La Roux – La Roux

Right from the start of La Roux‘s eponymous debut, it’s pretty clear what’s going on – it opens with the huge hit In for the Kill, with Elly Jackson singing about an octave higher than she’s really comfortable with. It’s uncomfortable to listen to – this was early in their career, but you feel as though this is someone young, who hasn’t really worked out who they are yet, or what they want to do. She’s intentionally singing with the voice of a million pop songs, because that’s what she thinks she’s meant to do. At least, that’s what it sounds like.

The thing is, La Roux is actually a pretty good song, In for the Kill is a very good, catchy pop song, but that voice… it just doesn’t sound right – and with good reason. When Jackson worked with New Order on Music Complete, she proved conclusively that she’s a good singer. There’s little sign of that here.

There are hints, though – Tigerlily is an angry, perhaps intentionally Lily Allen-like vocal delivery. It’s insubstantial, like a lot of Lily Allen‘s discography, but it’s a good pop song. It even has a tribute to Thriller in the middle, although it doesn’t honestly work particularly well here – this is a lot less atmospheric.

Quicksand is next, and we’re back to the hoarse screechy vocal delivery again. It does wear a little less as you get used to it, actually – and the synth backing, although a little cheesy at times, is punchy and fun. Then the number one hit single Bulletproof – and by this stage, you should be thoroughly used to the vocal delivery. It’s another great pop song, even though it doesn’t really flow well from the preceding track. If the production weren’t quite so naff, and the vocals were an octave or so lower, this could be a great pop-rock crossover. As it is, it’s a good song, but it does seem to be lacking something.

It’s a decade now since La Roux graced the charts, and pretty much as long since La Roux graced the charts – follow-up Trouble in Paradise, released a telling five years later, performed well but only yielded one minor hit single. So La Roux is very much a product of its time.

For the first time, Colourless Colour does something more interesting than just pop. The chorus isn’t the strongest ever, but the synth pad work in the verse is gloriously retro. It is a worthwhile reminder, though, of just how interesting pop can be when enough work has been put into the production – all the tracks up to now just seem to have fallen a little flat, in retrospect.

The kazoo-like lead on final single I’m Not Your Toy is a nice illustration of this. It would work fine on its own, but amongst its neighbours, it feels like a kind of laughing irony. The song is strong though – there’s little to fault about the song writing on most of these tracks, actually. The pitch is a little off, as is the production, but the base song is good.

We’ve also run out of singles now – Cover My Eyes is next, and is a nice, very eighties-inspired track. The longest track on the album, it does seem to owe a lot to the pop of a couple of decades earlier, and given that Jackson was only born in 1988, that’s actually quite impressive. It may not be new, but it is at least interesting.

So it continues, really – As if By Magic is both fresh and dated, and really for the first time on this album, it seems to be comfortably in Jackson’s vocal range. It even has a fade at the end, which, as we’ve discussed before, is rare on modern pop songs. Fasicnation has what is probably the oddest vocal melody on the whole album, and is consequently possibly one of the hardest tracks to enjoy here. Honestly, it’s a bit of a mess, this one.

Reflections Are Protection is better, but the album is pretty much over by this point. You can see this working well as a song for a house party, perhaps late in the night, when everyone is feeling a bit worse for wear. Actually, that’s a fair analogy for this album – it’s a house party, where you have some fun, but something doesn’t quite seem right – and you just keep bumping into that loud person with the grating voice. You can’t help that uneasy feeling that you’re going to wake up in the morning and wonder whether the hangover was really worth it.

The last track is Armour Love, which is one of the better songs on here. It’s slower, with a jauntier rhythm and a clever melody. This could have been a great single, actually, with if the marketing strategy had been a little bolder. It’s certainly fair to say that La Roux are capable of writing and recording interesting songs. In amongst everything else.

Some editions also add the bonus track Growing Pains, which is another highlight actually, but the die is cast by this stage. La Roux is a worthy debut, and an interesting album. It’s easy to fault in many ways, but it has plenty going for it, and it obviously tapped into the moment – its chart performance speaks for itself. Most people probably won’t be listening to it now, but it’s worth at least having it in your awareness. Pop, when done well, can be truly great.

You can still find La Roux by La Roux on general release.

