A staggering weight of giddy expectancy has surrounded a number of female pop artists in the last year or so. Critics were waiting with baited breath to witness, with some feverish delight, the likes of Little Boots, La Roux, Florence And The Machine and Bat For Lashes succumb to the pressure and disappear in the carnage of a media car crash backlash after each of them received enough hype to stun an ox. Well, at least in the case of Blackpool's Victoria Hesketh, the Little Boots are walking the walk and talking the talk. Her debut album, Hands, punches well above its expected weight and raises the bar on the a la mode penchant for all things 80s synthpop. Christ, she's even wheeled in Human League's Phil Oakey for guest spot authenticity (listen, he was good enough for the Pets) and produced the record in LA with the knob twiddling duties courtesy of Greg Kurstin (fresh from similar labour on Lily Allen, Ladyhawke and Britney albums) and Hot Chip's Joe Goddard.
Jackie (that iconic teen girl's ubiquitous newspaper) meets Kylie, Giorgio Moroder, ZYX and Bobby Orlando on Blackpool's South PierSo what we do we get from a singer/songwriter who has actually been slogging away (Dead Disco and a Pop Idol wannabe) for some time before the guardianistas all pronounced she was the next big thing? A chorus friendly, four to the floor collection of pop songs bathed in a mostly nostalgic wallow in frothy 80s Italian disco and Euro synth fanfares, Hands is infectious, charming and, whilst it projects an often overwhelmingly glamourous sheen, it has, like the best pop, quite a brittle, tender interior where Hesketh obsesses about...shock, horror...relationships, broken hearts, star crossed lovers, domestic arguments and 'making do' in that erstwhile way us Northerners do. It's a bit like Jackie (that iconic teen girl's ubiquitous newspaper) meets Kylie, Giorgio Moroder, ZYX and Bobby Orlando on Blackpool's South Pier. Hesketh's songs are tales born of that great theme of good pop music: the thwarted attempt to escape from a troubled existence into a better world, where the grass is greener, love is pure and people aren't so shit to each other.
Imagine Moroder's 'I Feel Love' chopped up and mashed with Kylie's 'Can't Get Enough'Current single, New In Town, surges away with a rising barrage of Goldfrappy synths, sucks you in with an insistent chorus that grabs you and spins you around with Hesketh's vocals, clapping drum tracks and buzzy electronics. The conversational lyrics are all about the expectations of new situations and strangers you meet. It's a very satisfying slice of pure pop. Earthquake goes one better and if ever there was a synth pop anthem suitable for stadiums then this is it. Radiophonic buzzing and trilling synths, bouncy melody lines, electronic washes, bleeps and handclaps and a bittersweet lyric about a couple at loggerheads. Fabulous. Then imagine Moroder's I Feel Love chopped up and mashed with Kylie's Can't Get Enough and you'll also begin to understand how infectious Stuck On Repeat is. Yes, it's that good, and when married to a song about repeating past mistakes and being unable to escape them, you have a track that's an instant success on the dance floor and that will leave room for beardy stroking analysis. And yeah, it has that jittery Hot Chip quality that only Goddard can bring to the production.
...all farty synths and 70s disco 'boo boo' noises that seems to have escaped off Kelly Marie's 'Feels Like I'm In Love'
Beyond Stuck On Repeat, however, the album and the songs start to slip into the realm of diminishing returns because you can only stomach synth gloss, electro pomp and repetitive choruses for so long. Hesketh's vocal and lyrics start to sink into the background. With Click, she attempts a subtler route with less pomp and sheen, using skittering percussion and sing song synths, but it doesn't hook as much as it really should. It's back to Kylie style gloss with Remedy, all farty synths and 70s disco 'boo boo' noises that seems to have escaped off Kelly Marie's Feels Like I'm In Love but it comes with a cracking chorus. It picks up again with Meddle, where the atmosphere is much more threatening with it's shuddering electronics, crashing percussion and a memorable chorus and some great Gregorian style chanting mixed in with sighing and keening keyboards in the break before the final reprise of the chorus. With Ghost, whilst not entirely successful, there are recollections of Weill and Kate Bush amidst the undulating electronics, treated backing vocals and marching drums. Lyrically, it would be very fit for purpose if the producers of Being Human decided to make a musical episode. Expect the song to turn up anyway in a future episode.
...she manages to name check Fibinacci and Pythagoras. Try that for size, Kylie.
Mathematics is as nearly forgettable as the earlier Click and by now you would be forgiven for drifting off slightly. The album veers between deftly constructed pop songs and jangly muzak and this is definitely in the latter camp, pleasant enough but not fully engaging either the dancefloor body or pop intellect. Mind you, she manages to name check Fibinacci and Pythagoras. Try that for size, Kylie. The album is rescued by the very cheesy duet with Phil Oakey, Symmetry, which plugs into the early 80s penchant for nonsensical rhyming couplet lyrics but yet remains as a charming homage where we really aren't sure if this is being ironic or simply naive. It bounds along and works beautifully as a dancefloor filler. Oakey's vocals work brilliantly and I had heady recollections of Electric Dreams as he boomed along with Hesketh. There's even a very silly talky bit before it launches back into the delicious chorus. Tune Into My Heart ironically ploughs the same furrow as the League's Open Your Heart but is way too saccharine to match the darkly bittersweet quality of that song and instead starts to sound like something Steps might have attempted. Lovely bubbly synths, a slightly icier detached vocal from Hesketh, and yet another instantly likeable chorus.
...lesser composers would sell their grandmothers to have a smidgen of the songwriting talent that's on show hereThe closing tracks, Hearts Collide and No Brakes, whilst wandering into cliche with the lyrics, maintain the high quality of the opening songs. I really like the breathy de-de-duh-duh vocals on Hearts Collide, the slower pace and a production that this time isn't trying so hard to be ultra-slick and goes for bags of atmosphere. The swirly, swishy layers of synths, the fluttering sequencers, and the jagged chorus of 'no breaks, there's no he-heart br-a-a-a-akes' on No Breaks are utterly endearing. She bungs in another slightly embarrassing talky bit before attacking the final verse and chorus but again it's a touch that doesn't alienate the listener. This is a pretty impressive debut album and lesser composers would sell their grandmothers to have a smidgen of the songwriting talent that's on show here. There are some flawed tracks that threaten to descend into filler but even so there's always some appealing scintilla in the catchy choruses or the vast swathe of electronics that will prevent boredom from settling in and it's quite clear from superb tracks like New In Town, Earthquake, Stuck On Repeat, Meddle and Symmetry that when Hesketh gets it right the songs just soar into an entirely sublime level.
HANDS - Little Boots (Atlantic 2564689603 - Released 8th June 2009)
Little Boots site
Cathode Ray Tube Little Boots Hands Victoria Hesketh