Saturday, November 3, 2007

MUSIC REVIEW: "Overpowered" (Roisin Murphy)

‘Dubliner, Go Home!’

The chance you’ve heard of Roisin Murphy is as slim as you knowing of soul hipster Joi. Both women have advanced greatly underground pop music slanted through jazz and rhythm & blues respectively to critical acclaim but with little financial success to show for it. Record labels either fold before putting their stuff out or pass them on to others, exasperated as to what to do with them. Murphy, formerly of the duo Moloko, released a stunning solo debut, ‘Ruby Blue’, two years ago and no one paid attention. That disc, a natural successor to Bjork’s ‘Post’, showed clueless media darlings like Norah Jones and Joss Stone just how enthralling pop-jazz can be without having famous names associated with a project. Songs like ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ and ‘Night of the Dancing Flame’ groove for days with pop hooks that feed on restless energy.

‘Overpowered’ was always going to have a hard time matching its predecessor but I never expected the end result to be so stymied. Just like Interpol, Murphy has found out that a move to a major label sometimes only succeeds to regulate what makes one interesting in the first place and to try regurgitating it on every record to maximize profits. As she reminds them of Robbie Williams (ugh!), her new bosses (EMI) have clearly decided to reinvent her into a dance diva. Indeed, reps have already been quoted as saying that her ‘indulgence’ is something she’s now over and her ‘true potential’ is now ready to be harnessed. Her fans won’t buy such spiel for a second but fake fans will no doubt welcome her into club land and won’t hesitate to ditch her once the next big thing comes along.

Which leads me back to Joi because no one outside of club divas runs the underground with as much funk, yet it’d be true to say that you’re never going to hear her. Well, to be honest, she has put in vocals on several brilliant Outkast tracks like ‘Ghetto Musick’ and the single ‘Lick’ from her oh-so-rarely-heard ‘Star Kitty’s Revenge’ somehow managed to leak long enough for even me to download it. This is the world Murphy must now penetrate in order to build a fan base. Of course, EMI doesn’t realize that the underground already listens to Roisin and will be insulted by their heavy meddling into her already brilliant sound.

‘Overpowered’ goes about its business calculatingly. When such a powder keg of an artiste is forced to tread cautiously, it can be frustrating to hear. Songs like ‘You Know Me Better’ and ‘Let Me Know’ are tame head bangers and only the titles suggest any form of intrigue. There is even a track called ‘Primitive’ that is, um, well, primitive coming from the woman who gave us ‘Ramalama (Bang Bang)’ just over two years ago. ‘Ruby Blue’ worked so well because her eccentricities were in collaboration with pal Matthew Herbert but there’s no sign of him here. EMI paired her up with producers like Seiji, Andy Cato and Ill Factor, persons totally unfamiliar with her vision. The result is a kind of strained, retro 80’s vibe that tries to channel Brit acts of that decade like The Eurhythmics but ‘Overpowered’ misses Annie Lennox’s wry and ambiguous relevance and dubs down Murphy’s own obvious star shine for cogency. Yes, EMI is hoping she’ll be another Kylie Minogue. Don’t believe me; well they even sourced one of Kylie’s regular writers to pen a track for the album but Murphy didn’t like it.

Ironically, while EMI wishes her to have such a high profile following, I wonder if they’re prepared to spend as long a time that it took an artiste like Minogue to reach such a level. Kylie isn’t nearly half as talented as Murphy nor is her song catalogue as impressive (although, I must admit ‘Red Blooded Woman’ is fantastic) but she’s durable and pretty harmless. Murphy does try to juxtapose this newly fitted outlook along with her quirky personality and these are the songs that feel most alive. ‘Checkin’ On Me’ has a relaxed, up tempo groove. ‘Movie Star’ actually works within the cloying restriction with a slinky reverb. ‘Dear Miami’, an ode to club land, sputters to life mostly although it patters out towards the end. Better yet are ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘Tell Everybody’ which manage to break free and rock out while sporting some bluesy riffs.

As long as she stays with EMI then I’m afraid it’ll be all downhill for her and that would be a shame given her immense talent. It’s a huge compromise most women in the recording industry have to face: being marketed any way the label sees fit to move big bucks or, like Joi, face the prospect of getting lost in the shuffle while retaining street props. Murphy may have to soon choose which path to follow and one only hopes she chooses the one that leads her back home…the sooner to leave EMI the hell alone.
RATING: 6/10

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