Saturday, 12 September 2009

The ‘red-haired one’ and the resurgence of synth pop

In the past ten months or so we have witnessed a stream of 80’s inspired artists representing the ‘synth pop’ genre made famous by the Human League and Depeche Mode amongst others. At the forefront of this ‘revival of sorts’ are La Roux, made up of androgynous lead singer Elly Jackson and “anonymous machine operator” Ben Langmaid. Their name means, in slightly-inaccurate French, the ‘red-haired one’, and despite being a fully fledged band La Roux can frequently appear to be a solo act thanks to the attention afforded Jackson in the band’s videos and live performances. Their first single ‘Quicksand’ was released on December 15th last year, yet it failed to break the UK Top 100, peaking at a disappointing #153. However since the advent of 2009 La Roux have become increasingly more popular and their debut album La Roux has sold over 200,000 copies in Britain, whilst reaching #2 in the charts. It has received mostly positive reviews from critics and a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, but does it live up to the hype?

The album’s opener is their breakthrough UK single ‘in For The Kill’ which, according to Jackson is about “about telling someone how you feel regardless of what you get back, and not waiting to find out if they want you or not”. The song charges at you with some considerable force from its first beat and features a simple repeated rhythm accompanied by Jackson’s ferocious delivery of what seems to be a statement of deadly intent. The catchy nature of the melody and sing along lyrics make it instantly memorable even on first listen, even more so alongside the “Blade Runner meets Top Gear” video. However, whilst her “shrill and synthetic sounding” vocals may appeal to some, once the shock value has faded they unfortunately become rather difficult to appreciate. ‘Tigerlily’ which according to Jackson shows ‘a nice other side’ to the band, features a “Thriller-style world bridge” plus dark, threatening lyrics. Described as when ‘she [Jackson] gets all stalkerish’ and inspired, as with the remainder of the album, by a “traumatic” five year relationship that didn’t work out, it certainly stands out. Next up is their debut ‘Quicksand’, which if re-released would almost certainly claim a place in the Top 10. It combines early 80’s-style hooks with “frosty soulfulness to give the song's obsession a shot of excitement”. Bulletproof, the band’s first UK number one, came across on first listen as a weak effort, with a lazy, meaningless chorus backed by a jazzy rhythm aiming to cover up for it’s deficiencies. Whilst Jackson has admitted it can be “whatever you want it to be about”, the music, a “bright, bouncy slice of Yazoo-ish electro pop”, easily makes up for the lyrical shortcomings and lack of any definitive meaning.

The rest of the album crucially maintains for the most part the consistent nature of the first four tracks, as it would be easy for listeners to lose interest having already heard the three singles. ‘Colourless Colour’ features, for the first time on the album Jackson’s far more bearable lower register delivering a seemingly anachronistic reference to “early nineties décor”. ‘I’m Not Your Toy’ manages to impressively combine a calypso flick and jaunty rhythm with lyrics detailing an apparently unrequited love ‘returned’ just for show. ‘Cover My Eyes’ provides the album’s most emotional and poignant moment, with Jackson’s tale of rejection, heartbreak and jealousy echoed by the London Community Gospel Choir, to in the words of NME’s Luke Turner, “curiously hymnal effect”. ‘As If By Magic’ sees Jackson lamenting her position and wishing to be ‘the one’, using wishes and daydreams as armour against further heartache”. ‘Fascination’ shares the energy and dance floor appeal of ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘in For The Kill’ yet is unfortunately let down by lyrics more akin to Girls Aloud in terms of simplicity and meaninglessness. ‘Reflections Are Protections’ is filled with “chilly oddness” and features a seemingly intentionally stiff sound whilst reflecting on the mistakes of the past, learning from them and moving forward in a clear direction. The penultimate track features murky synth sounds, strong bass and heavy drum beats that strangely complement Jackson’s pleasant vocals and desperate plea not be left alone. The album’s closer ‘Growing Pains’ confirms something that had become noticeable in the preceding few tracks, that Jackson’s voice begins to bear similarities to that of Lily Allen, as does the song’s subject matter.

The album is a strong first effort and manages the difficult feat being a unique, yet familiar and for the most part, catchy yet not to the point of irritation. Perhaps it is just a personal opinion, but Jackson’s constant references to failed relationships, unfulfilled romances, unrequited love and jealousy do begin to take their toll after a while. Hopefully she will be able to find a different source of lyrical inspiration for the next album. Although that’s not to say the lyrics are weak, as Jackson is able to effectively convey her emotions, which makes them very easy to relate to. Possibly because of the dearth of talent in the charts at the current time, or the media’s usual habit of building a potential star up just so they can knock them down, La Roux have been significantly hyped up, possibly a little too much. Whilst the way in which the songs are delivered is original and impressive, the band’s synth pop style most certainly isn’t. Although the majority of reviews will concentrate on the headline-grabbing singles, there are a number of other key tracks, namely the stand-out ‘Cover My Eyes’, ‘I’m Not Your Toy’ and ‘Tigerlily’. Jackson herself has stated that Depeche Mode, and particularly the Speak and Spell era, were one of the inspirations behind the album. If La Roux were able to mature in a similar way they may well earn even greater plaudits.

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