Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sophie Ellis-Bextor Releases Make A Scene: An Early Review


Is there any way I can deliver an impartial, objective review of the new Sophie Ellis-Bextor album, Make A Scene?

Given that I had pictures of the pop goddess on former blog headers here, and the fact that this website's name is derived from one of her best songs with theaudience, it's safe to say that I admire the woman and her work.

After listening to Sophie Ellis-Bextor for 13 years now, I am best equipped to deliver if not quite an impartial review of Make A Scene, one from the perspective of a real fan.

Considering the mix of performer, producers, and material that makes up Make A Scene, it's fair to say that this record is -- easily! -- Sophie Ellis-Bextor's most consistent release so far.

On Make A Scene, Sophie Ellis-Bextor sounds naturally more mature. And yet, the 32-year-old mother of 2 young children (with husband Richard Jones of The Feeling), has a renewed energy here on what is a career-defining release.




A TRACK-BY-TRACK REVIEW OF MAKE A SCENE

"Revolution"

Sophie kicks off her 4th album with this scorcher that has a near reggaeton beat. With squealing keyboard moments, the song speeds up to a frenzy that recalls Prince's "Gett Off" with Sophie's vocals demanding we start the revolution on the dancefloor. The production by Greg Kurstin is loud and lovely at once.

On first listen, I was struck by how assured the singer sounded. And that assurance is the anchor that keeps this groundbreaking cut from turning into an exercise in flashy production.

"Bittersweet"

The familiar galloping rhythm of this song greets the listener like an old classic.

When Sophie Ellis-Bextor releases her eventual Greatest Hits collection, the first 5 or 6 cuts here will make up a lot of that future record/CD/download(?).

"Bittersweet" was partially written by Hannah Robinson who had a hand in ex-S Club singer Rachel Stevens' "Some Girls" single. Where that song was slightly dark and sexy, this cut is worthy of its title with a bit more of the sweetness than anything too dark or bitter.

What's also worth noting is that the formula that makes Sophie Ellis-Bextor such a pleasure to listen to is here in "Bittersweet".

It's a combination of her perfect English diction on the near-spoken verses and then her lovely, soaring voice on the uplifting chorus.

There's no shame in having a recipe for success and this song could only be sung by Sophie; "Bittersweet" is quintessentially catchy SEB!




"Off and On"

What "Spinning Around" was for Kylie, "Off and On" is for Sophie.

Listening to this Calvin Harris-produced stormer, it's like a bunch of 1976 disco musos went forward in time to 2011, picked up a remastered copy of Michael Jackson's 1979 masterpiece album Off The Wall and attempted to replicate all of Side 1 in one cut with one very assured English vocalist belting out the lyrics.

Where Katy Perry's "Hot n Cold" was similar but silly, the stuff of a backwards-looking booby bubblehead, Sophie Ellis-Bextor's "Off and On" is a purposeful stride into the 21st century, all sleek lines and smooth vocals.

Not the sound of a night on the town as much as it is the sound of the ride to that night on the town, this is just an absolutely infectious and shockingly good jam that should be a monster hit when it's inevitably released as a single.



"Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)"

That bell-like keyboard opening signals the familiar push-and-pull of this masterful cut from producers Freemasons. The hint of despair that Sophie brings before her exhilarating delivery of the chorus launches the listener into the stratosphere is another highlight of the album.

As someone who remembers a lot of the disco era firsthand -- even though I was a kid at the time -- Sophie Ellis-Bextor, especially on a cut like "Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer)", seems to have internalized the things that made the best disco singles classics of pop music.

There was always a hint of release in those records. And if a lot of them sounded like the types of things you'd only play on a Friday night at the club, so what? They were joyous and exhilarating just like most of the cuts on Make A Scene.

"Not Giving Up On Love"

Credited with Armin van Buuren, this club-ready cut with its waves of keyboards and echoed vocals is a nice showcase for Sophie's range as she hits those high emotional moments during the chorus.

There's another Rachel Stevens connection here as the track was co-written by The Nervo Twins and they had their hands on Stevens' "Negotiate With Love" a few years ago.

If you approach Sophie Ellis-Bextor after hearing her early Brit indie rock with theaudience, you might be perplexed by this cut, overwhelmed by the dance-y bits on "Not Giving Up On Love" and other songs on this record.

But if you listen to what she's doing as a vocalist here, you'll realize she's more direct and expressive in her performances than the ones she gave with theaudience back in 1997 - 1998.

Frankly, I loved her work with theaudience but, let's face it, it was largely one mood in every song, whether it was a fast or slow cut.

On her solo albums, particularly this one, she's showing a lot more range as a vocalist and it's a wonderful and liberating feeling.

I can only compare her to Kylie Minogue -- high praise indeed -- as not many other contemporaries can deliver these kinds of pop thrills with such regularity.

"Can't Fight This Feeling"

Credited with Junior Caldera, this tubthumper sounds like a remix in its original form. This is the bit of the album -- along with opener "Revolution" -- where Sophie Ellis-Bextor seems to be pushing the boundaries of her style a bit. The song is unapologetically dance-y and yet it remains catchy thanks to that "we should be lovers" bit.





"Starlight"

This single, released with the album, takes things down a notch stylistically. In the context of Make A Scene, the song is a bit basic.

