“True Romance” – Charli XCX

3 stars (out of 5)

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British pop artist Charli XCX aka Charlotte Aitchison loves a sing-song spoken verse or middle eight, the type that dominates songs like the spectacular “Never Ever” by All Saints or the slightly less spectacular but just as influential “China In My Hands” by eighties favourite T’Pau. They crop up again and again on this, her 3 years in the making debut album, “True Romance” features only 2 songs I haven’t heard before; the danger of releasing mix tapes and singles for years and then deciding to retain them all, also signalling a slight lack of quality control, in one format or another, for your first release proper.

Apart from the cartoon rave popping of “Take My Hand” (appropriately enough about taking amphetamines and being unable to stop dancing or get any sleep for many hours; no subtleties here) and the low-fi, underwhelming “Black Roses”, and as far as I’m aware these are also the two ‘new’ tracks, the tempos are all mid and the inspiration seems to be predominantly taken from that mid-nineties girl group sound that incorporated r’n’b and pop before Timbaland and The Neptunes descended from outer space and changed the sound of pop forever at the very beginning of the noughties.

I’m talking “Honey to the Bee” by Billie Piper, Atomic Kitten, The Spice Girls debut album and I mentioned All Saints earlier. What Charli XCX does however is subvert the genre gently by adding some grubby synths, ambient sounds and a sense of alienation and real individuality that you never quite got from Geri Halliwell or Kerry Katona. This, admittedly pretty common, hybrid can work really well and does on a good half of this record, “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Season”, two of the oldest songs here, sound sulky and satisfyingly challenging whilst being built around pure pop structures and “So Far Away” and “Cloud Aura” both steer more towards r’n’b and are instant and substantial. On the current single “What I Like”, Aitchison channels Lily Allen, both of them guilty of masking their social class with their mockney accents and it’s as good as anything Allen put her name to over her brief reign as ruling pop woman.

“You (Ha, Ha, Ha)” is Gold Panda’s insistent, nagging instrumental “You” with singing and is pin-sharp perfection but surely this is in fact a collaboration so Charli XCX can’t take full responsibility for its brilliance.  On the previous single “You’re The One” a massive chorus springs out from the doomy verses and is the number 1 Eternal never had, insane pop produced by the man responsible for Robyn’s juggernaut, “Dancing On my Own”. Immediately before and after this track though (its track 10 of 12) things plod and get samey and something I thought was there is actually only apparent in flashes and only fully realised on a couple of tracks.

Come the summer we are all going to be familiar with, love for 15 minutes and then hate “I Love It” by Swedish girl duo Icona Pop (currently I still love it), a track that Charli XCX wrote for the pair and features on, the kind of song that has a life of its own, the Adele affect where you can actually see and experience a song much like any common or garden object but can no longer hear it. It will affect people’s lives, simply put, for better or for worse. There isn’t a song like that on here and maybe Charli XCX doesn’t want that kind of immediate, intensified fame that it could bring but there is enough to make you confident that this is an artist that understands the value and importance of pop and will find a way to keep releasing it to hopefully larger and larger audiences, to be her own smaller and far more thoughtful phenomenon.  And you can add another half-star to the rating if you like.