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.