Monday, May 6, 2013

Alison Moyet's "the minutes": A Track-by-Track Review

The world of pop is always a better place when there's new music from Alison Moyet about to enter it. It arrives today in the UK (6 May) in the form of the minutes, which is scheduled to wash up on U.S. shores on June 11. Here are my not-so-random thoughts on the album's 11 tracks.

"Horizon Flame" Ambient and futuristic, which are two words one might not have previously associated with Alison Moyet. A post-space age love song (not to be confused with "Yesterday's Flame," Track 1 on 2002's Hometime), the opening number on Moyet's eighth solo studio album and first since 2007's The Turn clearly signals a change in musical direction after the stately chamber pop of its predecessor, which was initially conceived, in part, as the musical accompaniment for a stage play. "Horizon Flame," with its hint of a dance beat, an instrumental bridge that sounds like it might turn into the introduction of Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money," and slightly processed vocals that seem to riding in on the wind, is more suited to future cinema. I can imagine it playing over the opening scene of a James Bond film 50 years from now, as Daniel Craig's third successor emerges from a ring of fire, dressed to thrill and still licensed to kill.

"Changeling" One step forward, then one step back, but in the case of "Changeling," that's hardly regression. Track 2 starts to deliver on Moyet's pre-release promise of a return to the electronic form of her early '80s work with Yazoo, but it has more musical elasticity (at times the synthesizers sound almost plucked) and bite than anything she ever did with Vince Clarke. This is what Upstairs at Eric might have sounded like if Clarke had been influenced as much by guys with guitars as he was by Kraftwerk.

"When I Was Your Girl" The album's first single is a standard Moyet ballad in which she covers familiar musical and emotional ground (welcome back to her torch zone). The backing vocals on the chorus are pure '80s power ballad (very Robert John "Mutt" Lange-produced Def Leppard), as is the musical interlude, and even the title sounds like it could have appeared on a previous Moyet album. Lacking any real aural connection to the tracks that precede it, "Girl" begins to suggest an album unburdened by any unifying musical theme.

"Apple Kisses" As industrial and Middle Eastern influences mingle in the background, Moyet plays sexual temptress, and it's a surprisingly good fit. Rihanna doesn't have a thing to worry about -- Moyet is too classy to try to win over a rude boy by acting like his female equivalent -- but it's nice to hear her putting aside her usual vocal reserve and letting her inner sex kitten out for a purr.

"Right as Rain" Moyet at the mid-'90s disco. In these mid-album tracks, 51-year-old Moyet sounds like a vintage diva experiencing a mid-life sexual reawakening. In 1995-96 this would have given Everything But the Girl's "Missing" a run for its under-the-strobelight following. Moyet sounds so comfortable with the beat that it's a wonder she hasn't spent more of her solo career riding one. But it's a short dance: At 3:07, just as you've begun to work yourself into a full sweaty frenzy, it's over, leaving you wanting at least a full minute more, which, in a pop world of short attention spans is saying a lot (all of it good).

"Remind Yourself" A variation on the ambient electro musical theme of "Horizon Flame." For all the pre-release hype that the minutes would be a return to Moyet's techno roots, most of it so far sounds more like her later solo work. Not that she's repeating herself on "Remind Yourself." It's neither groundbreaking nor resolutely of the moment, but there's a newfound tension and spark in the way her voice floats above and cuts through the electronic din, rendering the song somewhat revolutionary in the context of Moyet's previous body of work. Producer Guy Sigsworth has somehow managed to make the multi-layered musical backdrop sound spacious and airy instead of fussy and cluttered, and Moyet, always the vocal equivalent of a great, unattainable beauty (unlike her duo-to-solo British peers Annie Lennox and Tracey Thorn, her accent is more apparent in her phrasing, giving her delivery an aura of posh), sounds warmer and more accessible than ever, like she's singing -- no, cooing -- right into your ear.

"Love Reign Supreme" Up to now, this is the track that most sounds like it could be an '80s collaboration with Vince Clark (if Moyet had been the lead singer of Depeche Mode, Clarke's previous band, and not Yazoo) but with far more sunshine and light.

"A Place to Stay" The most pointed difference between Guy Sigsworth and Moyet's previous collaborators is in Sigsworth's harder, more aggressive approach on the minutes. Think his work with Alanis Morissette on 2008's Flowers of Entanglement, not his softer-edged production for Madonna, Britney Spears, Robyn and Bjork. Basically another torch song that goes industrial on the chorus, "A Place to Stay" might be one of the minutes' lesser tracks, but it's ongoing proof that synthetic pop need not sacrifice soul for sound.

"Filigree" I'm not sure what to make of the fact that the most Yazoo-inspired song on the minutes is also its best. Part of what pushes it to the top is its slow-burning drama, which reminds me of "Softly Over" and "Mr. Blue," the bare-bones You and Me Both Yazoo tracks that cemented my early obsession with Moyet. (It's the minutes' equivalent of "Coloured Bedspread," the best cut on Annie Lennox's last album, 2007's Songs of Mass Destruction, which also happened to be her solo offering that sounded most like her work with Dave Stewart in Eurythmics). Its crowning achievement, though, is mostly the result of spartan acoustic-electro production (for much of the song, little more than a tentative beat and delicate bleeps), which enhances Moyet's vocal -- a haunting blend of fragile and unbreakable -- by getting out of its way.

"All Signs of Life" Where do you go after the perfection of "Filigree"? For half of "All Signs of Life" (the best half) to a similarly stripped-down place, where mood trumps sound. But when the eerie, ambient verses turn into another pounding chorus, it tempts me to back track to the previous one.

"Rung by the Tide" More tender-to-tough and back and forth, but less jarringly so. It's a nice album coda with a title that, like the opening track's, references the elements. My only complaint is that there's a little too much instrumental and not quite enough Moyet, which is the reason we came here in the first place. Such a great singer always deserves the final word.

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