Category Archives: Music Essays

Album spotlight: Avril Lavigne – Goodbye Lullaby

One of the biggest worldwide acts since her debut in 2002, Avril Lavigne has only released four albums in nine years, a small collection when compared to other acts who broke out at the same time.

Her debut album, Let Go, sold a colossal seventeen million copies worlwide. At the tender age of seventeen, she was seen as a tom-boy rebel teen who was not about to waste time on boys and makeup. That’s not to say she didn’t enjoy a good moan about them; it’s just she was more keen on calling bad boyfriends out, as opposed to crying about them. A mini Alanis Morissette, she became a worldwide name within a few short months.

Her second album, Under My Skin, was released in 2004, and saw smaller sales than it’s parent, yet still managed to shift over eight million copies. The decline in sales was attributed to the darker material on the album. Her next album would not be until 2007.

The Best Damn Thing was met with some trepidation from long time fans, due to the mainstream pop sounds and the choice of producers employed for the record. Despite this, lead single Girlfriend, the video of which featured a very-pop dance break, became her first number one single in the United States. After selling six million copies of this record, Avril was musically absent until 2011, apart from recording the theme song to Walt Disney’s Alice In Wonderland. Rumors of record label clashes had surrounded Avril since 2009, and her fourth album had been delayed numerous times, similar to Kelly Clarkson’s My December record, which itself was delayed by interference from label big-wig’s. Avril had stated several times that the album was to be her most personal yet, and would feature songs she had written during her adolescence. Despite her forays into balls-out pop music, Avril has declared a preference for acoustic style ballads. Her fourth album, Goodbye Lullaby, was finally released March 2011.

Lead single ‘What The Hell‘ was produced by Max Martin, a man well known for penning numerous Britney Spears smashes.  This however, was met with only mild success, selling reasonably well, yet denied a successful chart placing due to weak radio play, something that has far too much influence stateside. The album charted reasonably well worldwide, yet sold drastically less than it’s predecessors.  Follow up singles failed to chart in most territories, although her Tour was relatively successful. As of late November, it has sold around 1.2 million copies worldwide, an astonishing drop from the numbers she is used to. The reason for this is the record labels interference. None of the singles released give a true impression of the overall album, something that is crucial in tempting buyers. What The Hell feels forced and contrived, almost as if Avril was beaten down in placing it on the album. The bulk of the album is more Adele than Britney Spears, though you wouldn’t know it from the marketing. Releasing a radio friendly single to distract the audience is a tactic that was used for Kelly Clarkson. She had a similar album to Avril with My December. The label released a radio friendly track first and saw respectable opening figures for the album. The problem with this approach is that, when picking further singles to continually promote the album, you face the prospect of only having material left that is drastically different in tone to what you previously released. Predictably, Kelly’s second and last single from that record flopped and killed any traction the album had.

Nevertheless, in terms of songwriting and production, this is undoubtedly Avril’s strongest release yet, and it would be a major injustice if it continued to be under-appreciated.

 

The video for one of the albums standout tracks, Wish You Were Here is below:

 

Flashback: Charlotte Church – Tissues And Issues (2005)

Album art

  The only time I ever realise my age (22) and become amazed at how time flies is when I hear an album I bought upon original release, and look at the time that has passed. For example, Tissues And Issues, the pop debut from teen soprano Charlotte Church was released in 2005, six whole years ago. What have I achieved since then? Not a whole lot to be honest.

When Charlotte Church announced plans to release a pop album, there was a huge fuss within the media. After shifting a few million classical albums both here and stateside, she hit sixteen and began acting like most other teenagers; smoking, drinking, swearing, and so on. The press loved it, as it contrasted so much with the sweet girl who sang Ava Maria so perfectly.

