“Trouble in Paradise” – La Roux

4 stars (out of 5)

0

Trouble in ParadiseGrace Jones’ 1981 “Nightclubbing” album had nine tracks and so does La Roux’s second album, five years in the making and named “Trouble in Paradise”.  Besides the stingy number of songs – and don’t try looking for bonus tracks anywhere because you won’t find them --  Grace Jones seems to have made a substantial impact on Brixton local Elly Jackson, aka  La Roux. Apart from the image (androgynous female, indeterminate but presumed sexual orientation, bit scary), Jackson has quite dramatically amended her musical outlook since the Grammy-nominated, metallic synth-pop of her 2009 debut and opted instead for a sweltering and more organic and sensual soundscape a la Jones’ infamous Compass Point sessions. This shift in vision has not been without consequences and has subsequently resulted in the departure of La Roux’s partner in crime Ben Langmaid. If anything quality control has improved since their earlier and hugely successful collaborative work and any fears of Jackson faltering without her presumed contemporary are unfounded here.  

Uptight Downtown” is a pretty opaque chronicle on the Brixton riots, a song that may have sounded more topical if had been released when it was written some three years ago. Not exactly a social comment of any real substance, although you sense this wasn’t the point, it is a mid-tempo and juddering  pop monster that acknowledges its musical heritage as well as moving straight through any on-trend sounds to form its own unique and modern sound. It fades in on a big bass beat before post-Chic Nile Rodgers guitars echo his production on David Bowie’s “Let Dance” and has a horn refrain which is similar to that of Grace Jones’ “I’m Not Perfect”, again a Rodgers production. “Tropical Chancer”, maybe the most fully realised moment here and the track that squarely apes Jones with a rhythm track that is the identical twin of “My Jamaican Guy”, it’s the stuff of summer anthems. There is tremendous delight to be had hearing Jackson lamenting the introduction of her tropical chancer via a dancer in that she doesn’t slip into an American accent as many would and is lyrically inventive and oddly British in its underwhelmed way of story-telling. 

Kiss and Not Tell” skips and clicks and sounds more than anything like the eighties pop-funk boy band Haircut One Hundred with its scratching guitar and staccato energy and boundless joy. It is one of the few instant pleasures here; it’s infectious and naggingly melodic and bowls over on first listen. Other tracks such as the, by turns urgent, and then spacey  Cruel Sexuality”, which will only generate further speculation surrounding the singer’s own sexuality, and the sharp, xylophone and horn-punctured, “Sexotheque” take a bit longer to love but when they hit, they hit hard. This trio of songs are all about sex but they are not at all explicit in their descriptions of lives which are led by carnal cravings; their sensuality is to be found elsewhere. All of these tracks are so lovingly and beautifully crafted and incorporate subtle musical and sonic detours sometimes lasting no more than ten seconds and never sounding like mass-produced, producer-dictated music which is a large part of its engaging and seductive nature.

Silent Partner”, one of only three tracks here that would have also sounded at home on La Roux’s debut, is an attempt at an urgent, episodic dance track. The most uptempo song on “Trouble in Paradise”sounds instantly familiar in that it channels 1977 disco classic “Black is Black”, builds to an “I Feel Love” synth pile-up and, in the last minute or so, eventually turns into The Three Degrees hysterically phrased hit “Givin’ Up, Givin’ In”, another Moroder production. As thrilling as this may sound, it doesn’t quite come together in the way it should and La Roux does not introduce either enough vocal or melodic diversity or intensity to keep the full seven minutes completely interesting and on-track for its duration. A very good four minute song however, which, when stretched out, confirms that there are still some areas which Jackson needs to fully master.

Let Me Down Gently”, another track which in its second half revisits that steely sound from the earlier La Roux signature, does a far more effective job at building tension and momentum and is the album’s real centrepiece – a mournful synth ballad that teases itself slowly with a real majesty. The other ballad “Paradise is You” alludes to the album’s tropical themes and is a hazy, romantic and piano stroked comedown. The sound is fully fleshed out by swirling synths and building harmonies and it’s only on the final track, “The Feeling”, which is the oldest and only weak song here, with its jarringly thin and hollow electronics and return to Jackson’s notably absent falsetto, that the magic comes to an abruptly premature end.

Current prevailing musical styles or trends including trap, EDM or r’n’b pop don’t get a look in here and La Roux’s musical cues end at around 1986 but never once does this result in parody or nostalgic navel-gazing . With not quite every track here being essential it only just misses out on classic status, unlike her heroine Jones’ seminal “Nightclubbing”, which from the get-go contained not one ounce of fat, there is some filler congesting the brief playing time of “Trouble in Paradise”. Possessed and determinedly individual, however, this is still one of the most delightfully uncynical and smart pop albums for some time. La Roux is proving that although she is clearly serious about the potential aims of modern music, she is also having tremendous fun making it – without a doubt the definitive summer release of 2014.