Friday, September 9, 2016

Sophie Ellis Bextor - Familia - Album Review

It has been more than two and a half years between albums for iconic British singer Sophie Ellis Bextor. That wait has been rectified with the release of her sixth studio album “Familia.” Returning to the creative team that helped bring life to previous Top Ten charting record “Wanderlust,” the latest album once again reflects a unique and fruitful collaboration with producer Ed Harcourt. Sophie and Ed have taken their abundant talents to another level here with these eleven songs, exploring new wide-open vistas for the singer to branch out and shine on.

Along with Harcourt providing piano, synths, samples and various keys, Richard Jones of veteran British pop band The Feeling (and Sophie’s husband) played all the bass guitar (figuring prominently on many tracks), with Seton Daunt on guitar and Phil Wilkinson on percussion.  Also back making significant contributions are the Dirty Pretty Strings (Violins: Gita and Rose Langley, Viola: Amy Stanford and Cello: Amy Langley).  The album was recorded at State of the Ark Studios in London, mixed at Decoy Studios and mastered at the famed Abbey Road. Released via her own EBGB label, worldwide marketing is being handled by Red/Essential. All album photography and initial video work coming by way of the masterful Sophie Muller.

A swirling synthesized reedy flute pattern kicks off opening track “Wild Forever” against metronomic clock-click percussion. Clear acoustic piano chords cut through and establish deeper bass textures as Sophie begins her vocals. “There’s a look in your eye – that says you want to be carefree tonight – just like in days gone by – when we were wild.”

The click-time rhythm and synths give way to full band dance groove on a bridge build-up where Sophie proclaims  “Why be so ordinary? Why just conform? Let’s rip the night in half and forget it all. So keep the engine running, under the stars. I feel release is coming, tonight it’s ours!”

 Chorus: Three sharp descending notes: “We shouldn’t fight the way we feel “ Three more notes, but move in a slightly altered direction “when it comes from somewhere real.”  Background vocals mirror the three accent notes  ("run-ning wild”) with an emerging bass guitar driven pulse.  Sophie goes falsetto  on the line “a garden always in full bloom” before returning to middle-toned voice “That’s how I think of me and you” (Background “running wild”) “but if escape is what we need – when it comes to you and me” -  “we should just surrender” (punctuated by defined drum shots and stately piano chords) – to the ultimate defining line - “stay wild forever.”

Briefly returning to the intro, the second verse finds the piano playing a more active, descending progression beginning with the lyrics “it’s like a secret we hold.”

At almost four-and-a-half minutes in length (which turns out to be the average length of nearly all the songs on this album) there are more than a few wonderfully unexpected moments.  Like the joyously repeated chant of "we just have to surrender" while mad synth twiddles over it all.  Sophie is heard in one of the “making of the record” videos put out before it’s release describing the music on this record as “bonkers psychedelic pop.” Wild Forever delightfully fits that description.

A deeper drum pattern and distinctly plucked guitar notes introduce “Death Of Love” as buzzy synths shimmer underneath. “Streets of SoHo where - we escaped to - take a moment - in slow motion” Sophie proclaims. “Sit beside me and - let them hurry – the city waits for no one” she continues, but then the vocals double and ceremonious guitar chords strum as she sings “but in my mind we’re king and queen – you make the best of everything – and in our fragile kingdom – we’re always singing – an endless melody (with the end note held out on the deeeeee)

Leading in to a gorgeous chorus that goes “Every sunrise leads to a sunset – fruit must fall from branches, and they’ll be centuries for other lovers – but not for us.” The beauty of this section (besides the glorious overview of life lyrics) is how it’s powered along by the deep thumping drums and upward pulsating synth textures.

 “But what we created – it cannot be undone. You know it lives on” To the songs highest point (both vocally and emotionally) – “It’s not – it’s not the death of love” (repeated twice) enhanced by additional double-time cymbal percussion.

 “So you walk through the crowded chaos” Sophie continues as chunky guitar figures enter the mix. “There’s a comfort, waiting for us."   Sophie has stated in interviews that this song is about how the love you create lives on after you've gone.  Therein lies the comfort.

 The magical chorus returns, this time with background vocal enhancements sounding like the trumpet herald of angels. An unexpected drop back in instruments leaves Sophie’s voice out front in ethereal layers over cymbals and drums. Chunky guitar figures return before leading it all back to the lush chorus once more.