 

First single Crazy Chick was a big radio hit, and was only denied a number one spot due to Coldplay releasing one of their biggest ever singles the same week. Further controversy when Chery Cole (the gobby one from Girls Aloud, incase you didn’t know) accused Charlotte of ripping off their sound. I can only assume she meant the instrumental, as the idea of Charlotte wanting to sing like any of Girls Aloud is hilarious to say the least. As Charlotte rightly said, if she was asked to sing one of their songs on karaoke, she would; ”sing it ten times better than they ever could”. True story.

 

The album was released and charted at number 5, higher than her last few Classical releases, sales of which had peaked after her second release. Despite her incredible voice, her age meant she was more of a novelty act in a way. Although it quickly dropped down the charts, it eventually attained a Platinum certification (300,000 copies). What makes this even more impressive is the fact that the single is not necessarily reflective of the album as a whole. It’s more Will Young than Girls Aloud, still pop, but mostly sombre and relaxing pop. Featuring eight tracks that were co-written with Church, and four that was given to her, the album is more of a grower than a standard pop album. Tracks such as ”Show A Little Faith”, ”Fool No More” and ”Casualty Of Love” require a few listens, initially only being notable for Charlotte’s stunning vocals, eventually being strong tracks in their own right. The singles run was flawless, ”Moodswings” is an uplifting track that talks about the protagonist making no excuses for her changes in mood. ”Call My Name” is more along the lines of ”Crazy Chick”, straight forward pop and perfect for radio, becoming the albums only other top ten. Album track ”Lets Be Alone” uses a pop backing track and features the only in your face use of Charlotte’s opera voice on the album. It is completely stunning, and it would have been a good single.

 

There are a couple of duff tracks, such as the plodding ”Easy Way Out”, and ”Finding My Own Way”, which seems to be her response to the media scrutiny of her extra curricular activities, but on the whole, the album is a surprisingly strong debut pop album, especially coming from a classical artist.

 

Britney Spears – Over To You Now

Britney Spears – Over To You Now.

Classic album of the month: Sugababes – Catfights + Spotlights (2008)

  The early part of 2008 was a good time to be a Sugababe. After Mutya Buena was replaced with Amelle Berrabah in 2006, the band released their first greatest hits compilation, despite the fact only one of the three girls was an original member. Nevertheless the album was a commendable success. In late 2007, Heidi, Keisha and Amelle released the trailer single for their fifth studio album Change. Titled About You Now, the song became their biggest selling single yet. Despite lukewarm of the album, which was five or six new recordings and new versions of previously rejected material, it nevertheless went to number one and outsold Girls Aloud’s own effort. This seemed to solidify the ‘Babes as Britain’s premier girl band. After releasing three singles and embarking on a nationwide tour, the band disappeared into the studio to begin recording their sixth album.

  An important factor behind each successful Sugababes album has been the killer lead single. Freak Like Me, Hole In The Head, Push The Button and About You Now all went to number one in the charts, effectively selling the album to the public. Most acts tend to release a couple of singles beforehand, for the babes, one was enough. For this reason, anticipation was high for the new single, announced to be titled ‘Girls’.

  Premiered in August, it’s safe to say ‘Girls’ was not what was expected. Sampling ‘Here come the girls’, of Ernie K-Doe fame, the track had the unfortunate luck of being released at the time when a heavily circulated Boots advert using the original track was shown on television. Critics gave a thumbs down to the track, and it eventually peaked at number three on the UK charts, the lowest peaking lead single since the band’s very first single. What was further damaging was the fact the retro feel of the track led many to believe the band were clinging to the popularity of Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, two other acts who released material that year that had a vintage feel. Previously the band had prided themselves on individuality, their material named by some journalists as  ”thinking man’s pop”.

