actually had the sense to release it. The best moments come during Amelle's first verse when the bass kicks in, and in Heidi's glorious middle 8. Did anybody ever own a middle 8 better than Range? It's hard to say without resorting to vodka shots and fist fights but there's no doubt that here she positively snatches the song out from Amelle's dagger-fingers and Keisha's claws, stamping her lovely mysteriousness all over it. You feel her pain, and you love it.

Denial is third and should come as the answer to those asking whereabouts the Sugababes lost their edge (actually, the answer to that is in Boots but that is for another time). A growling electro quiver introduces the song, which again Heidi steals with her effortless emotion and curious sentiment. If the girl had any sense, she would stop doing this - Queen Keisha will not be happy! My Love Is Pink follows and again allows Xenomania the oppurtunity to shine - this time, though, they pass on that in favour of a monotone, hard-edged dancefloor-friendly beat which is entirely free of any joy. The song is saved by lyrics so ridiculous you come to appreciate them and a massive hook, but it's hard to shake the idea that Brian Higgins sat in his chair of evil and plotted to give the girls a song which would draw 'weaker Girls Aloud' comparisons.

Change now, one of two big ballads on the album. Actually, subtle is probably the word, for the only time the song is 'big' is during the reflective chorus, which sees the girls probe some rather weighty questions; 'aint it funny how you think you got your whole life planned, just to find out it was never ever in your hands?'. Sometimes I sit and answer 'yes' or 'no' to this rhetoric, dependant upon my mood. The song fulfills the 'lovely ballad' brief and goes down as their best slowie since...well, since the last one they released. Next is Back When, presumably constructed sat in a park on a sunny day, lieing on a picnic blanket whilst Keisha sunbathed and the others primed her toe nails. The song sounds like summer, in short, and whilst we all like a nice dosage of summer, it's all disappointly predictable here. It seems Sugababes do uplifting better when it's in the form of upbeat dance-pop and not breezy midtempo.

Surprise is in fact not a surprise at all, for it is more of the same. This time, however, the hook is huge - thank Dr Luke, god of my world - and so the element of safety can be forgiven. Back Down with it's reggae-infused beat is the perfect vehicle for Amelle to demonstrate the appeal of her husky vocal, and as rancid as any song which contains the lyric 'I like my man rough, I like my man tough' should in theory be, the end result is actually positive - we're in guilty pleasure territory. From one extreme to the other, Mended By You is all dramatic strings and unanswered questions. 'August 23rd, do you remember?'; at least give us a clue! It's actually a song of sheer beauty and contains the subtlest hook on the album in the form of the pre-chorus bridge. On top of this, the closing minutes is packed with 'ooh, ooh-ooh's. Apparently team Sugababe quite like the 'ooh' lyric, and as anybody with an education should now, it is in fact the key to pop perfection.

The brashness makes a blunt return in the form of 3 Spoons Of Suga. Was a song title ever this shameless? I think not, and it doesn't even make sense, for the girls proceed to tell us that what they need is three spoons of sugar; none of this 'suga' malarky, unless they intend on eating themselves. All the same it's a fun song but nothing more, and it's status as a bonus track is difficult to sympathise with. Open The Door is the album's penultimate number, and marks the final contribution of afore-mentioned-genius Dr Luke and his perfectly-matched sidekick in writing, Cathy Dennis. It's another dose of upbeat fun, but this time slightly sad tones underpin the song and it's all the better for it. Keisha's middle 8, in fact, is one of near-despair. It's an cruel irony that nearly all of the best moments on this record come when sadness and misery populate the lyrics. Undignified closes preceeding; it's name could barely be any more inappopriate, for this is dignified in every sense, to the extent that it's actually a little bit boring. Certainly it's not a patch on the epic closers of both editions of their previous studio album Taller In More Ways.

To conclude, Sugababes 3.0 were likely still finding their sound when they made Change. It's a very promising start - there are six or seven songs on here which rank amongst the girls' best of all-time. There is also an abundance of safety which needs to be shred before a true classic can be produced. Now, onto Catfights and Spotlights...

