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Archive for September, 2011

Nicola Roberts - Cinderella's EyesNicola Roberts has made a career out of defying expectation. Nobody thought she’d get far on Popstars: The Rivals (remember that?), least of all judge Pete Waterman, who attempted to veto her at every stage in favour of less talented but more polished contestants. She sailed into a band that nobody expected would last much beyond their debut single. They released six Platinum-selling albums and 21 singles. Frequently overshadowed by her more high-profile band mates, nobody ever expected she’d do anything as a solo artist either, and yet here she is with not only the best effort by a former Girl Aloud so far, but one of the strongest and most inventive pop albums I’ve heard all year.

Unlike so many play-it-safe post-group solo debuts by pop acts who jump aboard the MOR bandwagon in hopes of ‘doing a Robbie’, Cinderella’s Eyes really feels like the product of the person who recorded it. Girls Aloud’s songwriting and production team Xenomania are nowhere to be seen, but their trick of marrying quirky, conversational lyrics to unconventional song-structures is evident. The Diplo-produced opening track Beat of My Drum is enough to instantly indicate that we’re a world away from Kym Marsh territory here. It was widely perceived to be a risky lead single, and it didn’t quite pay off in the charts, but it’s far from the most surprising moment here. In fact there’s hardly anything on show here that plays things safe. The closest is a fairly straight cover of the Korgi’s Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime, but while Girls Aloud’s cover versions were generally uninspired attempts to level out their more out-there releases (think their limp rendition of See The Day swiftly following the manic Biology into the charts to soak up a few Christmas sales), here the song fits in perfectly with the introspective mood of the album.

On second single Lucky Day, she impersonates the ringing of a telephone and a lovers kisses via a series of slightly alarming yelps. She raps in a thick scouse accent on Take a Bite and shrieks like Kate Bush on amphetamines throughout the title track. She never got the lion’s share of the vocals in Girls Aloud, and she relishes stretching herself here, finding interesting ways to approach each track. Sometimes she sounds like Lily Allen – such as on the eerie I – at other times Cilla Black by way of Alison Goldfrapp. The warbling power balladry you’d expect from a reality singing contest veteran is nowhere to be found.

With a co-writing credit on every track, the lyrics are frequently nakedly autobiographical, with pointed references to tabloid criticism of her unconventional looks and supposed moodiness. Emotionally it covers a lot of similar territory to Lady Gaga’s dreadful Born This Way album, but the outcome could not be more different. Gaga offers a preening, self-absorbed vision of outsiderdom, constructed around wafer thin and increasingly tiresome concepts such as the ‘little monsters’ and the ‘Haus of Gaga’. Songs like Bad Kids and Born This Way don’t feel empowering, they feel patronising, delivered from a distance by a woman of such titanic self-belief that there’s no room for the slightest glimmer of vulnerability or humanity. Nicola’s lyrics are less universal, but vastly more relatable, not to mention believable. People can be horrid, and they’ll make you feel like shit. But you get on with it. I’ll take that over empty nonsense like Don’t be a drag just be a queen any day of the week.

A couple of months ago I wrote an article bemoaning the fact that the token “pop” nominations for the Mercury music prize – Adele and Katy B this year, Jamelia and La Roux in years past – are almost invariably lazy choices that merely represent the most commercially successful acts that year who still have a veneer of artistic credibility. Cinderella’s Eyes, a brave, personal and creative album that is bound to be under-recognised commercially, would be a perfect choice for the pop nomination in 2012. It won’t be, but it should.

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If The Wedding Singer taught us anything, it is that the only thing funnier than frail old women talking explicitly about sex is frail old women laying down some phat beats – as veteran character actress Ellen Albertini Dow gamely demonstrated with her enthusiastic take on the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in the aforementioned Adam Sandler Rom-Com.

So perhaps it was inevitable that former Golden Girl Betty White – currently enjoying a late career revival based on her willingness to send up her previously cuddly image with some spectacularly foul-mouthed movie cameos and an Emmy winning role as a stoner housekeeper in the US sitcom Hot In Cleveland – would take the logical step into the murky world of novelty dance.