Three distinct piano chords establish the essential structure of “Crystallise” as Sophie delivers opening lines “waiting for a lifetime.” As ‘ticking clock’ percussion marks out time, she continues “Like you're carved from the mountain.” One – Two – Three – go the piano chords – “sometimes I stand like a statue – waiting to surprise you”- which immediately leads to the bridge: “and when it comes - and what it does” (with bass guitar taking over as this seconds driving instrument) “is nail you down, you cannot swerve – you’re not the last, you’re not the first to sometimes lose your nerve.”

 To the big chorus: “You don’t need to try – hard. You don’t need to wise – up” The arrival of Sophie and Ed’s go-to string section adds deeper hues to the proceedings.  Specifically the emotionally-charged Cello work by Amy Langley.  “It all becomes clear as day,” she continues. “So Crystallise – love.”  Sweet guitar and piano textures coalesce as Sophie continues “it’s been sleeping since day one – trapped in your subconscious.  Scheming for the moment [sung in higher register and with more force] – when you stop feeling cautious” once again leading immediately into the bridge.

 Doubled vocals this time on the lines “you’re not the last, you’re not the first to sometimes lose your nerve.” In addition to the lush string section, there is now a rising gentle piano figure put in motion. A surprising Pink Floyd-ian extended-note guitar form briefly floats in space before the final chorus. That final pass through finds Sophie layering in alternating background vocals with dramatic tambourine/sleigh-bell shakes. The final seconds have all the instruments dropping away still only the live-in-the-studio drums remain.

The introduction of Nick Etwell’s trumpet on “Hush Little Voices” is significant in creating a cinematic Ennio Morricone/Sergio LeoneSpaghetti Western” vision of the mythical west.  Tambourine jingles feature prominently amid the familiar instrumentation of bass, piano, guitar and occasional “bonkers/psych” synths.   Sophie’s clearly enunciated vocals have less to do with South-Of-The-Border conflicts but rather the bothersome thoughts that keep you awake.  The chorus appears to serve a dual purpose as part lullaby to needlessly worried children, while subtly revisiting deeper subject matter first explored in the song “Party In My Head” from 2003’s “Shoot From The Hip.”  In interviews Sophie has stated this could also be the witch from "Love Is A Camera" on Wanderlust who souls were taken via images held in a tomblike monument (“centograph”), who has now been driven mad by all the souls she's captured.

Making extensive use of the Dirty Pretty Strings on “Here Comes The Rapture,” Sophie creates a chamber music atmosphere comparable to Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” (from her From her No. 1 1985 album Hounds Of Love). However, there is no attempt to add any layers of percussion here as the string section provides the only musical accompaniment. In that regard, The Beatles “Eleanor Rigby” serves as a more accurate resemblance.

 Poetic, sweetly sung lyrics describes that moment first encountering the one you were meant to be with. Using metaphors of “towers” on “borders” and surrender (“give ourselves up”) puts a castle siege twist on affairs of the heart. Reaching the angelic chorus, the double edged meaning of “rapture” signifies both ecstatic delight and being transformed to another sphere of existence. With subsequent lyrics making further comparisons to “rernaissance” and “art,” it is the bridge once again that hooks you in. This time “mountains” replace those border towers as “bells are ringing out your name.”

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First single “Come With Us” is placed at the halfway point through the album. The straightforward snare and bass drum stomp pattern is quickly joined by funky guitar licks. Touted as a “return to disco,” the feel seems closer to late 70’s rock bands that specialized in funk (like The Average White Band) or occasionally dabbled in it (The Rolling Stones). While Sophie sings what at first appears to be a call to “come with” her “no matter who you are or *what you see*  (though lyric sheet says “where you’re from” – possibly changed during recording because it sounded better?) a more wary meaning is soon revealed.

 The chorus makes no doubt about the clarion call intentions stating “if you give us all your money we’ll give you your dreams.” How it’s an illusion of “soft focus” imploring you to “release control” and become “lost in a fantasy – ‘til your soul is lost.” That is some pretty damning commentary on advertising and the profit-driven promises offered.  Like many good songs, “Come With Us” can be interpreted on a number of levels. If you want to be seduced by a “welcome to the family” greeting – presented with believable charm by Sophie in both voice and video imagery - that daydream is there. However, one would be foolish not to be suspicious of lyrics “in a hazy frame of mind you’ll believe this stuff.” Sophie has been quoted as saying this song is “about the lure of a cult,” whether that be Jim Jones impoverished Kool-Aid drinkers or the wealthy followers of Scientology.

Instrumental interludes, guitar solos and breakdown with Sophie delivering signature “ooh, ooh, aie ya’s” over “Groovejet” style deep tom-tom percussion and funky guitar riffs lead back to the promised-land chorus. The cultish lure of “living a fantasy under electric stars” ultimately becomes a choice of what (or whom) to follow.