  The album, Catfights + Spotlights was released in October, and entered the charts at number eight, missing the top five, unlike all

Heidi Range

but their debut. Whilst many big pop albums have been bigger disasters (Britney Spears’ In The Zone, Girls Aloud’s Chemistry), these had steady sales over a long period of time, eventually building respectable totals. Catfights’ however, collapsed down the charts. This was probably down to the fact that the single had done the same. Albums tend to sell better with a successful single still in rotation. Heidi Range later commented how she believed the poor promotion was to blame for its failure. This is not strictly true. Upon hearing the album, it is crystal clear why it didn’t click with the public. It was simply too complex for a pop album. The bands previous singles had all been critically acclaimed, but they were still instant and radio friendly. The problem with the majority of this album is the fact that the songs would really only be played on Adult Contemporary stations, as opposed to top 40.

  ”Can We Call A Truce” is a good example of this. A beautifully produced breakup song’ ”I met your ex and she advised, me to wise up and to make nice, always thought she was a bore, but then that’s another story…”, the track has some of the greatest female vocal harmonies ever recorded. Would it be played on radio? No. Pop acts tend to struggle when they go left field with the material, as they rely on radio play substantially. ”Freak Like Me” might have been fierce and edgy for a girl band, but it was clearly built for radio. ”Every Heart Broken” is another example of the albums quality, great production, stunning vocals, and clever writing; ”Boy one was famous from tv, carved my name into a tree, first cuts the deepest, and I left him bleeding…” possibly the strongest track on the record, yet it would undoubtedly fail upon release.  Tracks such as ”Side Chick” and ”You On A Good Day” are more The Supremes than Girls Aloud, and they pull off the particular style exceptionally well. Always noted for their better than average vocal ability, this is their first album where the vocals take precedence over the production. The album is possibly their best, but there are certainly a couple of mis-fires on there. ”Hanging On A Star” in particular, which has some of their most juvenile lyrics to date. The eventual second single ”No Can Do”, which sampled a Jackson 5 song, was released at Christmas in the hope of rescuing the album, but it missed the top twenty. The album was finished, and the band took a break, presumably to lick their wounds and come back stronger. Obviously this never happened, as Keisha left the group the following year.

  The album is a great example of how risk taking as a pop band can backfire spectacularly. After the flop of Catfights, the band recorded Sweet 7, which by following the auto tune and Sean Kingston guest spot trend of the big American acts, inspired the band to completely forget their roots. When returning after a flop, a band needs to bring it, but their credibility was gone. They arguably never recovered from this album. Although the media likes to blame the line up changes for their fall from grace, the fall clearly begun whilst Keisha was still in the band. Shame really, as Girls Aloud and The Saturday’s have the material, but neither the voice or the presence.

 Catfights + Spotlights is available on iTunes for only £4.99

Britney Spears – Over To You Now

  As I sit at my computer, watching a trailer for the television premier of Britney Spears Femme Fatale tour, I am left thinking two things; one is that she may just be the luckiest woman alive and looks amazing in everything she wears, the other is confusion as to why she is miming along to the studio versions of her tracks. Youre probably wondering why the prospect of Britney Spears miming is something to be confused about, having practically done it for the length of her career. Well the thing is, a large proportion of her tour was sung live, or at the very least, utilised pre-recorded vocals as opposed to the studio recordings. Yet the recording of the concert has been dubbed. This means the next time someone belittles your love of Miss Spears and brings up her lipsynching, you have a dvd of the show to prove them wrong…oh wait…

  Let me get something straight. Britney Spears can sing. I have not only witnessed her live vocals, but I have heard many a demo in which she shows more promise than her heavily produced singles would have you believe. Also, whilst I do not wholeheartedly agree with lip-synching, one look at her vigorous dance routines go a long way in working out why she does it. Anyway, back to my point. Whoever is in charge of her career really is trying to ruin every chance she has of taking her rightful place of the Queen of Pop, before Lady GaGa claims the crown and turns it into an outfit. I don’t know why I’m shocked though, Britney’s camp are experts at making  stupid decisions. Let’s have a look at a few of their greatest hits, in no particular order:

