CD: Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Shoot From the Hip

(Polydor)

Given the current mania for the 1980s, it is surprising to note that at least one musical aspect of Thatcher's decade has thus far escaped exhumation. There has been no sign of the return of brainy pop: the 1980s sub-genre that allowed Scritti Politti to make the charts with a song about Jacques Derrida, made the unrepentantly clever Pet Shop Boys one of Britain's biggest bands and enabled the KLF to have a string of top-10 hits influenced equally by Detroit techno and situationism. It would seem ripe for revival, given that most pop music in 2003 has dumbed down to the point where its primary audience toddles rather than walks.

Theoretically at least, this is where Sophie Ellis-Bextor comes in. After an abortive start with unlamented Britpoppers theaudience, her career began in earnest in 2000. A club hit featuring her vocals, Spiller's Groovejet, beat Victoria Beckham's debut solo single to number one. Having kickstarted her career by opposing pop's status quo, Ellis-Bextor opted to prolong it by the same means.

In a world obsessed with maintaining at least a semblance of street credibility - from Busted's punk pretensions to the Sugababes' dogged insistence that they are "from the ghetto" - Ellis-Bextor began carrying on as if she were a character in a PG Wodehouse novel. She emphasised her private school background. She developed a vocal style that sounded as if she were auditioning for the role of Lady Bracknell. Her songs are big on dornsing, which is something people do in nightclubs, possibly to hice music.

In addition, she claimed her music was a return to the brainy pop of the past, influenced by David Bowie and Elvis Costello, "rather than listening to whatever's around now and saying, 'Oh, I don't need to try any more, you know.'" She set herself up as the antithesis of the manufactured pop star, offering something more thoughtful than today's "naff processed cheese".

If there was something faintly disingenuous about this claim - most of her debut album Read My Lips was the work of the same production-line songwriters who service everyone from S Club to the former Spice Girls - it passed the public by. Read My Lips sold 1.3m copies and spawned four hit singles.

The production-line songwriters are back on the follow-up. Shoot From the Hip operates under the controversial new law that insists every pop album must contain at least two songs written by Gregg Alexander, former leader of 1990s soft-rockers the New Radicals. Meanwhile, the songs are still full of people dornsing, or in one memorable case refusing to dornse until a protagonist changes his stornse.

The album displays the pleasures and limitations of Ellis-Bextor's approach. The single, Mixed Up World, is fantastic, as compelling an argument for upholding the Gregg Alexander Law as has yet been found. Ellis-Bextor is a limited vocalist, but one thing she has mastered is haughty indifference, which fits perfectly with the grinding, electroclash-influenced synthesisers of You Get Yours and opener Making Music. She also neatly subverts the meaning of Olivia Newton-John's 1981 hit Physical by singing it in a voice that recalls Hattie Jacques in Carry On Matron. "Let's get physical," she snaps, as if getting physical involves dropping your trousers and coughing.

However, it is hard not to feel underwhelmed by Shoot From the Hip. Several tracks are so obviously filler, they could be used to fix cracks in plaster. You will search in vain for anything inspired by Elvis Costello or David Bowie. The thwacking high-energy basslines and old-fashioned vocal samples of Mixed Up World and I Won't Change You explicitly reference the Pet Shop Boys, but that's about as far as their influence goes.

In fact, the lyrics are pretty awful. Mixed Up World is standard self-help manual stuff about "remembering you're a real tough girl"; you suspect it would get much shorter shrift were it sung by Geri Halliwell. The same goes for the forever friends mush of Another Day and the gloopy parade of cliches that make up Nowhere Without You.

On the one hand, such criticism seems slightly unfair. After all, you wouldn't spend too much time worrying about the lyrics of Ellis Bextor's CD:UK peers. Complaining that a pop artist's words are lousy is like complaining that Bob Dylan doesn't do choreographed dance routines: it's not really what they are there for.

However, Ellis-Bextor is supposed to be offering something her CD:UK peers are not: music more thoughtful and intelligent than the "naff processed cheese" of modern pop. What she actually offers is a load of manufactured pop songs, sung in a slightly affected posh voice. There's nothing wrong with that - careers have certainly been founded on less - but the sense that the listener is being short-changed lurks around even the best moments of Shoot From the Hip.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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