It was a mere 4 months ago when Sophie Ellis Bextor announced the coming release of her 7th full-length album “Hana.” Promising a record of all new original material, the advance single “Breaking The Circle” was dropped at that time, receiving critical acclaim (as well as a detailed review of it here). Now the complete album has arrived, and with it a rising tide of positive feedback and prominent chart placement. Having reviewed all of Sophie's studio recordings since this sites inception 15 years ago (as well as on fan sites 7 years prior to that) DaveCromwellWrites sets its laser focus on this new album.
Once again collaborating with writing partner Ed Harcourt in a similar manner as on her sixth (“Familia”) and fifth (“Wanderlust”) studio albums, the creative chemistry between the two is undeniable. A celebrated solo artist, Harcourt also Produced, as well as providing piano, synths, samples, organ and backing vocals. Additional production came by way of The Feeling founding member (and Sophie’s husband) Richard Jones, who played all the bass guitar, chipping in with additional synths and backing vocals. Filling out the studio musicians (most of whom are also in Sophie's current live band) are guitarists Pablo Tato, Seton Daunt, violinist Gita Langley and Jackson Ellis-Leach on drums.
The album begins with arpeggiated synthetic pulses laying a steady undercurrent for an emotive “A Thousand Orchids.” Choosing a flower titled lead-off track for the Japanese influenced album overall (with “Hana” translating to “Flower” in that language) points to an intentional pathway on this journey together (between artist and listener). Carefully placed piano chords are the only other initial accompaniment to Sophie's up-close-in-your-ear vocal lines that lead you away from “witches” and “ghosts.” She'd rather you “look for the beacons that show the way.” Gentle synths and electric pianos slowly work their way into the mix by the time she reaches that title line. Stating universal truths we all need to remind ourselves of - “it's so very human to to live as if nothing will end. Though no one's immortal, our secrets will let us pretend.” At the songs midpoint a more driving synth pattern begins, with ethereal vocals floating above. More defined keyboards mark out the chord progression as reverberated snare-drum shots enhance Sophie's final dramatic chorus.
As stated above, follow-up track (and first single) “Breaking The Circle” takes late night existential musings and fashions them into a danceable pop song. Full review of that here. What we didn't have *at that time* - but do now – is a gorgeous video to go with that song.
The deceptively upbeat “Until The Wheels Fall Off” was revealed to be Sophie's “most personal song on the album” in a recent live chat. Extolling the virtues of living-life-to-the-fullest every day you're blessed with, the lyrics were inspired by a letter from her late step-dad. Essentially piano-driven, the tracks enthusiastic groove is powered along by a nimble drum pattern. “Let's taste all the best we find under the sun – till it's done” is the overriding sentiment. Because living your best life IS to “laugh and love until the wheels fall off.”
Moving into the desirous fantasy realm, “Everything Is Sweet” tells a tale about obsession and “endless longing.” Deep buzzing low-end synths and forceful punch drumming comprise the instrumental bulk behind Sophie's vocals. Establishing a contrast between dark and light, “shadow,” ”shrouded” and “clouds” has the imagination turning them into an “enchanted,” “heavenly fortress.” The bridge between verse and chorus tugs sweetly at the heart with it's romantic chord progression and “wait so patiently” lyric. Repeated listening reveal enjoyable audio easter eggs, like the energetic bass guitar and drum interplay, lifting off into space synth rises and piano chords on the fadeout.Second official single release “Lost In The Sunshine” comes complete with a gorgeous video that dazzles the senses. Playing to her obvious visual strengths, Sophie returns to the scene of previous videos (and other significant events) in Italy and Rome. The very first shot has Sophie standing in front of the nearly two thousand year old Roman structures, wearing (as she revealed) a dress she wore over 20 years ago in one of her first videos. All the footage here for more than the first half of it is presented in black and white. The multiple outfits are quick cut for maximum introductory effect, and her overall style morphs between Audrey Hepburn's Breakfast At Tiffany's and Sophia Lauren Italian glamour. The song itself is a gentle float-away dream of a perfect day with the one you love. A joyous summertime anthem that touches on the nostalgia of a hot, hazy day, described as looking “clementine.” Gradually, sepia toned images are introduced as Sophie rides a train (stunning in ultra-glam close-ups) singing about how “the ice is melting” and “sun overhead.” The footage playfully rolls out more elegant dresses as it hops around locales. The final third introduces full color imagery with the alluring one riding commuter cars, sitting in restaurants, drinking beer and eating ice cream and pasta. Only Sophie could make this sort of consuming look bewitching. Her little blue dog toy also makes an appearance.