The Queen

1) Lipsyching along to S&M at the Billboard Music Awards (2011). As I said earlier in the post, I believe her dance routines are sometimes the reason why she mimes. In this particular performance though, she emerged half-way through to sing her guest part on Rihanna’s single S&M. Featuring no dance routines, or any other bells and whistles that could affect ones inability to sing, Spears nonchalantly lipsynched to the studio vocals, despite the fact that Rihanna was clearly singing live. That must have been one uncomfortable rehearsal. Not only was Rihanna singing live, she was terrible; How bad could Britney possibly have been? She could have sounded like Michael Buble after a helium binge and still have sounded better than Rihanna, yet she, or her team, chose the easy option; way to improve her public image guys. To add insult to injury, she also appeared at the end of the awards, lipsynching to her own song this time.

2) In 2007, after a three-year musical absence, which saw her have children and a divorce, and shave her head, and attack photographers with an umbrella, and show off her private parts to cameras everywhere, Spears was announced to be opening the 2007 Video Music Awards. The performance was a disaster. Not only did Spears forget how to mime adequately, she appeared generally on another planet, failing to competently pull off even the simple routine.  Many were left wondering why she was allowed anywhere near that stage in such a condition. A superstar like Britney has dozens of people working for them. Are we really to believe nobody knew what was going to happen? Shortly after, Britney released her album Blackout, which

VMA's performance, 2007

not only gained the best reviews of her career, but was an instant favourite amongst fans. Spears various troubles meant promotion was limited, the sales being decent but a far cry from the blockbuster numbers she was used to. Despite commendable sales under the circumstances, promotion for the album ceased after three singles, and work begun on her follow-up. Surely it would have been productive to wait until Britney was capable of doing her best for one album before starting another? But what do I know…

3) In 2008, Britney Spears was gearing up for a comeback. Womanizer, the lead single from her 6th studio album Circus, was a huge worldwide hit. The video was well received, and there was genuine excitement for the album. It appeared Spears was back and ready to reclaim her crown. So ready in fact, she was announced to perform on The X-Factor. A brave move, considering the fact that due to it being a talent show, the musical guests were just as likely to be judged as the contestants. The performance was crap. Britney once again mimed to an unconvincing backing track, and displayed exhaustive dance moves such as walking from one end of the stage to the other. Lots of times. There was however a sublime part where she flipped her hair a few

X-Factor, 2008

times. That was good. The performance gained the highest viewing figures the show had seen, yet she was slated for her performance. Nevertheless the single was a hit and the album outsold her previous effort. Her public image however is still suffering from this performance in the UK. Again, who thought this would be a good idea? Even her biggest fans had their work cut out explaining this one.

4) Promotion. Even the biggest of artists need this vital tool to sell their records. Their albums don’t just leave the factory and wander into the fans houses. Performances, interviews and so on all go a long way to promote a record. Promotion is carried out worldwide, in order to maximise sales everywhere. Unless youre Britney Spears, and the only market that matters is the United States. In early 2011, upon the release of her 7th album Femme Fatale, Spears performed three times in America on release week, announcing news of a worldwide tour whilst she was there. Her lead single Hold It Against Me topped the iTunes charts in practically every territory on its first day. Prime opportunity to get some promotion in and make sure it stays there, right? Right??? No, that was pretty much the end we saw of Spears, disregarding a few sporadic appearances here and there. This time however, her name didn’t carry her as far as her team would have liked, and as I write this, Femme Fatale is her lowest selling album ever. Despite three of her four singles peaking within the United States top twenty, elsewhere they have either been moderate hits , or complete failures. Her tour’s arrival in the UK was met with news stories regarding slow ticket sales. You think? correct me if im wrong of course, but if people don’t realise you have an album out, they’re hardly going to be scrambling for concert tickets. But again, what do I know?