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A basic straight-forward drum beat is juxtaposed against mechanical hand-claps and extended note synths before deep bass guitar establishes the progression on "Cassandra."  Sophie turns to Greek Mythology for her lyrical inspiration here, channeling Cassandra princesses of Troy.  The “snakes in your red hair” allow her to listen to the future, but that gift from the God Apollo becomes a curse.  As a result of her spurning his love, no one believes her predictions.  It’s a classic story that Sophie puts her own spin on.  With the lyrics “putting the blame on the girl,” “I believe in you,” they think it’s a lie you told (but why would you need to)” and “if I could just sit with you, we two could conspire,” and “make them listen,” there’s a sense of a modern female solidarity.  The final minute features rising celestial vocals, rain-tinkling piano and thundering tom toms that build to a dramatic crescendo.

Returning to the “bonkers pop with a bit of psychedelia” approach, “My Puppet Heart” delights as one of the albums most lively tracks.  Over sound effects evoking factory machinery gone slightly awry, the vocals start almost immediately.  Clacketty-stick percussion, oddball foghorn and piano runs counter to Sophie’s first verse vocals, while the bass guitar faithfully mirrors her melody.  All suddenly changes on the next hooky bridge section where vocals starting with “you lift me up and I’m enlightened” are propelled by military-style snare drum rolls, with each line punctuated by deeper voiced chorus of “hoooh!”  The dreamily repeated “When I’m with you” line leads into a big chorus depicting how the puppet masters “hand” has “synchronized” control of her heart.  There is a delightful joy in how the instruments drive it all along, rising to accent “hold – ing tight” until giving way to a somber cello-led string section.  Further sonic surprises come on the third section change where she sings “it’s so beautiful to just free-fall.”  Fittingly the tracks final moments are squiggly sounds of indeterminate origins that imply a tape reel spun out of control.

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A heartbeat-like singular bass drum thump with dueling electric keyboard and guitar figures usher in the ballad “Unrequited.” The pensive tale of yearning love not returned by another ultimately points to the question “Now ain’t that the craziest thing?” The overall mood is like a balladeer singing her heart out in some 19th Century Old West Cantina.

Once again the Dirty Pretty Strings feature prominently behind the vocals, providing a level of pathos unattainable by traditional rock instruments.  The big surprise is a vocal turn from Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws, who arrives after the songs midpoint, providing counterpoint and possible solution (“dance on your own in the light”). The final chorus is sung as a duet, and their voices blend well together.

An oddly jagged synth pulse provides the initial impetus for “The Saddest Happiness.”  Majestic strummed guitar chords accentuate ethereal “ooooh, ooooh, ooooh” background vocals.   Subtleties like the emergence of full trap set drumming halfway through the first verse’s third line (“it’s hard to feel the highs”) shows nuanced attention to detail.   The first change moves from mechanized synth-bass to bright ride cymbals and ceremonious piano accompaniment. Sophie’s lyrical content and vocal performance are sweetly tinged with a plaintive air.     Bass guitar and chamber orchestra strings provide the driving musical force behind Sophie’s vocals on a chorus where “the saddest happiness” is a “friend” that is like “the needle to the groove.”  The emergence of double-time vocal cadence (“rich is the man with a love to treasure”) and mysterious Spanish spoken word segment indicate the freeform possibilities within a self-directed recording environment.

Muted acoustic guitar chords, deep cajon drum and shaker percussion under prominent handclaps furnish the sonic foundation for the albums final track “Don’t Shy Away.”  Perhaps the most purely cinematic track on the album, a southwestern feel emerges once again in both sound design and lyrical content.  There are “mountains,” “birds overhead,” needing to “cross the valley” and “walk in the blazing sun.” With Flamenco-style guitar moving to the forefront and the lyrics “he’s waiting there for me, this runaway bride,” the doomed wedding scene in Tarrantino’s “Kill Bill” makes an excellent visual comparison.  Although Sophie has also stated in interviews that this poetic "runaway bride" is a poetic return to the one in Wanderlust's "Cry To The Beat Of The Band."

The chorus and subsequent musical intervals reinforce the damsel “yearning” for “all that we dared to dream” in a world of new frontiers.  An unanticipated post-chorus halt slowly builds tension around the repeated line “Won’t look back again.”  As that repeated mantra rises with conviction on each pass through, a mournful harmonica wail echoes through this big sky landscape. The majestic sonic coda – evoking pioneers riding out into the sunset (punctuated by stuttering drum fills) serves as a more than fitting end to this album.

