Review Summary: Why did you end up killing the groove?
Of all the dance and electropop female solo acts currently in the business, Sophie Ellis-Bextor has seemed like a second-class act in almost every way. While every bit as beautiful and vocally talented as her fellow pop stars, she has never really found her footing nor enjoyed the critical reception that they have. Much of this is due to the fact that everything she has done, others have simply done better. For instance, Kylie had better beats, Gaga was more brash and ethereal, whereas Madonna was just a bigger and more powerful magnet for controversy. Perhaps most damningly, even Britney Spears' relatively belated transition into all-out electropop has been regularly threatening to be more successful than Ellis-Bextor's entire discography both in the UK and at home. To put it bluntly, the simple fact is that Ellis-Bextor has never once produced a truly great album in her entire career. Harsh words, to be sure, but none of her past records can be said to be capable of decisively anchoring her into the annals of the electropop industry. She came closest, perhaps, with 2007's Trip The Light Fantastic
, a solidly produced record which managed - almost despite itself - to be sparkly, robust, and inventive all at once. Crucial to its success was the inclusion of songs like "Today The Sun's On Us" and "What Have We Started", whose emotional depths not only suggested a three-dimensional nature to a pop star who had previously seemed to be completely made out of porcelain, but also went some way towards proving that she was more than just a poor man's electropop chemist.
Unfortunately, Ellis-Bextor's latest - the rather ambitiously-titled Make A Scene
- provides strong evidence that her apparent artistic growth over the last decade or so was no more than a mere statistical truth - the idea is that if you throw enough cans at the recycling bin, one is bound to go in eventually. Upon close listen, Make A Scene
is as frustrating as it is regressive, with its most maddening trait being its tendency to display flashes of brilliance, before somehow contriving to reveal itself as having all the emotional quotient of a china vase. The greatest disappointment here, though, is just how well the album begins. Across the first five tracks which themselves display a variety of moody, edgy pop, Ellis-Bextor sounds as accomplished and confident as we last remembered her. The sonic evolution seen towards the end of Trip The Light Fantastic
is superbly-preserved in album opener "Revolution", a sleek, reverb-drenched number that could easily have been a cut from Daft Punk's Discovery
sessions. Ellis-Bextor's entrance into the song is one of effortless panache as she announces, "Bang bang! It's a hold up!" to her audience at large. Indeed, her confidence is so overpowering that she actually finds it in herself to allude to an older (and much weaker) song, "Murder on the Dancefloor" (off 2001's Read My Lips
) in the song's chorus. It is a bold move that could easily have backfired spectacularly, yet when she barks, "It's murder on the dance floor/Cut to the chase/Just give us what we came for", it is hard not to give her your attention. First single "Bittersweet" then delivers the quintessential serving of the pop star's frosted and sultry vocals, while the anxious trickle of "Off & On" and the tuneful reminiscence of "Not Giving Up On Love" exist only to excite. The latter two in particular are sleeper club hits just waiting to happen. However, the biggest surprise of the opening quintet is the futuristic groove of "Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)", which features East Sussex disco house band the Freemasons in the foreground, adding their usual funky shakedowns to the mix. Elegant, sequinned, and joyous, this opening sequence is vintage Ellis-Bextor at her absolute finest; on any other album it would easily have served as an excellent segue into the record's remaining half hour of material.
Unfortunately, everything just goes downhill from here on end. The first track to appear, "Can't Fight This Feeling", relies heavily on the listener being able and willing to appreciate a rehash of the backing track from Trip The Light Fantastic
's "If I Can't Dance". However, as one would expect, it just comes across sounding tired and simply unoriginal. Soon after, "Under Your Touch" attempts to salvage the situation, but it ends up having the listener cringing in disbelief as Ellis-Bextor resorts to blurting out crass and utterly unconvincing lines like, "I'm so ready for love!" to get her point across. Other songs like the title track, "Dial My Number", and "Homewrecker" has the pop star going about her duties in a completely languid fashion, seemingly content to deliver each verse and chorus within a modicum of mediocrity that is so all-encompassing it threatens to suffocate. Plain and simple, these numbers are just damn lazy. Although there are some interesting moments scattered around the latter half of the record, such as the intriguing "Oooh oooh oooh oooh!" chants of "Magic" and the lyrics of "Synchronised" - in where Ellis-Bextor does her impersonation of an erstwhile iPod by repeatedly bleating, "Synchronise our hearts! Synchronise them!" - they are too few and far in between to leave any lasting effect on the listener.
To be completely fair to Ellis-Bextor, Make a Scene
did originate from the recording sessions for a "Greatest Hits" compilation that was initially set for release in the autumn of 2007. The decision to turn those recording sessions into material for a full studio album was, in the eyes of this reviewer, very likely ad hoc, and hints at a greater, overarching desire on the part of Ellis-Bextor to continue providing her fans with new material despite the onset of full-time motherhood. That being said, it is clear that the wait for a truly excellent Sophie Ellis-Bextor album will have to continue - at least for the time being. Unfortunately, I for one feel that with all of her new-found priorities in life, that day will probably never come.