5) In late July, when sales of Femme Fatale had fallen drastically, being far from Platinum status, many wondered if the album would see a re-release, or if promotion would be heightened. Never fear, Jive knew what to do. Yes that’s correct, release a remix album! Not of Femme Fatale tracks though, this remix album would feature ten remixes of her biggest tracks since Blackout, not brand new ones though, remixes that had either been used previously as B-Sides or leaked onto the internet. Geniuses. Mind you, her previous remix album, released in 2005, sold a huge 500.000 copies worldwide…  I am possibly one of the biggest Britney fans around, and I own every version of every album she released, and even I laughed at the prospect of owning this record. Instead I made my own playlist on iTunes; job done, saved a tenner.

 

  Upon proof reading all of this, I realised that my opinions of Britney herself do not come across very well. I believe she is one of the greatest entertainers ever to have lived, and I hold her skills; dancing, vocals etc in very high regard. I have simply become disillusioned with her non-existent work ethic, as well as the reasoning behind her teams actions. I understand she now has two children, and perhaps cannot perform to the high demand she did in 1998-2004, but she is not doing nearly enough. In 2011, the charts and concert arenas are dominated by the likes of Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and Rihanna. Despite being one of the biggest selling

Live? Not now...

artists ever, Britney will not be able to fulfil her destiny as the new Queen of Pop unless she steps it up. 2011 was supposed to be a banner year for her, yet it turned into the year of disappointment for her fans. Fans who stuck by her even when she appeared to be becoming a liability, taking songs such as Womanizer, 3, and Hold It Against Me to the top spot, when perhaps they did not deserve it. If Britney does not want to do this anymore, then why does she? Either give us 100% or nothing. Maybe that’s the problem. We rush -buy the songs and albums upon release, whilst her label sits and counts the cash.  This is why the concert DVD scenario is frustrating. Singing live on this tour was a huge step forward for her fans, and yet once again nobody has listened. One step forward, two steps back. That’s a common thing to feel as a Britney fan.

Still; Your fave could never.

 

 

Sugababes: Catfights, Spotlights and how only one member stands to lose it all.

When the Sugababes debuted on the charts with single ‘Overload’ in 2000, the critics loved them. Formed whilst still in education, Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Siobhan Donaghy were applauded, not only for being capable writers and formidable singers, but also for not being the glamorous and overtly sexual beings that were girl band staples at that time. Arising from a tough London upbringing gave them a rough around the edges look, which translated well into their sound.  Although Overload peaked in the top ten and appeared on many critics top ten list, the album that followed initially dented only the top thirty, despite reviews that predicted big things from the band.  Interestingly, years after original release, after the group found mainstream success, the album would sell consistently well, eventually shifting over 200.000 copies, good enough for a Gold certification. Although the band carried on promotion for the album, releasing three more singles, none of which replicated the success of Overload, a trip to Japan for promotional purposes ended in disaster. Donaghy, blaming bullying on Buchanan’s part, left the band, leaving the remaining members mid-way through a promo tour, minus a member. The record label dropped the group. Nevertheless, Buena and Buchanun, best friends since school, sought a replacement and a new record deal.

Heidi Range was picked by the girls to replace Siobhan, and the three would immediately set about writing a new album to ship around various record labels. An original member of Atomic Kitten, Range was a strange girl to choose. Although she has a fantastic voice at her disposal, her vocals and appearance were much more fitting to a pop band than Mutya or Keisha. This formation of the group however, worked wonders, as the group were signed to Island Records, and were all set to release their second album in 2002, Angels with Dirty Faces. The lead single, Freak Like Me, which sampled an underground remix of Gary Numan’s Are Friends Electric was lauded by critics as one of the best pop songs ever recorded, and went straight to number one in the charts. The album followed suit, eventually being certified triple platinum, an unusual amount of success for a pop group, and something that had not been seen since the Spice Girls.

2003 follow up album Three did equally well, spawning a number one single, and selling over 800.000 copies in the UK alone. They were the biggest selling UK girl group. Despite their success, the band was plagued by rumours of bitchiness, rudeness and in fighting within the group. Whilst interviews and appearances showed the group harmonious and close enough, Range was the only one who ever looked happy to be in the spotlight. The sullen presence of Mutya and Keisha gave the impression that they were never happy to have Heidi there, them being best friends since school, Heidi being the third wheel. This contributed to the press labelling them ‘moody cows’’ and such. After the success of Three, the band went on a short break, during which Mutya became pregnant.

