Thursday, June 11, 2009

Aural-gasm: Review of Little Boots, "Hands"

Her stage name derives from the film Caligula, so Wikipedia informs me, but Victoria Hesketh (aka Little Boots) does far more than pilfer on her debut album Hands (out June 8th in the U.K.—not sure if the U.S. date is the same). I’ll confess up front, I wasn’t expecting much from her/the album; I’d heard intermittent hype from the likes of myspace and one of my favorite forums (geek alert!), but she sounded as though she’d end up being just another blowup doll in the ceaseless line of pop tart automatons that crop up from time to time on the ‘hot’ music scene and fade away. With comparisons to Lady Gaga more than abundant, I figured she’d be riding the wave of Gaga’s fifteen minutes (see: Duffy on Winehouse’s spotlight) without offering anything new. Like Gaga, Little Boots has been playing the piano since she was five (only a bit later than another favorite of mine with a recent album—Tori Amos, with May’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin), and though the piano isn’t particularly prominent here, the synth work is fabulous, and really a highlight of the album—which, by the end of the twelve tracks, seems an almost perfect dance-pop confection. From the opening Goldfrapp-esque synth flourishes of “New In Town,” to the infectiously dark verse riff of “Hearts Collide,” I’m pretty much hooked in for Little Boots’ sparkling escapades.

Little Boots wears her influences on her sleeve; there are distinct traces of Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Kylie Minogue (perhaps most of all, and LB claims to have written single “Stuck on Repeat” with Kylie in mind), and even a hint of fellow Brit Kate Bush (on the album’s standout lament, “Ghosts”). There’s no shame in her five-finger-discounts from these musical predecessors—in fact, the album is all the better for it, because fans of these women will hear their footprints, but find something radically new to love in Little Boots’ wide-eyed interpretations. On “Ghosts,” the almost alien background vocals and accordion-imitating synth sounds call to mind tracks from Bush’s The Dreaming, while simultaneously allowing Boots’ own evocative voice and more dance-heavy aesthetic room to breath. It’s a track that evokes a sort of offspring between Bush’s album and Madonna’s “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” from last year’s Hard Candy. There’s a little lure for everyone, though: tracks like “Ghosts” and “Stuck on Repeat” seamlessly blend the discotheque with the sob-fest, while “Meddle” unveils an undercurrent of menace, with LB cautioning an unidentified suitor not to “Meddle with her heart / meddle with her mind / meddle with the things that are inside / —you don’t know what you’ll find / you don’t know what she hides”. The breakdown with distorted synth and a battle between Boots’ sirensong and a male vocalist (who sounds almost as though trapped in a frightening hymnal) inspires fear, perhaps even moreso, because for five tracks we’ve been accustomed to fairly bubble-gum style niceties from the girl.

“Mathematics” and “Symmetry” are pure, unadulterated (and unembarrassed) cheese-fests. With lyrics like “Take just a little of my mind / and subtract it from it my soul, / add a fraction of your heart, / and you’ll see it makes me whole. / Multiply it by the times / that we’ll never be apart, / you’ll see nothing can divide / just a heart plus a heart” (in the former track), you’ll find yourself giggling and grinning like a complete goof. Somehow it works. Though the ‘OMG HART + HART = LUV’ equation has been done before, and is always at least somewhat laughable (especially when sung in earnest), by this point in the album, you want to like her and forgive her her follies—besides, on a dance pop album as fun as this one assuredly is, the macaroni lyrics are somehow more accommodating to the experience. After only a listen or two, I found myself singing the silly stuff as loudly as any of the more serious lyrics (though I should be honest and say that the lyrics more generally are certainly not going to be printed in a separate book of poetry at any point in the near future). “Hearts Collide,” another standout track, is the best impersonation of Kylie Minogue since Kylie’s last album, X.

There are the weak links, of course, but for a debut album (and especially for a dance-pop debut), Little Boots actually manages to dodge a few bullets. “Tune Into My Heart” is so saccharine and bubblegum that I couldn’t muddle through the track’s molasses without a toothache; “Click” is underwhelming to the point that I honestly can’t remember my complaints with it. The album closer “No Brakes” isn’t insufferable, but is certainly unmemorable—and for an album closer, that strikes me as a definite downfall. I’m of the mind that every album should strike in with a bang and leave on another explosive note. If the middle falls by the wayside on occasion, it’s forgivable, but always ensure that the album’s bread stands out. But of twelve tracks (and again, on a debut, no less), three weak links (which aren’t even awful, just forgettable) do not an album destroy. In fact, it excites me to think how much more seamlessly incredible LB’s next album might be, with such an even debut.

If you’re into the European dance aesthetic, into the aforementioned leading-lady-predecessors, or simply looking for a handful of incredible summer anthems, check her out. I’ve had “Stuck on Repeat,” well, stuck on repeat, and have likewise been playing the upbeat tracks like “Mathematics” and “Symmetry” on my way to work, to distract from the drudgery—LB’s world, after all, is as far away from the filthy dishes and frugal rednecks of my serving job as one can get. She evokes the illusion that elementary math can tie two people together in passion, that there’s a disco ball for every experience, and that a glittery evening out dancing can cure any malady. It’s the kind of summer illusion anyone can be glad to get lost in.

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