Experience “La Dolche Vita” here:
Open note, finger-plucked guitar chords begin the introspective, Pink Floyd influenced sixth track “Tokyo.” Echoing a similar feel to the aforementioned psychedelic bands “Hey You” (from The Wall). Sophie's vocals are strong yet measured, delivering lines that fall somewhere between that city's reality and an imagined impression of what it might be like. Reaching the signature line “I'm with you and you're in Tokyo again” on the second pass through, has more instruments joining in. The mood shifts into dreamy, floating directions that feature ambient synths and active drum fills. An elevated section with lyrics “there's beauty here besides machines” lifts everything upward.
A peak mid-80's synth-pop feel permeates the celestial wanderlust (now there's an easter egg call back) of seventh song and second side album starter “Beyond The Universe.” Harkening back to that first synth-wave era that gave us A-ha's “Take On Me,” Sophie takes a sparser approach at first. Wafting synths are all you hear initially supporting a tale of weightlessness and stars. Soon bass guitar and drums enter in with the tracks insistent beat, as otherworldly keyboard lines offer counter-melodies. The “climb a little cloud, scale a little breeze” bridge provides a perfect segue to that magnificent full-bop chorus.
Uniquely textured synths and a “Be-My-Baby” Spector-esque drum beat lay down the sonic core of power ballad “He's A Dreamer.” Majestic piano chords support underneath a soaring chorus that speaks about trying “to see the world he knows.” A fascinating instrumental section feels almost improvised on the spot, with multi-toned synths playfully dancing back and forth between drum fills and bass guitar riffs.
A solid 4-on-the-floor beat, synth, piano and bouncy bass guitar establish musical parameters for the looking-glass scrutiny of “Reflections.” As much of a look-back as a gaze on the here-and-now, lyrics “through the lens the shadows refract until it's a memory” suggestively confirm this. An unexpected quicker-paced near spoken word section adds a sense of urgency to the lyrical content being delivered. Orchestral strings appear within the final minute, expanding the sound with an additional level of grandeur.
Rapid-paced tinkling toy piano introduces the synesthesia themed “Hearing In Colour.” That sensation where hearing sound induces visualization, can produce “joy” as well as “a feverish dream.” Applying major chords on the verse while using minor keys for initial choruses emphasize how overwhelming this level of sensitivity could be – especially when applied to a new romance. Tying the two parts together is a perfect bridge section that states “a million shades in the spectrum since you came.” The song resolves with a celebratory coda “calling my name” for an ultimate uplifting experience.
A deeper toned, slower version of that tinkly child's piano returns on subtle hip-hop grooved “Broken Toy.” The parallel between relationship breakup and “tossed aside” inanimate play thing runs against spacious ambience and yet-one-more keyboard texture of curious origins. Bass guitar stands out as the primary melodic counterpoint to Sophie's vocals on the chorus. However, it is her double-step delivery on each verse line (with the second one going) “but under the surface the heart has a purpose” that delivers the most endearing quality.
Final track “We've Been Watching You” has Sophie putting her own spin on the classic science-fiction narrative of outer-space Aliens. Having visited our planet, these “conscience of another kind” have chosen to save some of us to “start again elsewhere.” All good intentions aside, a repeated vocal refrain casts some doubt on the validity of this undertaking. Sophie presents it both ways: “you haven't quite lost your mind” she reassures. Then follows with “Or have you quite lost your mind?” Food for thought, indeed. With that, HANA comes to a playful conclusion, as Earth's fortunate survivors head out into the great unknown.
