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Quirky Songstresses, Take 2

By Lizzie Borden | Music | August 27, 2009 |

By Lizzie Borden | Music | August 27, 2009 |

imogen-heap-ellipse-album-art.jpgImogen Heap: Ellipse
[RCA Records]

All I really knew of Imogen Heap before last week was that she showed up at some awards ceremony several years ago wearing a very nearly Bjork-worthy outfit (it might’ve been the Grammys), and that she is featured on a song on IAMX’s recent Kingdom of Welcome Addiction that I really love (“My Secret Friend”). As it turns out, she’s released two previous albums, i Megaphone and Speak for Yourself, as well being a part of Frou Frou while they existed. Also, she’s British (apparently she didn’t get the same advice Eddie did: “Look, you’re British, so scale it down a bit.”). Based on what little I’d heard of her (that one song), I was really looking forward to checking her out; her voice intrigued me.

And I really wish I could review this album with a simple statement: it’s really neat. I quite love it.

But I suppose y’all want to know why it’s neat. So I’ll attempt to explain.

Imogen Heap sounds like a pleasant rainy afternoon. One of those afternoons where you’ve nowhere to be, and nothing particularly pressing to do, so you spend it curled up in bed, perhaps cuddled up with someone, or maybe with a book, or even just staring absently at the rain as it hits the window nearest your line of sight and letting your thoughts wander as you fade in and out of awareness. It’s a lovely record, sort of mellow without being boring, catchy without being too poppy, and thoughtful without being too introspective.

If you asked me what sort of music Imogen makes, I really wouldn’t even be able to begin to classify it—but as it turns out, I’m utter shit at genre classifications. Most of the album is produced with a keyboard; I think this technically puts her in the electronica grouping, though she’s definitely on the more popular, less gothy side of that distinction that what I normally listen to. (I keep stretching myself. One of these weeks I’m going to throw all of you by reviewing some band that’s naught more than two dudes, a whole helluva lot of eyeliner and pseudo-angst and a synthesizer. With stompy boots and possibly some fake German, too. You won’t know what hit you. And I shall laugh at your tears. Just you wait.)

Naytheless, this is a really listenable album. Heap maintains a really hard to describe tone throughout. There’s nothing incongruous to jar you out of those wandering thoughts as you listen along, watching the rain fall.

Towards the end of the album, there’s even an instrumental track. This is by far one of my favorite things ever: I love any group, artist, monkey on a keyboard who includes an instrumental track somewhere on their album. I love the interlude it provides as you listen; if it fits right, it acts as a bridge between the songs before and those after without ever taking you out of the experience. Imogen does a lovely job of that here, with a real moody little piano piece called “The Fire” that flows right into “Canvas”, which follows it.

It was Imogen’s voice on that IAMX track that first intrigued me and led me to check her out, and it’s her voice that is going to keep me listening to this album for a long time. She has a fascinating voice. It doesn’t feel as controlled as some other artists’ voices. It doesn’t feel as overly produced into tweeny pop levels of homogeneity either. At times, her singing voice sounds close to what I imagine her speaking voice sounds like; she doesn’t try to sing everything at two octaves higher than she speaks, and I really dig that. Not that she doesn’t hit those high notes, however. She’s also got a breathy thing going on in some places that, I think, would annoy me on most other artists. It fits for her. It feels natural, like sometimes she gets really excited and talks in a sort of fast, breathy voice and this comes through in her singing as well.

If I had to pick out a favorite track from this album, I’d end up with two. The first track on the album, “First Train Home” is one of them. It sets the tone for the whole album, that sort of moody, slightly melancholy, pleasantly rainy afternoon tone. It struck me initially as a quintessentially London track, with the need to catch that first train home the next morning. But then I remembered that New Yorkers can do the same thing. And, allegedly, Washingtonians as well. Heap ties the first and second halves of the album together neatly with this and “Between Sheets”, the night before needing that first train home.

My other favorite is on the latter half of the album, “Bad Body Double”, one of the catchier tunes on the album. It’s about those pesky days we all have, when our self doubts show up and start rummaging through our clothes telling us we look too fat to wear any of them. And how they always show up at the worst possible moment. I love it.

When it all comes down to it, even after I’d listened to the album several times and taken my notes for this review, I still wanted to listen to it again. It’s really neat. I quite love it. You should go listen to it.

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TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.