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Get Familia: - iTunes

- Signed CD / vinyl

Follow Sophie:

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Previous features on this site about Sophie:

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Misty said...

what an insightful and comprehensive review of this album here! of course I have loved Sophie and her music for years now. i'm so pleased to see that she is putting records out now on her own terms.

another 11 song collection! each track is so different from the other, yet it all somehow fits together. its that voice. she puts so much emotion into her words. i'm very interested to read the descriptions of the songs here. the links are very helpful in understanding who all the contributors are and what some of the songs actually reference (like for example "Cassandra").

the writing here shows real care for the artist and keen attention to detail.

well done with this!

i will surely be playing this record for a long time.

DaveCromwell said...

I don't want to toot my own horn about writing 2,500 words here (which I did) - that's just what happens when you analyze and write a review of *every* song on an album. I don't think anyone else actually does this. I know this might seem over-the-top and not what the popular trend in quick-hit media is these days - but I actually really enjoy it.

I also feel that - how can you ignore one song over another? Each one was lovingly crafted by the artist who put their heart and soul into it. I understand there are space limitations on commercial sites that have to fit other content (about other people) in - and I deal with that as well when contributing to other sites - which is why I'm so glad I have none of those limitations here.

So, kick back and enjoy the album - and - if you get curious about one (or any and all) of the songs - come back here and see if it matches up to how you felt about it.

Buggles said...

A very in-depth review Dave, worthy of the multicolour and complexity of the album. I think many will feel as I do that this is her best offering to date, and by any standards, 'right up there'.

smork said...

what can I add. really in-depth review.
all i could add - if you're interested and haven't read the actual review just scrolled through the pictures and caught bits and pieces from the text - go and give it a listen!

availible on multiple platform ie spotify.

you'll gonna love it! :)

DaveCromwell said...

I love the description "multicolour and complexity of the album" that you use, Mr. Buggles.

I can't disagree that this latest effort is (as you say) "right up there" with her very best records.

Smork, you give the best advice - go listen to it on your fave listening platform (which for me lately consists of either on the computer or on an iPod).

ViewFromSpookysDoghouse said...
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ViewFromSpookysDoghouse said...
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ViewFromSpookysDoghouse said...

As album reviews go, this one of "Familia" is comprehensive. If you read Dave's guide track by track as you are listening, it's accurate. First up, I became an instant Richard Jones fan, as the bass in the chorus of "Wild Forever" is pretty hot. The "stately piano" later in the song is actually a figure comparable to the piano in the first pre-chorus. My favorite Cromwell line of this feature is when he wrote "while mad synth twiddles over it all." Looking up the word "twiddle" in the dictionary, it's secondary meaning suggests a marriage of the words "twist" and "fiddle," as if someone is fumbling with the buttons on a coat. The most delectable aspect of Sophie Ellis-Bextor's voice to me is when she doubles her vocal, providing instant ear-candy gratification. This is showcased on "Familia's" second track, "Death Of Love." Fear not the title, for this is no dirge. I really love the synths in the chorus, but I would argue with Dave that they are not pulsating. They're decorative. Moving on to track 4 "Hush Little Voices," the trumpets sound wonderful in their context, but what really evokes the Man With No Name cinematic trilogy of "Fistful Of Dollars," "For A Few Dollars More," and "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" has more to do with the percussive hits in the second verse of the song. I say "percussive," but I could not name the instrument being struck, just as I can't in the Clint Eastwood movies previously mentioned. It could be a metal garbage can lid being struck in a musical way. Also of note are the intensely shimmering strings adorning the first line of each chorus. "Here Comes The Rapture" is sort of gorgeous, but I'm trying to restrain myself from using too emphatic an accolade because the best track of the album follows next. "Come With Us" is the single? Excellent choice! Dueling call-and-response guitar lines trade opposite panned ends of the stereo spectrum at commencement and the studio generated swell that guides us into the opening lyric is an echo of Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust." Again, the swell, not the famous bass line of that Queen song. If things aren't going well enough with this song, then it hits you after the first chorus in the segue prior to the second verse. OH MY GOD!!! The way those guitars, percussion, and strings are used make me ENVIOUS. What an achievement for the producer to actually make me jealous of the talent that went into engineering/ producing such a masterful moment. I've written a disco song and THAT"S WHAT DISCO OUGHT TO SOUND LIKE. I mean, not what I did, but THIS SOPHIE SONG. But wait, there's more of that to come in the break before the final group of choruses. Really outstanding. Makes everything else on an otherwise good album pale by comparison. I like the piano part in the verse after the first chorus of "Cassandra" but I thought the excellent drum parts were too far down in the mix. In "My Puppet Heart" I was getting whiplash from the nonstop stylistic changes that were woven into its sonic tapestry. Pretty darn good. Well, enough from me. I'm not an album reviewer. I'm just a guy who reads Dave Cromwell.

