Missy Higgins, The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle
She almost walked away from music altogether, but good thing Missy Higgins changed her mind: The Ol’ Razzle Dazzle takes the Aussie out of her sad-girl-with-piano comfort zone and into newfound greatness. Releasing five years after her second album, On a Clear Night, spawned the heartbreaking hit “Where I Stood,” this one has Higgins stepping up her game, going jazzy on the whistle-worthy ear-magnet “Hello Hello,” her confrontation with a fair-weather friend, and taking the blues route for the sultry soul song “Watering Hole.” Country also runs through “If I’m Honest,” a cute little ditty about an inimitable lover; an instrumental smorgasbord is the foundation of “Set Me on Fire,” a piano-riffing pseudo-pop jingle that has her harmonizing with herself – proof that two Missy Higgins are better than one. “Everyone’s Waiting” is so good – an etherealized stunner about following your heart that reaches a lovely climax – it’s already being used in a Revenge promo. And the built-like-Coldplay “Hidden Ones” is an underdog anthem that sticks with you. Higgins’ power on the soul is also in full effect: “Cooling of the Embers” is a profound look at death in its final moments, while “Sweet Arms of a Tune” cuts away from “razzle-dazzle” for a simple lovelorn downer. Higgins is back, and where she stood doesn’t matter. That she’s still standing does.
Marina and the Diamonds, Electra Heart
Marina Diamandis made it clear she wasn’t pleased that her debut The Family Jewels, released to astounding buzz in early 2010, didn’t make her a pop star. That explains her latest LP, a deliberate balancing act that wants to impress radio programmers and emo hipsters – even flaunting her “big ego” and making it known on the swaggering opener, “Bubblegum Bitch:” “Here I come, straight to No. 1.” She may not get that far, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t. The Welsh-born songstress taps Dr. Luke and Greg Kurstin for Electra Heart and turns out songs that sometimes make her sound like the second coming of Katy Perry (their voices could seriously ghost each other). But as far as girl drama goes, both “Lies” and “Homewrecker” have more hook than Perry’s “Wide Awake.” Where Marina distinguishes herself is personality: She sarcastically – though perhaps somewhat earnestly – riffs on the dangerous fate of child stars with “Teen Idle,” easily the album’s standout (her muse, Marilyn Monroe, comes into clear focus). Here, her voice flutters into a high register that’s both haunting and tragically vulnerable. Between that and her feminist approach to the deluxe edition’s “Sex Yeah,” parts of the album’s last – and much better – half could almost be a response to pop stars like Perry. “No room for imagining,” she criticizes, “’cause everyone’s seen everything.” Take that, boob bazookas.
Saint Saviour, Union
Adele and Florence Welch are among the premier vocalists of our time. Welcome a new one to the Power Vocal Pack: Becky Jokes (a.k.a. Saint Saviour), yet another English import who’s making American singers look bad. Her hypnotic electronica debut is all whimsical whirls and soulful runs, like Kate Bush in a fairy tale. “Mercy,” with just piano and her effortlessly reaching voice, is a glorious way to start Union. It’s a high the album never comes down from as it shifts into “Tightrope” – again, that voice! – and goes ’90s-woman rock on “Liberty.” The best new find of the year is here.
Fiona Apple. The Idler Wheel…
Few people would go with a 23-word album title. But we’re talking about Fiona Apple, and nothing she does – or has done for the last 15-plus years – is part of an ordinary machine. Take songs from her intimate and captivating new album (and the fact “thighs” are credited in the liner notes): “Every Single Night” starts like a music box and morphs into a tribal chant, and on the organically rhythmic “Hot Knife” she gets into a frenzied sing-off with herself. Like her best singles, “Werewolf” takes an easier-to-digest stab. The Idler Wheel… is a complicated, patience-testing work with a satisfying payoff.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.