There has been much written already about the four year gap between albums for British singing star Sophie Ellis Bextor. Though that may be chronologically accurate as far as albums are concerned, to her most ardent fans (present company included) she has really not been out of site for all that long, as she released a steady stream of individual tracks and live performances as stopgaps between the proper full-lengths.
However now we have her fourth official album – Make A Scene in our possession and it is a joy to behold. 14 tracks in all, the record is a technical and emotional tour-de-force anchored by the inclusion of these previously released singles, which now slot proudly against a series of outstanding new songs as well.
Leading off the album is "Revolution" which was written by Sophie, Greg Kurstin and Cathy Dennis. With Keyboards, Programming and Production by Greg Kurstin, Sophie made her way out to Kingsize Soundlabs in Los Angeles, USA to record this one. Like most of the songs on this album, it is first and foremost a dance song. Sophie’s voice starts out run through filters and effects as she repeats a "get on the Revolution" refrain. The lyrics composed are both clever and amusing: “Bang Bang, it's a hold up, You about to give it up, in the booth they're slipping up (which is an amusing line, considering the fact that Sophie DJ's out a lot herself ) “we've been patient long enough” (with keyboard lines running parallel behind Sophie's voice right there). “It's a hold up, Rebels gonna play it tough, Wreck the deck and needle off, Shut it down and turn it up.”
There is an "Uh, uh, uh, oh! Oh, wah oh" vocal passage that provides a very catchy hook.
“Face to face, It's murder on the dance floor (the way she references one of her biggest hits here is both a wink and a nod to both her fans and possibly those that may only know her from that song and perhaps “Groovejet”). Well, of course it would be playing - they are at a DJ booth by a dance floor!
“Cut to the chase, Just give us what we came for” -all of these lines delivered against forceful snare drum shots - with the biggest one coming at the end - sounding like a shotgun blast.
On to the big chorus: “Get on the revolution, Get on the revolution, Get on the revolution [and then the slowed down, deep robotic voice saying] “In this club tonight” Could that really be Sophie’s voice, altered by Greg? Or - did he do that part himself?
The second verse has an equally high energy party vibe. “Bang bang, In the club crowd, Better all fall down and bow” (Interesting imagery, as one could imagine all the dancers doing this at once). “Chaos holding, What a wow, Tearing up the sound now” (Sophie’s voice in a higher register, harmonizing the line). “Now shout it out loud [Deep thunderclaps] Now we're warming up the ground, Wreck the deck and needle off, Shut it down and turn it up [The vocal line doubled with an autotuned harmony]
Back to that great bridge with forceful snare drum shots and then the chorus once more. Followed by yet-another unique vocal hook where Sophie repeats the word Army, Army, Army, Army, Army, Army - in a descending pattern. Though it sound more like "Oh Me!"
That great opening track is followed by one of those wonderful single releases from last year – the glorious “Bittersweet.” If you've lived at all - who hasn't experienced a "bittersweet" relationship? Seriously I wonder if all relationships with people don't wind up with at least some bittersweet qualities. The "sweet" is the joy you feel when encountering someone you have an attraction with. The "bitter" comes with some level of disappointment experienced. Perhaps as the result of too high expectations? The key is to make sure the equation is more sweet than bitter.
So it is with one of this albums "heavyweight" tracks. A lead single that harnessed the formidable skills of Richard Stannard & James Wiltshire - better known as The Freemasons. Sophie is very much involved in the whole writing process, which also includes her "melody twin" Hannah Robinson.
Adding his midas touch to the production duties - the one and only Richard "Biff" Stannard (for Biffco). Both Freemasons and Biff handle the keyboards and programming, with sound mixing done at Biff's studio in Brighton. As always, when she's involved - backing vocals handled by Sophie’s sonic double - Hannah R.
The song has lots of whooshing and percolating synths (of course). Sophie sings the tale of "desire" and "craving the heat" - oh that glorious *heat* The chorus is a perfect melody. If this is Sophie and Hannah's work (and I suspect it is) they really *are* a wonderful songwriting team.
The tale weaves on, with references to "pleasure seeking" and "feeding a need." On initial listen there appears to be more "sweet" than "bitter" here. Perhaps the writing began with the title - then chorus - and it all fit together so perfectly - an entire song was written around it. It wouldn't be the first time this tactic had been employed in art. There have been entire movies made based solely on a title they came up with.
Well, then there is this line -- "any time you call my name" - know anyone like that? They hold power over you. Early lyrics referencing how she "can't choose the fuse that lights the spark" - "lines are blurred and they're dividing" - desiring both "light" and "dark" - shows a level of, if nothing else - then confusion. As is the lines stating "I know I shouldn't go" and "despite my mind." So, there is some trepidation there - but it’s all overtaken by "body curiosity." Hot.