Youssou N’Dour – The Guide (Wommat)

Let’s face it, there aren’t a lot of reasons why you, in 1994, might have been interested in Youssou N’Dour‘s The Guide (Wommat). They’re probably much the same as now – either you know and love Senegalese music, or you liked 7 Seconds when it came out. Either way, there’s a lot to enjoy on this album. It’s 25 years old this week, which is as good a reason as any to give it a listen.

N’Dour was, by this stage, very well established, having found success in his native Senegal and across Africa more than a decade earlier, and starting to gather European hits in the mid-eighties, starting in France. He had worked with Peter Gabriel on a number of occasions, including providing backing vocals for In Your Eyes. By 1993, his name was well known in the UK, even if his music was not particularly. He was one of the first artists to controversially fuse traditional African music with electronic sounds

This album opens with the catchy Leaving (Dem). Without understanding most of the lyrics or knowing much of the backstory, it’s going to be difficult to comment on specific tracks here, but at worst the tracks here are all pleasant, and some are very nice indeed. Old Man follows, with a softer jazz feel, getting disconcertingly faster as the track goes on.

Without a Smile (Same) and Mame Bamba follow. By the late 1980s, N’Dour was regularly providing French and English language lyrics and titles for album tracks alongside the various African (and apparently invented) languages that had appeared on earlier releases, but it often feels here as though the actual lyrics matter less than the feel of the words. N’Dour’s music seems broadly joyful and celebratory, and somehow understanding every word might spoil it – for me, this is a celebration of the beautiful world we live in and the people who inhabit it.

Which brings us to 7 Seconds, the brilliant collaboration with Neneh Cherry that hit the top three in the UK and number one in several European countries in mid-1994, certainly the most successful song to be sung in Wolof on the UK chart, and probably among the most successful French songs too. The collaboration appears to have been initiated by Cherry, who had been listening to N’Dour since his western breakthrough in the 1980s. It’s a pretty transparent song actually, talking about how a newborn doesn’t know anything about war or conflict. There’s a dark undertone, in a way, but really if you have thought of this as a joyful album so far, this underlines that feeling somewhat. Think of it as untainted, unknowing innocence, and it’s really rather beautiful.

N’Dour has his work cut out to keep you listening after that, though. How You Are (No Mele) is the track he chooses, which lists the independence dates of various African countries. It’s good, and unusually the meaning is firmly in the lyrics this time, so there’s a marked contrast between this and its neighbour Generations (Diamono), where the music is chirpy and beautiful even if you don’t understand the lyrics.

The questionable choice on this release was to put way too many tracks on here – this was the early nineties, and artists were beginning to explore extending the form of the album out to the full length of a CD. So Youssou N’Dour has put no fewer than fifteen tracks on here, and however varied, that’s enough to really burn the listener out. Couple that with English-speaking audiences being unused to other languages, and you’re pretty much guaranteed that a lot of listeners will just have this on in the background while doing something else.

Some tracks deserve that – Tourista is nice enough, but far from a standout song. Undecided (Japoulo) was the follow-up single in the UK, sadly only reaching number 53 but remaining to this day one of his biggest hits. Other than 7 Seconds it’s the most electronic track on here, which is undoubtedly why it was picked as a single. For that release, Neneh Cherry stepped in again to provide backing vocals, and Deep Forest reworked it, but despite those then-huge names, it failed to make much impact.

But this is where having so many tracks starts to become a problem – Love One Another (Beuguente), Life (Adouna) and My People (Samay Nit) fade into the background, rightly or wrongly. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this album, but its component parts would have stood out a lot better if there hadn’t been quite as many of them.

That isn’t to say that nothing stands out at all at this end of the album – Oh Boy is a nice jazzy piece, and Silence (Tongo) has some wonderfully lively uncredited backing vocals on it, and some great percussive work. It’s just that by now, most listeners will have lost a lot of their energy and interest. Closing the album is a translated cover of Bob Dylan‘s Chimes of Freedom, which is probably the most unexpected thing to turn up here. In particular, you can imagine this being brilliant as a live performance.

