Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Top 100 Albums - #29: Details (2002)

At number 29 is the only release from ambient electro duo Frou Frou, comprised of singer-songwriter Imogen Heap and producer Guy Sigsworth.
Heap was introduced to Sigsworth during the production of her debut album, I Megaphone (1998). Sigsworth had written and produced songs for the likes of Seal and Madonna, but it was his work with Björk which brought him to the attention of Heap's label, Almo Records. After the end of the tour to support I Megaphone, Almo Records was bought and disbanded, leaving Heap without a record deal and with her protean second album caught up in legal red tape. Sigsworth came to her aid and began writing tracks with her while his own band, Acacia, sorted out its own legal problems. Over the course of 2001 the pair met up spontaneously to record individual songs, so that by December they had officially become a duo. The name Frou Frou came from Arthur Rimbaud's poem 'Ma Bohème', and is onomatopoeia for the swishing noise made by dancing women's skirts. The duo made a tentative first appearance with the track 'Aeroplane' on the Japanese re-release of I Megaphone, testing the water before releasing their own album.

'Let Go' sets the mood on the album, and from the start it is a departure from Heap's previous work. While many of the songs on I Megaphone featured dark, heavy piano ('Come Here Boy' and 'Candlelight' especially), here the feel is a lot more swirling and electronic. When the piano does eventually come in, it's high and dainty, backed by a tinny drum beat. That means that it is entirely up to Heap to deliver the goods in terms of depth, and thankfully she succeeds. The wonderful thing about Heap's voice is that it can dart in and out of notes, without sounding electronically altered. It's a very good start.

But sadly, this is not completely sustained, as the next track shows. 'Breathe In' begins with a hugely frustrating riff, played on a tweaked guitar and backed by an annoying click. With the intro over, Heap is forced to sing over the drums which are too loud and obtrusive. Her voice is not the most powerful in the business, and so she sounds drowned out and distant. It's not massively unpleasant as a track, but it feels just a little too close to the mainstream to be a bona fide Heap track.

Thankfully, the next two tracks are bona fide. On 'It's Good To Be In Love', Heap is given more room, with the keyboards pushed to the back of the mix and the drums muffled into a corner. This is also a lot more satisfying as a set of lyrics; the chorus may be a little cheesy, but everywhere else Heap is getting into her stride. No particular lines leap out, but there is a tight, holistic feel to them, and they flow well with the soundscape created by Sigsworth. 'Must Be Dreaming' is, as the title suggests, more dreamy, more wistful. It opens with the multi-tracked whispered vocals which Heap would utilise on Speak For Yourself (2005), and from then on in, it is Heap's song straight through. Unlike on 'Breathe In', here you get the sense that she is in control, taming the sterile soundscape and shaping it to suit her mood to create something very interesting.

'Psychobabble', however, is something else. From the second the intro begins - on what sounds like treated tubular bells - you realise that the quality levels are creeping up. Sigsworth lays on a snaking, slithering backing track, which wriggles in and out of the foreground inbetween the vocals. Heap is now fully in control, with her unique delivery coming properly into play; even on the opening lines, How did you get this number?/ I can't get my head 'round you, you can hear every word clearly and purely, and yet she is singing with a lot of frustration and fear in her voice. It is difficult to put one's finger of what makes this track such a thrill, but there is an unquestionable magic to it which defies both description and explanation. Suffice to say, it's a brilliant song.

'Only Got One' is not quite up to that standard, but it's hardly a pedestrian effort. The strangely off-set riff in the first 18 seconds creates a laid-back, intellectual atmosphere, over which Heap can gently drift. We will let her off with lines like You are held in a queue/ Someone will be with you shortly, or put them down to irony, because they do not compromise the pleasant mood of this distinctly 21st-century work about living life to the full.

'Shh' gets out of the blocks a lot better than the others. The lyrics come straight in, matching the compressed riff beat for beat throughout the song. The chorus especially is an improvement on previous efforts:

Don't make a sound
Shh and listen
Keep your head down
We're not safe yet
Don't make a sound
And be good for me
'Cos I know they're waiting somewhere out here

This song also sees Sigsworth pulling his weight. At 3:20 he creates a throbbling, pulsating dance beat, like the quiet sections of a Faithless record, which gives the song a lot more character. Finally the Frou Frou sound is beginning to become clear.

If 'Psychobabble' was a great work, 'Hear Me Out' is a masterpiece. Heap is on full-flung form, with brilliant lyrics about a failing relationship, delivered with an air of desperate passion - and yet she still sounds so damn cool. There is nothing to distract you from her wonderful performance, since the accompaniment is generally serene, and when Sigsworth's creations do rear their heads (at about 2:29), Heap is completely at ease, responding with a cleverly-controlled violence that we would later see on songs like 'Daylight Robbery' and 'The Walk' (both from Speak For Yourself). The multi-tracked vocals, with their characteristic echo, generate a wonderful wall of sound (or perhaps Heap of sound?) which is captured in all its radiance by some spot-on production. This is by far the best track on here.

After the best track, we come to the worst. 'Maddening Shroud' begins with a superbly annoying descent down the scale by Heap, making her sound prissy and childish. As the song progresses, you become more forgiving, and the later sections feel good. But the background chimes still get on your nerves and you come away feeling cheated. 'Flicks' is no better, with its messed-up vibraphone and Heap's excrutiating showboating, first heard at 1:09. The lyrics read like student poetry; without form or anything compelling - which is a big worry.

But before you become desperately compelled to cut this experience short, we return to form with the final two tracks. 'The Dumbing Down Of Love' is a sweet, elegant piano ballad. Sigsworth, save for a few well-timed interventions, is out of the picture altogether. What this means is that Heap has more to play with, gently sparring with the violins and piano while all the time presenting something beautiful and heartfelt. It's not quite perfect, being a little too long, but it contains that most truthful of lines: Music is worthless unless it can/ Make a complete stranger/ Break down and cry.

'Old Piano' continues the piano theme, but this time the production is headier, and heavier. It takes a while for any sort of melody to come in from the rain. But when it does, the wait becomes worthwhile. The simple, bittersweet piano chords mingle with the sad saxophone and repressed strings, and Heap comes across as rather spooky, teasing you with her Oh wells. This is a mood piece, make no mistake, but it feels like something more substantial, and it sounds a lot more rewarding. But it still retains every ounce of Heap's elegance and is a very fitting closer.

In many ways, Details is a flawed record. Many of the songs are too long, and the lyrics are generally below-par, making it just a little too mainstream to be a proper Imogen Heap work. A lot of this is naturally down to Sigsworth, who would later go on to produce Madonna's sterile, electro-grounded American Life (2003). His often overbearing touches from the mixing desk either drown Heap out or simply make things too complicated, and as a result the best moments are when Heap is largely left to her own devices. But don't think that this is a complete failure - quite the opposite. For all the filler and falling short, there is some tantalising glimpses of brilliance, both in what these two have created in their own right and in the techniques which would make Speak For Yourself such an amazing record. Details, in short, has an air of frustrated elegance; it's the sort of album you would play in a left-field espresso bar, while you sit at the window and watch the world go by. It's not perfect, but there is plenty on here to make you feel great inside.

3.92 out of 5

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