Following that is “Off & On” - the much heralded song from Calvin Harris, Cathy Dennis and Roisin Murphy. One of the very few on the album where Sophie was not involved in the songwriting. One wonders how this was shopped around and how it eventually wound up as a song that will now ultimately be associated as one of Sophie's.
Overall Produced by Calvin Harris, it's noted that the vocals, however, were produced by Cathy Dennis. All the instruments were performed and arranged by Calvin and much like Sophie’s collaborations with Hannah Robinson, the background vocals are sung by Cathy Dennis. As the song begins, Calvin's hyper-active swirling keyboard sequence rises up from the depths and position itself as the dominant sonic focus - which is then met with his striking keyboard chords that mark out the songs progression. Sophie sings: “No I can't get out, I'm trapped inside of it, I won't let go, pain keeps driving it, I only hope and pray, that I can make it pay, keep pushing it, I keep pushing on.” Sophie’s voice is processed and compressed, creating a unique and appealing texture.
“I did the best I could, I learned to sacrifice, I tried to make it work, This time away has done me good (nice harmony background vocal here - Cathy Dennis?) It's a change, from you.” With a chorus that goes “ Keep switching me off and on, and off and on and on,” there is a "got myself back together" 'shadow' or follow-up vocal line that evokes Michael Jackson’s prime dance music era. That one segment of this song alone shows Sophie’s keen ear for dance pop with a little bit of soul. As Sophie has made it very clear over the years how much of a fan she is of MJ, this emergence in her music then should come as little surprise.
A second verse finds Sophie singing about how the "love broke down" and that she had to "rewire it" and how "I tried to make an honest man" [whoah ah oh] "out of you [oooh ooooh oooh ooh - she sings out in an elongated note]" The change and breakdown is a bold move as it allows the listener a moment to move off the dance rhythm and focus briefly on the lyrics, without a beat behind it. "Wired to the sun like a laser beam, Power surge, Come ["COMEEEE"] feel the energy, And I'm ready to shine ["SHIIIINE"] and shine and shine and shine forever. The cut up and repositioned vocals at the end ("got myself" and "you thought I'd be") sound especially catchy.
This song touches on a third kind of "universal theme" (with the two big universal themes being either an "I’m so in love" song - or the sad breakup song) - this one is about something in-between. A relationship where two people keep starting, then stopping, then starting again. Ultimately the writer/singer has had enough and needs to pull themselves out of this frustrating scenario.
Following that is another one of the albums advance lead singles - and also from the golden writing and production team of The Freemasons and Biffco (with Sophie, of course) – the brilliant “Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer).” Keyboards directly credited to James Wiltshire and the percussion to Russell Small, while additional programming to Richard ("Biff") Stannard.
Along with the percolating dance rhythms driving it, there is clever use of Sophie’s voice as background vocals - echoing the words "heartbreak, heartbreak" (and not a Hannah Robinson to be found anywhere).
The chorus, of course - is perfect. A quintessential sing along hook that gets everyone jumping up and down on the dance floor (as witnessed first hand at the Gay Pride on the Pier event in New York that Sophie appeared at last year). What sets the chorus up even better is the rising synth line leading into it.
The lyrics are both uniquely inventive and universally understood. For anyone who's ever experienced heartbreak - this is your way out. If you want "love [to] stop bringing [you] down" - get out on the dance floor and shake it away! Because why should you have to "do it alone." No - the DJ will give you the answer. The universal saving grace of music.
"Not Giving Up On Love" returns Sophie to the familiar ground that produced her first ever smash hit ("Groovejet") - the partnership with an internationally acclaimed DJ. Enter the all world superstar that is Armin Van Buuren. Additionally a songwriting team of sisters - Olivia and Miriam Nervo contributed significantly to this track.
Lyrically, this evokes one of the greatest fight song ever. Not in some kind of aggressive, assaulting action or even someone who is difficult (and therefore always in clashes with others). More in the sense of that classic song "eye of the tiger." Where they talk about "the key to the fight" and "rising UP (to the challenge of our rival).
Sophie and the Nervo sisters did a brilliant job in capturing this feeling through their impeccably crafted words. Lines like "when we stand *united* - our hearts they beat in time" - of course this is a love song. But not the gooey "oh I'm so in love with you" sentiment - but more of an affirmation of unity - as well as an element of defiance against uncertainty. "It's just the two of us" - you and me against the world. "And if it all falls down" - it doesn't matter. "Nothing else matters" because "I know were strong enough". I'm also not going to quit on us. "I'm not giving up - I'm not giving up on (our) love."