DaveCromwell said...

This is such an amazing comment on so many levels, VFSD.

I'm flattered by your final remark, but in fact you do a wonderful job continuing my review with your own take on the record. Pointing out things that confirm what I sense but would not think to articulate in that way. That is the beauty of multiple reviews. The truest kind of reviews where one actually listen closely to the music and then puts in to words what they are hearing.

I'm always bemoaning the fact that the current state of music journalism are these quick hit-and-run "news burst" pieces that simply parrot the talking points from the initial press release. That's not really "journalism" at all, but more on the lines of "reposting" someone else's words. I never want to do that.

Having been weaned on the golden age of music writing that spans the era of Rolling Stone's initial influence up through the period of strong UK writing that in the heyday of print magazines included NME, Melody Maker and Q Magazine. I know some of those brands still exist today, but deeper pieces take a back seat to the short social media style postings.

At the end of the day as long as it influences people to go out and get the record and really *listen* to it, then all of it is ultimately good.

The deeper analysis is more lasting however, and the kind of writing you'll return to for reference.

William said...

talk about murder on the dance floor - she murdered my face with rock... uh... disco.. uh doesn't matter
what a familia to belong to - a mafiosi bunch who will make you sing for your supper with a lush backing band

dont cry for me argentina, the truth is i don't know what I'm referencing, but i enjoyed this album and your thorough review

best comiserations
Sean Connery

also I'm not a robot

DaveCromwell said...

Your off-the-cuff, lack-of-sleep-state-of-mind tends to bring out an amusing madcap charm in you, William.

Nice string together of song titles and literal interpretations of the self-proclaimed ("sing for supper") and implied ("familia" = "mafiosi").

The important takeaway here is that you enjoy the album.

Also, is reCAPTCHA preventing spam bot *really* a "robot?"

VictorGD said...

Great review. Thank you, it's like reading the book of the album :)

DaveCromwell said...

That is truly an inspiring compliment, VictorGD.

I thank you very much for taking a moment to leave it here.

If not a full book, I think I may have enough words written about Sophie's music over the years to complete at the very least a Novella.

Mirror said...

Quentin Harrison ‏@TheQHBlend Commented:

@DaveCromwell I enjoyed your SEB review, it's definitely my record of the year w/ Bright Light (x2) and Corinne Bailey Rae right behind it.

Looking forward to checking out your site more too. :)

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Reybee, Inc. Retweeted

Deep review of @SophieEB new Album #Familia. @reybee @redessential @bandwagonpress #sophieellisbextor #reybee

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Javier Alvarado posted on Twitter:

Track-by-track review: Sophie Ellis-Bextor @SophieEB new Album #Familia. @CptRJones #sophieellisbextor #musicreview
Javier Alvarado

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Claire Flude commented:

The single was on in one of the shops I went in this morning.....

That was in Sheffield. When I was visiting there for the weekend.

And Heartbreak just had a snippet on Antiques Roadshow.

There is no escape!! lol!!

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DaveCromwell said...

Appreciate your attention to my detailed breakdown of "Familia" here, Quentin. I see your QHBlend site focuses primarily on solo female vocalists, so its a natural for us to follow each others work. Have already enjoyed a number of pieces you've posted as well.

Much thanks again, Reybee - for all your assistance with this feature (and the others too).

Always like getting my writing Retweeted, so much obliged Javier.

Ha, ha. No - no there probably isn't for you, Claire ;-)

You never know when you'll hear a song pop up on a television show.

Or tv advert.

And for me on any of MY music making devices!

Mirror said...

Sophie Ellis-Bextor (@SophieEB) Posted on Twitter:

Happy Christmas Gift received! #Familia has been in frequent rotation @SophieEB ! This sweet young lady says thank you for making this music - Dec 30

Sophie Ellis-Bextor @SophieEB Wrote:

@DaveCromwell my pleasure! Xx

11:39 AM - 31 Dec 16

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MusciosLC, Dan™ and Javier Alvarado liked a Tweet you were mentioned in
@DaveCromwell my pleasure! Xx
MusciosLC Dan™ Javier Alvarado

MusciosLC and 3 others liked your Tweet
Happy Christmas Gift received! #Familia has been in frequent rotation @SophieEB ! This sweet young lady says thank you for making this music
MusciosLC 🦄Anouk vdM🦄 Javier Alvarado Like Herding Cats

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Javier Alvarado liked your Tweet
3h: @SophieEB Thank you, Sophie! Heather adores the record! Naturally, I had to write over 2,000 words about it 😊

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