Filed under: album, review | Tags: marina and the diamonds, p. viktor, the family jewels
Marina & The Diamonds
The Family Jewels ••••
Atlantic / 679
The world of pop hasn’t always been a place where creative female singers, often lazily described as kooky, could find expressionistic harbour and great fortunes alike. Cyndi Lauper was the trailblazer for ‘kook-dom’ at a time when the biggest female popstars were almost uniformly playing most heavily on their sex appeal, all too keenly aware of the commercial impact of a sly wink and racy lyric. With her debut album She’s So Unusual, Lauper not only made the boldest statement of her career but paved the way for women to be more than just ‘Boy Toys’ (to borrow Madonna’s earliest tagline). They could be performance artists; they could take references from Pop Art and street culture and blend them with high fashion; they could flout gender norms and have personality, charisma and an offbeat way of viewing the world. In this manner, Lauper opened the floodgates for women from Tori Amos to Björk, Regina Spektor to Fiona Apple, Gwen Stefani to Imogen Heap, and Lady Gaga to Florence Welch.
Marina Diamandis, under the slightly misleading name of Marina & The Diamonds (the ‘diamonds’ are her fans, not a backing group), falls nicely into this pantheon of multifaceted women. Her unconventional singing style, strangely textured electro-pop, oddball lyrics and approach to melody – and of course her idiosyncratic way with fashion – have given way to comparisons with the likes of Alison Goldfrapp, Róisín Murphy and Amanda Palmer, and deservedly so. At a time when current female pop singers are increasingly taking their cues from Lauper, the release of The Family Jewels is well timed. The tantalising singles ‘Obsessions’, ‘Mowgli’s Road’ and ‘I Am Not A Robot’ (which featured on last year’s The Crown Jewels EP) steadily built sufficient momentum to land Diamandis a coveted place on the BBC Sound Of 2010 poll and borderline feverish anticipation for the album.
But those expectations are, as ever, problematic, with their basis being in music heard prior to the album’s launch. Have we so soon forgotten the cautionary tale of Little Boots? Like Victoria Hesketh, Diamandis has shifted partially away from the organic production values and songwriting heard on ‘Obsessions’ and ‘Mowgli’s Road’ to produce an unabashedly pop album – as recent hit ‘Hollywood’ shamelessly attests – employing the likes of Biff Stannard, Pascal Gabriel and Greg Kurstin (all of whom contributed to Hesketh’s album), as well as former Sneaker Pimp Liam Howe to add some polish. Fortunately for Diamandis, she manages to precisely pitch off-the-wall songwriting with glittering pop production, largely without betraying those who latched on early. A solid debut, it deftly finds the balance between radio-friendly hooks, outré sonic textures, idiosyncratic songwriting and a pristine studio shine.
Broadening its appeal, The Family Jewels is a more lyrically complex and ambiguous affair than anything offered by most of her pop peers. There are ruminations on modern society’s current fixation with celebrity culture (‘Hollywood’), the sense of isolation and exile as a consequence of fame (‘Rootless’, ‘The Outsider’), misgivings about success and ambition (‘Numb’) and dissections of female stereotypes (‘Girls’). All these are packed tightly into a pop confectionery some may find too cartoonish, sweet-toothed or slick to stomach, but the strength of Diamandis’s songwriting and her voice (as divisive as Marmite) glues everything together so the production never outweighs the personality.
The textures here are so complex that repeated listens offer something new each time. Whether it’s the staccato strings, bubbling bleeps and guitar chords of ‘Are You Satisfied?’; the syncopated piano and glissando of strings on ‘I Am Not A Robot’; the crisp beats and ’80s synths of ‘Oh No!’; the harpsichord and church bells of ‘Rootless’; or the ethereal layered harmonies on the orchestral ‘Numb’, a great deal of attention has been paid to the layers of each song. The highlights are numerous on this hook-heavy album; ‘Shampain’, with its chorus reminiscent of Kate Bush’s ‘Sat In Your Lap’, the stately ‘Obsessions’ which sets the story of a sadomasochistic love affair against a ska beat, ‘Hermit The Frog’ with its Eastern strings and brilliant “oh-ooh”ing riffs and Chas & Dave pub piano, the Greg Kurstin dance beats of ‘Oh No!’ with its resistance-is-futile chorus, and the fragile beauty of ‘Numb’, proving Diamandis can out-Florence Florence in the ballad stakes as well as on the up-tempo numbers.
The Family Jewels won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Many have criticised its over-produced, commercially conscious posturing and, of course, Diamandis’s vocals, but these seem to be more a matter of taste than indictments of quality. There’s plenty to be applauded here; avoiding the generic pitfalls that Little Boots tripped up on, The Family Jewels lives up to its brazen promise and ought to give Marina enough clout and credibility to stake claim to the crown of a genuine popstar.
UK release date: 22/02/10; www.myspace.com/marinaandthediamonds
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