As for the music itself, the No. 1 DJ in the universe cleverly adds a piano line, which stands in stark contrast to the lush synth driven massiveness of the overall track. Once again credit must be given to the Nervo sisters, who are credited with *vocal production* and (move over Hannah) background vocals.
The breakdowns, percussive tracks and handclap sounds shows AVB's highly evolved sense of dynamics.
Since this formula works so well for Sophie, she then teams up with another international DJ for "Just Can’t Fight This Feeling." Presented as an equal collaboration between Sophie and celebrated French dj and multi-instrumentalist Junior Caldera, this song finds itself released on both of their imprints. The two of them were joined in the songwriting by Julien Carret, who also contributed to the producing and mixing. Also, another one of the heavyweight, advanced singles – in 2010 this baby hit No. 1 in both Russia and Poland and No. 13 in Junior’s home country of France.
This album track sounds almost like a dub or remix version, right from the start – with Sophie’s voice cut-up and positioned left and right in the sonic fields. A pure dance floor groove, the lyrics speak of infatuation with one individual, even though you might be "standing in a crowded room." The rhythm is downright bouncy and could easily slot right into one of those rave parties where the ecstasy kids go wild jumping straight up and down. A beatless "why don’t you, why don’t you, why don’t you come with me?" section is both ambient bliss and momentary resting place before the rave begins once more. Does anyone say the word "can’t" (cahahant) any better than Sophie? I think not. Additionally, the lyrical turn about being "overboard" and "can’t be saved" – then a reference to "pray" – clever writing.
It's just one huge song after another as the next track is Sophie's first single release with the arrival of this album, "Starlight." Written by Sophie, Richard X and Hannah Robinson, the noteworthy sound designer Richard X handles production duties, with mixing by Pete Hofmann and backing vocals by the facilitating Hannah Robinson.
Gentle synth chords being the progression as a distant sonic texture feels like the echoes of a cavernous subway or underground station. "Hold a moment in time, And look to the skies” Sophie’s voice is placed right where it belong - full and upfront in the mix. "We are frozen in light, Not a second goes by" she sings with emphasis and passion. "Is it a waking dream holding me?" The way she pronounces the word "holding" shows more emotion in the studio performance. "You never really know till you know. In the blink of any eye, Hearts will unite" is how the verse goes.
The Chorus is big and bold as she sings "We are one, Find us under the starlight, starlight, starlight." Keyboards strikes the chord each time she says the word "starlight." "I could die, Right here in your arms" as a disco percussive highat sounds propel the dance feeling. "We are one, Caught here under the starlight, starlight, Cos tonight we found heaven in the dark." Sophie mentioned in a recent interview how she and Hannah Robinson tend to work well together - how they both write melodies in a similar way. It would be fascinating to be the proverbial fly-on-the-wall during these writing sessions - and see how the two of them come up with these vocal melodies.
"A silhouette in my mind, It's just you and I, And as the starlight shines, Our bodies outline." There are inventive changing chord progression behind this lyric. Sophie's has referred to this song as referencing a whimsical feel. Well, she has written a song called "By Chance" before. Perhaps a future title might possibly be "Impulsive."
"Under Your Touch" is next and comes by way of the prolific team of Sophie, Hannah Robinson and Liam Howe, who also produced the track. Background Vocals (as is on all of the songs she has done with Sophie): Hannah Robinson. The song opens with rushing synths leading into a quintessential disco drum beat. "Come, The night is waiting, I want to waste it on you, Voulez Vous." There's a shadow, repeating background vocal behind each of these lines that adds lushness to it all.
The chorus goes "If I could be under your touch, Nothing would take me away, Cos I've been dreaming you up, again and again." This sentiment works as an allusion to our Illusions - and how we fantasize about this perfect (for you) other person is. "Baby I'm so ready for love, [great background "ahhhhhhh" vox here], I'm so ready for love" [then a robotic background repeat of this line] Want to be under your touch" - where Sophie sings "touuuuuuch" out long and an even more synthetic voice repeats the line after.
Lyrically, the second verse has Sophie going for what she desires - by "breaking tradition" and "making a move" to get it. Her voice is harmonized nicely on the second pass through the chorus. It becomes a bit of a game trying to figure out just which background vocals might be Hannah. Sophie has already stated how well the two of them write melodies together, but I would add to that, how well both of their voices blend on these collaborations.
