By BRUCE DENNILL
Mercy Me: Welcome To The New 7
Skye: Transformme 6
Lea Michele: Louder 6
Jeremy Loops: Trading Change 6.5
With a career high point, I Can Only Imagine (now 13 years old) that was a heartfelt ballad, Mercy Me’s ongoing willingness to shift their focus to new sounds and styles must be commended, particularly because they’ve managed to continue experimenting without every really breaking their momentum in terms of marketing.
Here, the title track and album opener, is wide-smile pop, positively bouncing out of the speakers, before enough Nineties essence is added to make Gotta Let Go sound like The Edge has guested on it. First single Shake adds a couple of scatterings of old-school gospel before collection highlight Greater taps into the Mumford & Sons/Lumineers roots revival trend.
Then it’s back to Seventies soul and R&B – five white guys can sound like a Motown quartet – for Wishful Thinking, which features the wonderfully aspirational line, “It’s not wishful thinking, it’s just how it is”.
And although the project ends with the relative melancholy of Dear Younger Me – singer Bart Millard chatting to himself as a child and suggesting a few avenues that it might make sense to explore – it’s largely an exercise in vitality, and it maintains that energy through repeated listens.
Skye‘s independent release features the instantly recognisable sound of a collection recorded on a budget, though that’s not a criticism: it’s far better that artists with work to offer find a way to deliver it than sit with a bunch of scribbled sheets in a file somewhere. And with strummed acoustic guitar to the forefront in all of the arrangements, there are touches of other story-telling artists from KD Lang to Fairground Attraction. Skye’s voice is rich and direct, with its nuances an important part of it effectiveness as a lead instrument. All On Me and Set Free By A King both feature strong hooks and melodies. Tickle Me Pink, which includes a couple of tempo changes and dynamic shifts, is less effective than the straighter, more traditionally written options, though that song, the ballad-ish Let Love Lift You Above and the reggae-tinged opener Ghost do prove that Skye can offer range, rather than an homogenous aural blob.
A number of Mickey Mouse Club alumni – Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera among them – have had fantastically successful careers off the back of becoming well-known as television personalities. Lea Michele was one of the leads in Glee – a series about learning to become a successful full-time musician, so this debut collection from the singer is a logical extention of her perceived brand. As is the case with most artists in similar positions, the album initially feels very controlled, with songs carefully chosed by a team of handlers to suit not only Michele’s voice but the image that her (hopefully) adoring public should be seeing. Sia Furler, the current go-to songwriter for hire, has her fingerprints all over a number of the tracks, with Battlefield being perhaps the most convincing and, probably not coincidentally, the first song on the album on which Michele really lets rip vocally. The title track veers into processed pop territory and consequently could really have been released by anyone. The opposite is true of Empty Handed, co-written by Christina Perri and sounding like it, though Michele’s interpretation makes it another oalbum highlight. A solid opening act in a career from which much is expected.
Jeremy Loops has made – perhaps unwittingly – a couple of wise alliances. The first is with the roots revolution that has seen music made with acoustic instruments and enthusiastically kicked bass drums, a la The Lumineers (this collection’s Skinny Blues could be one of their tunes), Mumford & Sons and a thousand acolytes. The second is to conservation causes – caring for trees or rhinos or whatever really, as long as the people maniacally devoted to those causes are given the chance to hear Loops’ music at the festivals and concerts held to raise awareness or funds for whatever is in danger of extinction this week.
Beyond all of that, Loops is also aware of the power of a strong hook, beginning opening track Sinner with a choral phrase that recalls the Beach Boys and driving Down South with the sort of spoken-sung rap-pop that has helped The Script sell millions of records.
There’s also a lot of cheerfully strummed stuff – what might be called, for want of a better term, “beach music” – which, though pleasant enough, doesn’t lurk in the memory for as long as the stronger offerings.
A trio of guest artists help to add variety – regular collaborators Motheo Moleko and Jamie Faull and vocalist Adelle Nqeto. The latter helps to make rare ballad Lonesome & Blue an album highlight, her wispy voice wafting in and out of the melody like mist. Sweaty festival stomper Running Away is the opposite of that song in dynamic terms, with an energy that will ensure it remains a live favourite.
Loops’ voice is no standout instrument, but he knows how to write pop, and there’s not much here that wouldn’t get an audience on their feet and, if not hooting and whooping, at least swaying and nodding to the catchy rhythms.