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RECORD RACK

Review: Noisettes in focus on 'Wild Young Hearts'

Also reviewed: David Gray's 'Draw the Line' and Mika's 'The Boy Who Knew Too Much.'

September 23, 2009|Ann Powers; Margaret Wappler; August Brown

Noisettes

"Wild Young Hearts"

Mercury

* *?*

The Noisettes sometimes sound like a 1960s girl group (maybe the Cookies) but different; or like a 1980s New Wave band (hello, Blondie) but different; or like a turn-of-the-'90s electro-pop outfit (oh, Snap!) but different. This young London band has no shame about mining, mixing and matching influences, but the wit and panache of its star, the singer and bassist Shingai Shoniwa, lifts the trio out of its costume trunk.

The first Noisettes album, 2007's "What's the Time Mr. Wolf?" was a rougher, more rockish affair. The group's latest, "Wild Young Hearts," is far more aspirational, with focused, hooky songs and a clean sound reflecting the involvement of producer Jim Abbiss, who helped crack open the careers of the Arctic Monkeys and Adele.

Shoniwa, guitarist Dan Smith and drummer Jamie Morrison prove adept at both dance-floor workouts and jazz-infused cocktail pop, and the singer-songwriterly "Atticus" chases sidewalks quite successfully.

But Shoniwa is too strong-willed to be completely contained within these stylish little sonic ensembles. The edge in her voice -- evocative of Etta James, Cyndi Lauper and contemporaries like Chrisette Michele -- complements lyrics that tread the same ground as chick lit but with a sharper and more feminist step.

"24 Hours" laments the loss of a one-night stand, but Shoniwa is the one who walked. "Beat of My Heart" dares a wallflower boy out of his bower. "Never Forget You" sweetly recalls a conversation between best girlfriends, now grown. "Cheap Kicks" details the ugliness of a breakup with remarkable lucidity.

We've heard these stories before, from other ingenues pushing against containment. Shoniwa puts her own spin on the stance without pomp or arrogance. Assisted by her pop history-schooled bandmates, she's made the kind of record that could change the life of someone who just picked it up for fun.

It's not a masterpiece, not a groundbreaker, but it's going to be somebody's favorite.

-- Ann Powers

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Catharsis takes on a burly nature

David Gray

"Draw the Line"

Mercer Street Records

* *?*

With his "White Ladder," British crooner David Gray unwittingly paved the way for James Blunt and company's simpering ballads. On his eighth studio album, Gray reclaims and reinvigorates his territory with "Draw the Line," a collection of complex love and exasperation melodies.

Gray hurls his voice, makes demands and sets boundaries, sometimes against the album's most gently etched landscapes. He asserts that the singer-songwriter's force is not only to be conjured with delicate guitar picking or hushed pleas; in fact, emotional catharsis can sound downright burly in Gray's world.

Although the music flows through comfortable but sophisticated channels of folk-pop, it takes some turns into rougher terrain. "Stella the Artist," with its lyrics about stinging rebuke and swimming through a sea of "psychotic puke," matches the terse but victorious mood with snapping drums and a flashing piano line.

Gray doesn't render his Stella in obvious terms, but some bohemian gamins might find themselves blushing with recognition.

In "Full Steam," the album's final bow in which he partners with Annie Lennox, the two twine their voices, ticking off a list of life's inequities. It's the right person for him to duet with -- another artist who can make "bullied, suckered, pimped and patronized" sound like gospel for the disillusioned.

-- Margaret Wappler

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Angst gets the manic treatment

Mika

"The Boy Who Knew

Too Much"

Universal

* *?*

On "The Boy Who Knew Too Much," British piano-popper Mika tackles the popular songwriters' gristle of teen angst but filters it through a cracked technicolor symphony of show-tune harmonies, careening falsettos and deliciously manic productions.

He covers an awful lot of ground here -- "Rain" is an electro-driven disco tune as sleek as a house cat, whereas "Blue Eyes" is a cheerfully hokey bit of island folk-pop. "We Are Golden" is a chip-shot successor to his breakout hit "Grace Kelly," making the best use of a creepy British children's choir since Pink Floyd.

Mika lets some sly, vaguely Oedipal humor into "Touches You," but lurking beneath the idiosyncrasy is some surprisingly rewarding writing. Ballads like "I See You" sag a bit by comparison, but then Mika will pull out something as gleefully absurd as the gender-tweaking, Sondheim-worthy "Toy Boy" and win you back all over again.

-- August Brown

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