The third change in the song comes immediately after the second chorus: "The way you've made me fall, It isn't logical, I had a taste and now all I want is you [with the "all I want is you" either doubled or " Hannah'd"] So don't look and see, Come put your hands on me, On and on, nobody else will do [same here - either Sophie or Hannah harmonizes on that last line]. What follows is a nice ambient breakdown passage with no percussion, but plenty of dreamscape synths that almost evoke what producer/keyboardist William Orbit did with Madonna 's "Ray of Light" album] Back into the final chorus, with Sophie now stretching out more, singing out stronger, but still within the structure of it all. It ends with very elegant and serious sounding orchestral strings.
The album's title track - "Make A Scene" extends songwriting credit to Joseph Mount & Sophie and was produced by Futurecut/Metronomy. Ominous, near-industrial sounding synths begin the track, before handing the sonic base over to equally slightly off-kilter saxophones. "I have seen daybreak and sunrise and dawn times before," Sophie beings. Two levels of percussion enter the mix - a higher pitched electronic tambourine-shake and lower register thumping pulse. "But never in time and in motion of four to the floor." This is clever lyrical imagery. “Join my crowd we're one and the same [we have!] We put our best move forward, again and again. We're the people feel outsiders to life, But now we've come to realize we've got to get the fire ignited." Sophie uses the word "ignite" during interviews to describe inspired collaboration. It's a great descriptive term for what happens with relationships that begin to "spark".]
Musically there are jumpy saxophones and synth lines creating a forward motion that's both interesting and slightly odd. There are equally quirky vocal passages, such as the end of the chorus where she says "Cause I'm not afraid of this sceeeeeeene" - extending that last word. At the end of the second verse where Sophie sings "we're going to get the night excited," the vocals there are sampled, cut-up / repeated / twisted / cool (excited-ed? ) The dominant saxophones are reminiscent of Danny Elfman/Oingo Boingo "Dead Man's Party."
The writing team of Sophie, Richard X and Hannah Robinson are responsible for the next track as well, titled "Magic." Once again produced by Richard X for blackmelody.com, with mixing by Pete Hofmann for interfaceyourmusic.com, and as with all the other tracks she's involved in, backing vocals by Hannah Robinson. A "hooo, hooo, hooo, hooo, hooo," vocal phrase introduces this one, as bubbling synths rise up from underneath. The as-expected perfectly placed in the mix percussive clacks foretell the impending arrival of Sophie’s verse. "Love was cold, Just a memory, Was a slave to my history," Sophie sings. That last line could certainly be applied to more universal themes of loves lost - but perhaps Sophie is referencing here her early days as a solo artist, and with that the requisite successes. Sometimes an artist can appear 'chained' to their history, forever trying to recreate a prior event.
"So long, too long Excellent dramatic pause between the above two sets of words] Through the silence I heard you call, My defences began to fall. I'm yours. All yours The Chorus here is as big and instantly likeable as the greatest pop songs. "I need your loooooooooove [singing out that word so strong and long] to warm me like a sun." One of Sophie’s fave themes - the warmth and life affirming qualities of that big yellow ball in the sky that keeps us all alive. "Inside my heart - I still believe in magic." Such a wonderful melody and chord progression. If, as Sophie says, she and Hannah write melodies so easily together - this has to be one of their finest hours.
Sophie's voice speaks the line (asking the question) "Do you believe?" The song moves back to the chorus melody - with smooth, sugary "ahhhhh, ahhhhh's and the word "magic" floating inside it all The final sounds are cool, as if someone grabbed the turning tape reel and suddenly held on to it. Sophie’s overall optimism shines through in this song. In an increasingly uncertainly and cynical world - Sophie still believes in the magic this life can provide - if you are still willing to look for it. To allow it to show. Finally, the line "the two of us - right here - right now - Always" can't help but reveal Sophie’s ongoing, happy relationship.
Now arriving at the previously much discussed "stalker" song. - "Dial My Number," this too is another Liam, Hannah and Sophie composition. Produced and mixed by Liam. As always, background vocals by Hannah. Lyrically, this was one of the most anticipated of all the songs. In interviews, Sophie had been telling this story for a while. How an obsessed fan had gotten hold of her phone number and was spamming her with messages. Well, here she lays it all out. How this person is actually a "coward," and that she is only playing with this individual, as a way of "killing time." How this text sending obsessive couldn’t possibly "understand how she feels" and how she is going to "keep it real."
Her repeated reference to "having fun killing time with you" and "set you right" and "what we have won’t see daylight" implies that she may have actually responded to some of the messages. This is a bit of a revelation, as previously in all interviews, she stated she never did (respond). But seriously, *who* (in their right mind) thinks they could possibly lure Sophie away from her happy marriage? Well, I guess that says it right there - clearly they are *not* "in their right mind."