Late 2005 saw the release of Taller in More Ways, the bands fourth album. Lead single Push the Button was the bands biggest smash yet, and the album followed by debuting at number one, the band’s first number one album. A week after the video for second single Ugly premiered, Buena left the band, citing the bands busy schedule as the reason, due to her not wanting to travel the world with a young child in tow. Within two weeks, a new member was found, Amelle Berrabah. After re-releasing the album with Amelle’s vocals on songs that might become singles, the band was relaunced with Red Dress, which became a top five hit. The press reaction was unfavourable to say the least, but since the band showed no distain towards Buena, and the musical quality remained the same, no huge deal was made of the second line-up change. Their next release was a greatest hits compilation, and although Amelle featured on only four songs, she was displayed on the cover, which angered many fans and amused many critics. On reflection, this was probably the point the band went from being critical darlings to merely a marketable brand.

After a break, the bands fifth album Change was released in 2007. After a lead single that became one of the year’s best-selling singles, About You Now, the album went straight into number one. Although they outsold Girls Aloud that year, follow up singles peaked outside the top ten, and critical opinion was gradually sliding. Follow up album Catfights + Spotlights was a dark period for the band. Entering the charts at number eight and quickly sliding, the album was their lowest selling ever, selling even fewer copies than their debut. Another break followed for the band, in which they travelled to the states to work with new producers, ones that were famous for working with Rihanna, Lady GaGa and Jay Z. September 2009 saw their return with Get Sexy, a club banger which sampled Right Said Fred. Critics were relentless in criticising the sexualisation of the band, but the signs were looking good for the upcoming album when the single peaked at number two.  Then, all hell broke loose. After Amelle was rumoured to have left the band, it was revealed in a statement by the band that it was actually Keisha who had gone, to be replaced by former Eurovision contestant Jade Ewen, a move that left no original members in the band. This was allegedly all due to further bullying on Keisha’s part, this time directed at Amelle, something that was ignored by the press in favour of jibes regarding the line-up.

Last Girl Standing

This would mark the end of the bands stance as the best British girl band in the critic’s eyes. Critics and journalists now referred to them as ‘’Sugababes’’, a sly dig at the fact they were essentially a tribute act. The resulting singles featuring Ewen gained the band top ten placing’s, yet the re-recorded album, Sweet 7, bombed, selling only 25.000 copies. To put things into perspective, Catfights, an album that was a well-known flop, outsold sweet 7 six to one. It appeared to everyone that the Sugababes were over.

The band were dropped by Island records, yet managed to sign a new three album deal with Sony, arguably a much better label, one that would ensure promotion and marketing was as effective as possible. Amidst recording their comeback song, ‘Freedom’, it was announced that former member Mutya Buena had successfully won limited rights to the group’s name. Whilst journalists were generally in agreement to this, it is important to note that, although Heidi Range was a replacement, her time in the band amounts to more than that of Mutya and Keisha. Technically the rights to the band should reside with the label who signs the group. After all, Mutya walked away willingly, meaning she should not have any claim to future incarnations of the band.  To add insult to injury for the band, there have been rumours the three original Sugababes have been plotting to reform. It is easy to imagine the reformed act would receive much more support from the media then the current line-up. Whilst good luck should be wished to all members and ex members, arguably the only would that would lose in either scenario would be Heidi. She either sits and watches as her band, the one she has served well for ten years, falls victim to the tittle tattle of the media, or she sees the woman she replaced re-join the group she left willingly. It’s ironic that, although the pop world seems to want the original group back together, they did not support them when they were together. It seems that, even though the band is in its eleventh year and fourth line-up, they are still managing to get people talking.

 

Freedom is released September 25th