Teaming up with London born singer Luciana – one of those Kelly Llorenna types who pops up on massive club record every few years, and who has been knocking around for so long that I suspect she may be the older half of the pairing – the redoubtable Ms White raps (well, speaks) about her enduring hotness (and her penchant for ‘Rockin’ the world with my cheesecake’, which I really, really hope isn’t a euphemism) over a filthy electro-house beat.

It’s better than anything on Madonna’s last album.

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I very much enjoy the fact that Jennifer Lopez has returned to the pop premier league on a tidal wave of towering ridiculousness. Following up a hit as utterly ludicrous as the lambada-sampling On The Floor was always going to be a big ask, and her last single I’m Into You was a disappointingly straight faced affair. Thankfully she’s taken things up a few notches for her latest effort. Papi was already a fairly ridiculous song – it wouldn’t sound entirely out of place being performed by an Eastern European pop princess/gangster’s moll at the Eurovision Song Contest. In fact it would probably win.

The old J.Lo probably would have been content to spend the video throwing herself around next to some rappers, possibly intercut with shots of her carrying some shopping bags through The Bronx to remind us all how real she is. The new J.Lo, however, has a far grander artistic vision. Maybe it’s the terrified hunger of being back on top after years in the wilderness. Maybe after four husbands and twelve years of peddling hummable but instantly forgettable hits, she just doesn’t give a damn anymore. Maybe the unholy combination of skincare products, macrobiotic foods and thetan readings that keep her ostensibly 42 year old body in such alarmingly good nick has sent her slightly barmy. Whatever the reason, the Papi is a fabulously entertaining train wreck. A good 50% of it is still given over to so much utterly shameless product placement that the final product looks like a mix between the sort of wacky supernatural rom-com she might have starred in back in 2002 and the Canyonero advert from the Simpsons. But hey, that’s just the way Jenny rolls. She’s the Krusty the Clown of Pop, and I don’t think I’d want her any other way.

 

My favourite things about this epic moment in pop history.

1. Jenny’s spectacularly poor acting throughout. This woman has been in actual films.

2. The concierge who appears to moonlight as a witch doctor (or is it the other way round?)

3. Product placement literally involving the camera cutting away from the action and focusing on random products for up to 30 seconds at a time.

4. Cars crashing on the first beat of the chorus. Seriously, that is cool.

5. J.Lo hits a guy with her car. He doesn’t get up. She drives on with a flick of the hair. I wonder if Halle Berry will ever see this video?

6. As per every pop video set in a US City ever, a fire hydrant is set off. You’d think J.Lo would then writh around under it until her clothes go all translucent, but the hydrant is never seen again. MISDIRECTION! It’s better than Hitchcock.

7.  A gang of sex-crazed men drag Jenny out of her sunroof by the arms and advance on her menacingly, causing the viewer to briefly wonder if the video is about to take a particularly dark turn.

8. It’s OK, they just want to dance around her like theyt’re auditioning for Rent. Maybe there’s a rumour that she knows a guy who knows a guy.

9. Eventually they figure out she’s not going to cast any of them, and prepare to fling her to a messy death in oncoming traffic.

10. John Hamm out of Mad Men turns up to save the day. The spell is over and all is well. The end.

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So far the Nicola Roberts solo project is looking more Siobhan Donaghy than Cheryl Cole. The good news is that like Siobhan’s two efforts, Nicola’s album is shaping up to be a bold and inventive collection of leftfield pop that builds on the musical legacy of her former group while offering an intriguing glimpse at a pop personality often pushed into the background. The bad news is that, like Siobhan’s two efforts, it’s clearly going to sell about seventeen copies.

Previous single Beat of my Drum was a great opening gambit that unfortunately stalled at an ignominious number 27 on the charts – in part because it was part of the On Air, On Sale drive that can be death for mid-level pop artists who can’t count on a big opening week to grab attention. It’s back to a more traditional release schedule for this single, and she’s been promoting the hell out of it on daytime TV, but alas with minimal radio support it seems the die has been cast.

This is a shame because Lucky Day is as fabulously bizarre as the best Girls Aloud hits, with Nicola growling and wailing over a twinkly electro-stringy backing track like a demented cross between Sophie Ellis Bextor, Clare Grogan and Cilla Black. It takes a few listens, and in truth it’s probably too divisive to have ever stood much of a chance, but it’s streets ahead of Cheryl’s quarter-arsed efforts. A small moral victory.

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