After the leaps she made on the release of her last breakthrough album Speak For Yourself, British singer-songwriter-producer and two-time Grammy nominee Imogen Heap remained true to her do-it-yourself ethos, building her own studio in the old family home in Essex. Picking up where she left off, Imogen continues to redress the Artist/Audience relationship with Ellipse by enlisting the help of her huge fanbase to write the biography for the new album via Tweets submitted by her 650,000 (and counting!) followers on Twitter, to contribute artwork designs, and by keeping her fans up-to-date on the recording of the new album over 38 vBlogs, all available on her website. Upfront of the new album, Imogen even invited fans to complete an unfinished track "The Song That Never Was", providing the lyrics, with over 500 fans adding backing music for their own versions.
Imogen Heap is probably more famous right now for her online presence than her music. The price on an eBay-listed promo copy of this album was hiked up to £10 million after she encouraged her army of Twitter and MySpace fans to take action, and the singer has the kind of extended Wikipedia entry that is in direct disproportion to her commercial status.
But while brilliant in places, this third solo album by the ex Frou Frou vocalist and multi-instrumentalist will probably do little to change that status: Heap is sure to remain on the fringes of the mainstream, despite an ardent, and obedient, existing fanbase.
It's hard to say whether her appeal to lazy music researchers – octave jumping, understated, wispy vocals and a wordiness that sails a little close to sixth form self-importance, leading to inclusion on soundtracks to The OC as well as a Chronicles of Narnia movie – is a deliberate ploy. But, to be fair, the money undoubtedly earned seems to have been spent on a whole heap (ho ho) of cutting-edge recording gear. Ellipse has a level of production (by Heap herself) that almost obscures the craft beneath, by sheer dint of its excellence.
Heap's an undeniably clever cove, her electronics effortlessly straddling the divide between glitch and gloss. Multi-tracked vocals pulse and jitter, not unlike the faux-choral approach taken in recent years by Sparks. And a song like Little Bird delights with the subtle use of birdsong. The aforementioned voice is tastefully understated: in fact, so much so that it's a relief when her Essex vowels break free on Earth.
Yet too often you feel that this is songwriting that likes to wear a coat of cool over its rather well-educated heart. One suspects that Heap's fanbase isn't destined to be swelled by something so self-knowing and that in years to come her work will be filed next to World Party or Jellyfish in the 'clever yet underrated' file. While promising, it's to be hoped that she has something a little more challenging up her sleeve. --Chris Jones
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