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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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Top customer reviews
After the wonderful patchy intimacy of 'Speak for Yourself' comes this: 13 exquisitely produced mature pieces of electro-pop.
From the sleeve notes: 'Produced, Engineered, Programmed and everything inbetween by Imogen Heap'. Saying that, she has an impressive array of backing musicians with her, including Nitin Sawhney amongst many others.
Look, it's worth buying the CD - to start with, you're going to get better quality than any download - and the sound quality counts on this album - and secondly, you'll get the lyrics and some striking pics of Imogen Heap in a dark, electric land.
The album opens with the beautiful, rolling 'First Train Home', rippling synth and syncopated lyrics - 'first train home, I've got to get on it, first train home, I've got to get on it': she wants to get on getting on, and the music rolls on.
'Wait It Out' starts strong - yes, it's the end of the affair, but she can just sit it out - but then it collapses into sad and simple intimacy: 'And sit here, Just going to wait it out, And sit here cold, Just going to sweat it out, Wait it out.'
'Earth' - wonderful a cappella, multi-tracked playfulness, not putting up with it anymore: 'Stop this right away, Put that down and clean this mess up, End of conversation, Put your back into it and make it up to me now'.
'Little Bird' almost reminded me of Alison Moyet's 'Only You' but multi-tracked vocals.
'Swoon' sounds like there's a theramin playing in the background, but again Imogen's hilarious, intimate lyrics: 'And this is where I was going to sing your name, Over and over again but I chickened out in the final minute'. Straight into the swelling, rising, falling, driving 'Tidal'. This really is a gorgeous album...
Oh, I can't go through every track, but you've got to listen to 'Between The Sheets', that simple piano, the intimate lyrics.
'Bad Body Double' - Yeah, I've got one of those too. Funky, pizzicato strings, almost Essex accent there.
There really isn't a weak track here. Shifting moods, some dark, most with a sweet self-awareness but overall a really strong, beautifully put-together collection of classic pop.
Definitely worth the wait.
So on to Ellipse which I've heard now countless times and feel able to review. It's easy to get swept up in her charm and down-to-earth approach. And there's nothing wrong with that. And clearly this album has been lapped up with gusto by her ever growing and adoring fan-base. But if you strip the adulation and anticipation away and stand back to view how this album stacks up against other Heap output the cracks do quickly appear.
Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of material here that works, and works well. 'First Train Home' belys the several year gap since 'Speak' and continues the Immi "sound" without missing a beat. Catchy, oh so well sung without being overstated. But why the strange acapella bridge after a couple of mins out of context with any other aspect of the track? Quirkiness is great, but so is groove and vibe and this section is so disposable I feel like digitally excising it.
'Bad Body Double' must surely be the next single. The physical frailties of a 30-something Essex girl do not sound like promising "great track" material but that's Immi's charm. And talking of frailty and charm, the closing track 'Half Life' exposes these traits blissfully. "Twee" should not work like this, but it does.
Why have I suddenly thrown the word "twee" into the mix? Because it's a word I found coming to the surface far too often when listening to the album. 'Little Bird', 'Between the Sheets', 'Aha' are prime culprits. They don't have the gravitas of Heap at her best and end up sounding shallow and, yes, twee to an almost irritating extent.
"Normal service" can be found elsewhere on tracks such as 'Canvas' which at times oozes the melodic lushness of 'Speak'. But it's on (what I'd imagine many people's favourite track) 'Tidal' where missed opportunities surface most readily. In almost a pastiche of the album as a whole; it is book-ended by the most marvellous sections. The opening crescendo is breathtaking, and the ending rock-out riff stunning. But the opening crescendo soon gives way to a shuffling biscuit tin which loses the vibe completely, and the ending is criminal in its brevity on an album crying out for such light and shade.
So, all in all, a frustrating experience. Too close to it perhaps in the intimacy of a studio built in a child-hood home? And with most every element created by Ms Heap, and the ability to digitally cut and paste ad-infinitum, perhaps it's just over-worked. I fully hope and expect further chapters of Immi's musical journey, but with a biological clock ticking the next one may take longer than this.
But ultimately, who am I? Just a fan with an opinion. Immi's out there doing it. And cudos is warranted. :)
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