Filed under: album, review | Tags: 2009, alexandra burke, cheryl cole, girls aloud, music, p. viktor
3 Words ••
Last year’s ‘X Factor’ finale saw a double victory for contestant and judge as Alexandra Burke delivered her much-maligned version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and her mentor, Cheryl Cole, celebrated her first win on the show. Both jumped up and down with glee in matching silver and gold dresses, perhaps anticipating what a boost this was going to be for both of them; Burke won the record contract she so desperately wanted while Cole stole away with the nation’s hearts. Fast forward 10 months and the two are locked in an interesting head-to-head battle, releasing their debut albums within a week of one another, through solidarity perhaps, or maybe through a residual competitive streak that’s carried over from the show. The problem is that by both adopting a glossy, R&B pop sound, the albums lend themselves to comparison all too easily. And, embarrassingly, it is Cheryl Cole – already an established act with Girls Aloud – who comes off worse.
Despite the protestations of Cole’s team, both 3 Words and Overcome are shamelessly aimed at an American market. The wealth of production and songwriting talent on offer is both impressive and expensive sounding; in Burke’s corner there is Stargate, Red One, Ne-Yo, Louis Biancaniello and Flo Rida, while on Cole’s side are Will.i.am, Taio Cruz and Wayne Wilkins. This US-centric approach makes sense for Burke, or rather for Simon Cowell, who will no doubt be looking to repeat the Stateside success of Leona Lewis with his newest cash cow. But for Cheryl Cole, whose fanbase is perhaps more accustomed to the Europop sounds of Xenomania-produced Girls Aloud albums, her foray into R&B is rather more problematic. And based on the evidence of 3 Words, she might soon be wishing that she’d worked a little closer to home.
There is no doubting that Burke is by far the better singer. Her powerhouse vocals blast, as we all knew they could, through Leona Lewis-style ballads like the title track and ‘The Silence’, but where Burke really shines is on the uptempo numbers. First single ‘Bad Boys’ should be congratulated for having one of the most potent earworm choruses of the year, while ‘Good Night Good Morning’ is an understated drum ’n’ bass number with an instantly memorable chorus hook. Other highlights include ‘All Night Long’, ‘Broken Heels’ and ‘Dumb’, which successfully employ the Lady GaGa template of rave synthesiser married to heavy hip-hop beats (not so coincidentally since Red One is the producer behind both), and ‘Nothing But The Girl’, a no-nonsense electro R&B number that works as an update of Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’. There are a few missteps here and there, such as the Amy Winehouse pastiches ‘Bury Me (6 Feet Under)’ and ‘You Broke My Heart’, but while the material on Overcome might not be the most cohesive, the force of Burke’s voice and personality brings it all together nicely.
No such luck for Cheryl Cole who, by employing Will.i.am to write and produce several songs on 3 Words, has been left with a rather bland imitation of a Black Eyed Peas album. That’s not to say there aren’t some sonically interesting things going on here – the title track’s use of an acoustic guitar riff with expansive house beats, the cut and paste vocals of ‘Heaven’, and the stripped R&B of ‘Fight For This Love’ are all to her credit – but too much comes across as derivative and flat. Witness the clichéd marching tattoos that fail ‘Parachute’, the mystifying sampling of Duran Duran’s ‘Save A Prayer’ on ‘Boy Like You’, a bafflingly terrible dirge, and the decidedly wet-behind-the-ears songwriting of ‘Rain On Me’. And even when the songs are sturdy, the voice lacks conviction. When she strains through the chorus of ‘Fight For This Love’, it becomes abundantly clear that Cole simply doesn’t have the power to pull off a solo project like this, and that no amount of studio tricks can wholly disguise it.
Marred by some atrocious lyrics (“You need to think about this moment / before you eat around this doughnut” – Burke’s ‘Bury Me’; “I can’t help but drink you up / ‘cos you’re my happy hour” – Cole’s ‘Happy Hour’), both albums ring with something hollow and impersonal. It is only on Cole’s ‘Fight For This Love’ that she even hints at something more cognisant going on beneath the varnish with one eye on her tumultuous marriage. But we should know better than to expect anything more genuinely soul-baring than your average ‘X Factor’ contestant sob story on either release. Still, it’s perhaps Alexandra Burke who has the most at stake; she has an awful lot to prove with her debut album, whereas Cheryl Cole can take comfort in her place among the still chart-busting Girls Aloud and her lucrative ‘X Factor’ contract. She shouldn’t become too complacent though, because the first round is certainly 1:0 to her student.
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