Because our letter of the day is K we're going to review some nice K-related singles for you this morning. Contain that excitement, please.

Katy Perry - Hot n' Cold
We hate faux lesbians and we hate P!nk wannabes, so by all accounts a new single from Katy Perry should mean diving for those muffled earphones and positioning them on your head before the music begins. But hold it! It turns out that Hot n' Cold suffers none of the tired clichés of predecessor I Kissed A Girl. In fact, it's totally fresh. The musical god who is Dr Luke jumps on board once again and produces an instant classic to rival the likes of U & Ur Hand. The bouncing dance-pop beat practically redefines infectious and the plentyful metaphors encountered along the way are nothing short of charming; 'you PMS like a bitch!', Perry slanders. The entire package is the sort of fabulous force that is helping to drive pop back to the forefront of the US charts, so we must thank Dr Luke and perhaps even Katy herself, if you decide to forgive the pile of dog turd she put out previously.

Keane - Spiralling
File this one under unexpectedly brilliant comeback single. Those three ever-so-plain lads who were taken under the wing of the middle-aged housewife population of Britain upon their debut are back and sporting an all-new sound. It's a transition which would make the Queen of Pop herself proud, but unlike Madonna, Keane are actually pretty relevant right now. Spiralling kicks off all blazing electro beats mashed in with a tinkling piano melody. What really gives away the boys' new-found pop embracement are a serious of 'ooh!'s, and as we all know an 'ooh!' in a pop song pretty much guarantees that it'll be in your head for at least seventeen days, because naturally 'ooh!' is the easiest lyric to remember. The chorus is an epic affair, the song punches hook after hook at it's newly-found youthful audience, and the final verse, a serious of rhetorics such as 'Did you wanna be the president?' works in a way it really shouldn't. All in all, Spiralling will indeed spiral round and round in your mind until you self-combust. The Sugababes' live lounge cover of the song is worth checking out on youtube too.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Remixes are a fairly hit-and-miss affair but we at Needle love a good pop remix so here are three which we feel really add a new dimension to already-brilliant songs.

Keri Hilson - Energy [Wideboys Remix]
Wideboys haven't strayed far from their tried-and-tested technique of hashing in heavy beats and synthesised bleeps over a processed vocal with this mix of Keri's gigantic flop single. Fortunately for the London-based garage duo, said technique works wonderfully here. During the chorus in particular, Hilson's plain-but-sexy voice seems to positively sparkle amongst the added electronica. For those wondering where Keri is, and whether her mostly-leaked album will ever see the light of day, this should tide you over for a few weeks.

The Saturdays - Up [Riffs & Rays Radio Edit]
The (intended) appeal of the Saturdays is in their colourful personalities. Or is it their bright dress sense? It's not easy to tell, but what's for sure is that this fabulous, swooshing remix is leagues ahead of the stodgy, pace-killing Wideboys mix of the same song. Dramatic strings kick off proceedings and bring a touch of dancefloor glamour to the monotonous, if immensely catchy, original. A job well done.

P!nk - So What [Abe Abraham Remix]
If there's one remix you check out, it must be this. Truly a pop remix, Abraham's interpreation of So What steers wisely away from the dancefloor in favour of a merry electropop theme which compliments the already-buzzy original no end. Perhaps it'll be best to save this for in a few weeks when you realise you've played the album version of P!nk's masterpiece 283 times more than is actually sane. Then you can bung this on and, like magic, you have an excuse to start raving to the music of miss Moore all over again.

Straight to business

This is just a quick hello - to hang around any longer may be to cause extreme eagerness and indeed anxiety. So fret not, Diamond Needle is back! We'll be reviewing everything from new singles and albums to live concerts and music videos too. Basically, if you love music then this might well be that slick new hangout you were looking for. So stay tuned - the first dose of over-analysis is on it's way as we speak.