So, at the end, this is an interesting album. It feels almost offensive to N’Dour and all the great musicians who worked on this to describe it as background music, and of course that’s unfair, because speakers of other languages and listeners of other styles will find plenty to like here. Really, the problem is purely the number of tracks – and even that is only a problem when you sit down to pay it full attention. There’s enough great material here – just maybe don’t try to listen to it all at once.

You can still find The Guide (Wommat) at all major retailers.

Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures

There are some albums that just feel sacrilegious to review, and both of Joy Division‘s fall comfortably into that category. There really isn’t much that you can say that hasn’t already been said, but it celebrates its fortieth anniversary this week, and so it seems a good time to challenge yourself and give it a go. Let’s put it on and try to listen with fresh ears, and see where it takes us.

It opens with Disorder, which may or may not be one of Ian Curtis‘s finest moments, but it definitely gives you a pretty solid introduction to the group and what they’re trying to do. More punk than some of their songs, it’s a strong, emotional opener.

In common with all of Joy Division‘s releases, there are no singles on here, so now, forty years on, the album’s structure seems a little unusual. The dark, grungy Day of the Lords is the second track, right where most albums would put their prime single. It’s beautifully miserable in the way that Curtis so quickly mastered, with typically dark and cheerless lyrics. Where will it end?

Joy Division were right at the start of their chart career at this point, having no singles under their belt, and just a handful of recordings on compilations. That career was, of course, tragically short – this may have been their first album, but Curtis had less than a year to live before his suicide in May 1980. If you include New Order‘s subsequent decades of success, there is a clear progression of sound, but without that, there’s nothing raw or immature about this – this is Joy Division‘s sound

Candidate is a softer, less accessible, shorter piece that fits perfectly without challenging the listener unnecessarily. In a way, every Joy Division track has its challenges – many of their songs are hymns for misfits – but when you hear them together in album form, it’s interesting how few of them jar. So Insight, with its slightly uncomfortably discordant vocal and zapping synth effects, somehow seems a perfect fit amongst the punk and grunge of earlier tracks.

You couldn’t comment on Unknown Pleasures without mentioning the artwork – Peter Saville‘s exquisite take on the waveforms, perfectly framed and coloured, complement the music brilliantly. Although Saville seems to have been involved, it’s hard not to be a little offended by the new fortieth anniversary reissue of the album, where the artwork has been inexplicably switched to black-on-white to fit Bernard Sumner‘s original sleeve idea.

The first side closes with New Dawn Fades, one of two or three tracks on here that probably would have been singles if this had been a more recent release. It has a fascinating spacious, epic quality, which seems to just build and build without ever really reaching its explosion. If you weren’t convinced by this album yet, you should be by now.

Or maybe the first track on the second side is the one that clinches it? She’s Lost Control is brilliant, absolutely one of Joy Division‘s finest tracks. It’s accessible as a pop song, and yet dark and rocky, with the excellent early experimental percussive drum effects. If you had to introduce contemporary music to an alien, She’s Lost Control wouldn’t be a bad way to do it.

Shadowplay too has a loyal following, maybe because of the haunting line about “waiting for you,” or maybe because of the catchy guitar line, or perhaps something else entirely. This one I understand less well – it’s a good track, definitely one of the better ones on here, but I think I prefer the previous two.

A couple of shorter tracks follow, Wilderness and Interzone. Both stand out in their own way – the first is cut to a similar template to some of the earlier tracks, while the second is an intriguingly experimental rock piece, with hard-panned tracks and twin-tracked vocals.

Closing the album is the longer, and broader I Remember Nothing, delivering a haunting vocal and moody backing. At the time, without the four decades that have come since its release, I wonder whether this might have seemed an oddly inaccessible track to close the album, but now, with the benefit of time, it seems a perfect closer.

Unknown Pleasures is great, of course – you knew that already. It’s emotional, dark, at times dreamlike, and somehow accessible to indie kids and electroboys/girls alike. Curtis’s raw, bloody, poetic genius is on full form here, and impressively so for a debut album. To a modern eye, it’s perhaps a shame that there wasn’t space for a single or two, but this is true to Joy Division‘s form, nonetheless. And forty years on, it somehow still seems every bit as legendary as it ever did.

It’s difficult to recommend a version of Unknown Pleasures to own without a deeper knowledge of the differences, so you might need to do some of your own research here. This is the regular deluxe edition, to get you started.