HANA is out now, and can be acquired Here.
Connect with Sophie Ellis-Bextor online:
Previous Feature Review of Sophie on this site (including links to all other features) Here.
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One thing this site can count on is an enticing pitch from frequently reviewed Burbank, California label Big Stir Records. The currently much celebrated and promised summer long roll-out of new recordings from fellow So-Cal pop-legends SPARKLE*JETS U.K hits all the marks for excited anticipation. Emerging with their first full-length album release in over 20 years, an expected multi-year plan of covers and originals is professed to unfold going forward. This initial step in the overall plan is something quite unique as it presents a 21 track double LP filled with covers of underground classics originally released by their friends and associates from the early aught Southern California power pop scene. Calling the record “Best Of Friends” underscores how they pay homage to a vital LA music scene that redefined the very essence of Power Pop at that time.
Check it out:
Next track “No One Rides for Free” builds off of an angular progression that shares space with heavier power chords. Interestingly with a similar key word in the title, this vocal rendition evokes John Lennon's on “Ticket To Ride.” “One Summer Sunday” switches gear to a more gentle “McCartney-esque” approach. There's pleasing minor chord change segments that also bring to mind elements of the band Chicago's huge pop hit “Beginnings.”
“Are We There Yet?” emphasizes female lead vocals to expand on that universal long-car-ride expression, applying it this time to an interpersonal relationship. Keyboards and strings add lushness to the production behind these impassioned vocals. Choral “la la's” provide a nice touch, bridging to male vocal response which includes more Beatles references via lyric “when you get to the bottom you go back to the top of the slide.”
There's a cheerful son-of-Beatles-Eric Carmen-in-Raspberries vibe on “Ludlow 6:18” Strong piano chord work provides solid underpinnings for the bright guitar, flam-drumming and vocal harmonies seamlessly woven together. “Battle Song” relies on rising step vocals that create a harmonious romantic feel, running against what it's title initially suggests. Once again, an early McCartney-through-followers like Badfinger feel is present throughout.
“I Want a Pony” bring back female lead vocals for this tongue-in-cheek bratty teenage wish list. Demands made via a chunky rock and roll chugger - “pony up” indeed! Bass guitar steps forward on the euphonious “Till We Meet Again.” Punchy rhythmic changes handled by those essential rock fundamentals of guitar, bass and drums drive everything towards exuberant high vocal harmonies.
Clocking in at 5 minutes in length is the album's longest track “Come Down Now.” A piano ballad featuring female and male vocals in a call-and-response duet, a sense of reverence is felt with the repeated vocal-hook “a Church Song.” Additional lyrics “come down now – remove your bandage – so I can see your damage” is as much about revelation than any sort of salvation.
There are many more wonderful songs included in the 21 here on this double LP. Among them are two other "focus tracks" that really stand out.
“Another Myself” emerges out of an angular pizzicato plucking on guitar strings before more chunky (and funky) chords join in. It bears similarities in both vocal tone and song structure to that twisted-prog-funk King Crimson did with Adrian Belew singing. Other elements surface in the guise of wacky Zappa-like “la la la” background vocals and seemingly melody lifts from “Paperback Writer” (or is that Paul's “Jet?”) There's even a touch of George Harrison's slide guitar sound on a madcap instrumental foray.
“Mahnsanto” takes everything in another direction, with it's mechanized structure and motorik undercurrent. A trip to the Carnival feel pervades while managing to straddle a modern times glitch-pop vocal arrangement on the verse. The chorus hook is another thing entirely, with the title word repeated like a siren call, followed by a plea to “come back to me,” promising “I'll wait there.” Churning rhythms and chugging guitars lay a bed for tasty lead lines to float over. Everything comes to a momentary halt (with brief bubbling synth interlude) – before lurching once more into the battering, beautifully harmonized chorus.
The full album is out on Vinyl, CD and all streaming services on June 30.
Order in any above format you like at This Link.
Connect with all things Big Stir Records here.
Check out Sparkle*Jets U.K. Here.
The most-recent prior Feature Review covering Big Stir Records on this site can be found Here.
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