Despite the presence of Richard X, the song is remarkably catchy and direct; even with the production sheen, it's almost a rock song.

I think my love of this cut stems from the fact that I first heard it in an acoustic version via a YouTube clip.

"Starlight" works as a simple tune and as a glossy pop hit.

"Under Your Touch"

Liam Howe of Sneaker Pimps, and producer fame with Ellie Goulding and Marina And The Diamonds, co-wrote and produced this track and it's a very catchy affair.

Roughly speaking, this track sounds a bit like "Love It Is Love" from 2003's Shoot From The Hip.

"Make A Scene"

This adventurous song from the folks in Metronomy is almost the one abrasive moment on the album. Less catchy than a lot of the record, it's more an exercise in style than anything else, but it's also a good showcase for Sophie's voice. That voice seems to be battling with the chugging and clanging around her until things quiet down and she's front in the mix again.



"Magic"

Another Richard X collab, this song has a decidedly 1980s vibe to it with the near-whistling keyboard line. It's mid-1980s Brit electro-pop with a lush chorus that rivals Sophie's earlier cover of "Take Me Home" in its allure.

"In my heart, I still believe in magic" Sophie sings and the feeling is one of hope. At 32, Sophie sounds both mature and young here with the lyrics playing up that mixture.

"Magic" would work without its production just like "Starlight" did in that acoustic version I was speaking of.

"Dial My Number"

Another awesomely catchy Liam Howe piece of work, "Dial My Number" recalls a dancier Blondie in some weird way. Sophie has covered "One Way Or Another" in the past but here she seems to be channeling the spirit of that earlier band as she bridges the worlds of rock and dance-pop.

"Homewrecker"

Imagine an Englishwoman taking inspiration from Beyonce. It's not that Sophie is trying to sound like Beyonce on "Homewrecker" but that the vibe is similar to "Single Ladies". Dripping with delicious disdain, Sophie's smooth-and-assured kiss-off vocal performance makes the cut a pleasurable kick-off to a catfight.

The word sassy would be a good one to use here.

And that twisted church organ-like opening -- the work of producer Kurtin? -- is one of my favorite moments on the album!




"Synchronised"

Almost a power-ballad -- by 21st century standards, at least -- this radio-friendly song could be a big hit for Sophie if it's released as a single.

The way her voice hits those high bits of the chorus, and the skipping melody line there, is a thing of beauty.

The harp behind her, the forward mix to her voice, the keyboard riff that recalls "Wishing (If I Had A Photograph Of You)" by A Flock Of Seagulls (!) -- all those disparate pieces work perfectly here.

What sounds like an odd mix on paper combines into a seamless package on the album.

"Straight To The Heart Of Me"

Sophie returns to her indie roots without changing her solo style too dramatically. Written by kenixfan fave Ed Harcourt, and producer Dimitri Tikovoi, "Straight To The Heart Of Me" is a simple and delicate way to end the album. The production dresses things up all nice-and-shiny but the song is really lovely and basic -- that final bridge is like an Al Green bit of melody!

When Sophie sings "Now I'm right where I want to be", a listener has to think of those words in terms of her career as well.





SUMMARY

The fashion icon, mother of 2, and former indie-rock poster girl, is more confident here than she's ever sounded.

Her 4th solo album Make A Scene is a masterful record, catching Sophie Ellis-Bextor at the proverbial top of her game. Modern and full of fine moments from exceptional producers and collaborators, the record provides the familiar pleasures of other Sophie Ellis-Bextor records and a bit more. There's a slightly dark edge to opener "Revolution" that's a new addition to Sophie's bag of tricks.

And the choruses here are all uniformly strong and soaring; the days of the near petulant sounding Brit teenager on "A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed" are gone, with a Brit woman now sounding mischievous ("Revolution"), bittersweet ("Bittersweet", 'natch), playful ("Off and On"), and a bit irritated ("Homewrecker").

Confident and still vulnerable in spots, her performances here all sound modern.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor really has inherited the mantle of Kylie Minogue now and Make A Scene in its style and tonal subtleties recalls Kylie's Light Years.

Not only that, but like the Kylie record, Make A Scene sounds remarkably modern without a hint of that Madonna-like desperation of trying to find what's hip and hot at that moment.




Sophie Ellis-Bextor remains my favorite active vocalist. Sexy without being slutty, the singer always sounds English and never sounds like she's trying to tailor her style in the hopes of breaking into America.

It would be nice if more Americans knew her work but I wouldn't want Sophie to have to change her style to get those fans.





And Make A Scene will probably sound just as fantastic 5 or 10 years from now. So far, Sophie Ellis-Bextor has shown remarkably good taste in her choice of material and collaborators.

With each release, Sophie seems to be producing music of-the-moment and undated; neither faddish nor old fashioned, Make A Scene delivers catchy dance-rock on top of catchy pop-rock on top of catchy ballad.

A few years ago there was talk of Sophie Ellis-Bextor releasing a Greatest Hits record. Well, it seems that Sophie may have just decided to make one as I can say, without exaggeration, that at least 5 or 6 of the songs here will be on that inevitable compilation.

The material on Make A Scene is just that good.



You can order Make A Scene from:

Amazon UK

HMV.com

Follow Sophie Ellis-Bextor on her official website where you can also find links to her other official web outlets:
http://www.sophieellisbextor.net/

Play.com