Musically, the synths are bold and successfully locked to the percussion. Lots of great atmospherics fill the sonic palette. Nice vocal hook via the "and when it's deaddddd on the line, do you think the girl is mine" passage. The rising "ahh, ahh, ahhh" change passage (again - Hannah or Sophie?) adds musical strength overall. The song is a perfect dance floor rave-up. I could picture one of those packed Armin raves throbbing and bouncing up and down to this one.
Digging further into the "deep tracks" on this album comes "Homewrecker." Written by Sophie, Greg Kurstin and Lindy Robbins. Recorded, mixed, produced, keyboards, guitar and programming - all by Greg Kurstin. This one is really his production overall. Recorded in Los Angeles, USA.
Moving away from the buzzy, brassy synths for a moment, a more traditional organ sound leads off this track. In fact, that traditional organ sound could be interpreted as the well know wedding march sound - given this songs lyrical subject matter. Musical point made, the buzzy synths soon take over, as the main progression of the song begins.
Verses begin to tell the tale of someone looking to steal another’s man away, with the fourth line delivering a well textured punchline - "run along and get your own guy." The story evolves about how a flirty individual's "hand lingers on his arm" and how this viper "laughs a bit too hard" - all to make an impression.
A first bridge section is impeccably polished in both song structure and production, as Sophie states how "you know I'm on to you." From there it moves on to what you would almost call another bridge, where Sophie imparts advice "to all you round the world stealing someone else's guy" - how she is wise to them - "I know your kind."
The chorus consists of one single word (the songs title) sung out in a variety of elongated musical notes. There's an angular instrumental section that must be the guitar playing credited to Greg Kurstin. It sounds like a rubbery up and down progression. It’s somewhat unusual and I like the fact that it's included.
It might be interesting to learn how the song "Synchronised" came to Sophie, as she was not involved in writing any of it. Written by Fred Ball and Ina Wroldson and produced by Fred Ball who also provides keyboards and programming. I can see WHY she included it, however - as it has the most wonderfully catchy chorus. The song opens (and closes) with a gentle plucking on, what must be credited-guitarist Ben Epstein’s work - though it actually sounds more like a stringed harp.
The gorgeous chorus goes " And I lock it up baby, I never said I could win you, But I lock it up tightly, And I'm synchronised with you. The second verse reveals a relationship coming apart. "Synchronise our fall." Leading to a change section fully spells it out. "Forever sealing what we never really had. Forever feeling what was gone - before I closed my eyes."
This is a song about a last ditch desperate attempt to capture (or 'synchronise') the feeling of love and connection with someone - that you know is slipping away - or perhaps that you never really had at all. But the song exists in the here and now - and - right now - I'm "locking up" this feeling in my heart. It is quite the emotion wrencher. Sophie never fails to deliver a passionate vocal performance. The final section of the song is layered with Sophie’s voice, singing out with emotional force.
The final track on the album is "Cut Straight To The Heart." This one is Ed Harcourt’s, Dimitri Tikovoi’s and Sophie’s baby. Written by Sophie, Ed Harcourt and Dimitri Tikovoi with Piano, Synths, Strings Arranged and Conducted by: Ed Harcourt, and Produced by: Ed Harcourt and Dimitri Tikovoi.
Dramatic piano chords and synth rushes introduce this one. No percussion at all. "I never saw this coming. Since the beginning you were in control. And now my heart is drumming. Believe this love could maybe save my soul" Twinkling bells effects are used throughout to create the correct mood for a ballad like this.
On the chorus Sophie sings out "Don't let me go" with the word 'leeeet' out long in a torch song style. "Now I'm right where I want to be. Don't let me go. You cut straight to the heart of me" There's a cool instrumental interlude at this point - the piano sounds treated and therefore, creatively unique. There is also a tasteful blending in of actual (not synthesized) string instruments on this track. Violas and Violins.
There are vocal passages later on where Sophie’s voice is doubled and repeating like a background chorus. With mechanical handclap sounds mixed in. Then Sophie sings over top of that in a more forceful and passionate voice ("you cut straight to the heart of me" and the "don't leeeeet meeee go").
Lyrically it is a love song at its basic essence. It goes deeper, though. Sophie sings about her "soul." Of hearing a voice "out of silence." Of the subconscious knowledge that you are right where you should be. With poetic references to "dreams" and "the light." The overall tone is one of reverence, maturity and a self-aware understanding.
Sophie has hinted in recent interviews that this more mature, introspective singer-songwriter style may be the direction she is going on her next album. Time will tell. Until then, we have this wonderful album here and now to enjoy.
To purchase this album via digital download, go here: