Kiss me OnceThe definitive ‘Kylie Sound’; it’s what Kylie herself and pop obsessives everywhere are desperate to identify, capture and then immortalise and never has this felt more apparent than on “Kiss Me Once”, her twelfth studio album. Her biggest hits are studies in expert song writing, of-the-moment production and perfect execution. From “Hand On my Heart” to “Slow”, “Spinning Around” to  “Can’t Get you Out of My Head”, all effortless sounding pop from an artist who has more than proved her worth as a leader in the field. This album sees her again working with some of the most de rigueur and established writers and producers available with reclusive pop extraordinaire herself, Sia Furler, curating the entire project. Kylie’s first album for Jay Z’s Roc-A-Fella has not come cheap it, seems. Three albums worth of songs have been recorded over the album’s two year creation and many have deemed not worthy of inclusion. For example none of the collaborations with Minogue’s new partner on the reality talent show The Voice, will.i.am, are here, a cause for celebration for some. So what exactly has made the finishing line and does the Kylie Sound of 2014 live up to some of her previous heady years? Yes and no.

The first half of “Kiss Me Once” is indeed the most problematic and some of it is best got out of the way as quickly as possible before the really good stuff starts to cut through and rise to the sheeny, shiny surface. Lead single “Into the Blue” is smart and solid -- very much a ‘Kylie’ song -- and contains a string section that is uplifting and vocal phrasing and beats that are certainly in keeping with current chart fodder. It is however disappointing in its overall niceness and lack of originality.  Kylie’s best songs have also incorporated the unexpected with the familiar and for a song leading us into a new era it is not exactly encouraging. There are then two songs which both, at Sia’s insistence, contain the word ‘sex’ (a third follows later of a different standard entirely) and almost suggest the onset of a concept album. “Sexy Love” comes first and is a wholly derivative Daft Punk/Chic/”Holiday” hybrid which has tons of sunny Kylie enthusiasm in the place where the song should be. “Sexercise”, a Furler co-write, follows and is the most cynical three minutes here. It’s a focus-grouped, trend-chasing attempt at maintaining her Grindr demographic in addition to securing just one more USA hit, urban style. It’s horrible and if you liked Madonna’s “Hard Candy” weaker moments that it may just be your favourite.

Pharrell Williams, currently as ubiquitous a producer as Sia is writer, thankfully comes to the rescue with “I Was Gonna Cancel”. Seems Williams understands the Kylie DNA better than he did Madonna’s. A joyous, confident and supremely carefree disco tune that has a nice pinch of ‘fuck you!’ about it. With its “I Want Your Love” bassline and bells that resemble Blondie’s “Rapture”, this is the first song here where Kylie sounds like you might expect her to given the diverse talent that features here. “Feels So Good” is airy, electronic pop that is both enveloping and aloof in its purpose. It’s a cover version of the Tom Aspaul song “Indiana”, produced by new kid on the block MNEK, with its dreamy chord progression and Kylie’s translucent vocals is one of the best things here. Ariel Rechtshaid of HAIM and Sky Ferreira fame ups the ante further on the tense and metallic “If Only”. Vocal samples are slowed down and sped up and disorientate and muddle and the drums pound like a sci-fi “Hounds of Love”. Truly dynamic and modern sounding with Minogue’s coolly enunciated,heartbreaking admission -- ‘if I set you free and you actually came back to me…if only’. The final song in the sex trilogy “Les Sex” is another triumph. Written by the brilliant and underrated female electro star MDNR, it is a music box sweet and then a squelching and whacking camp delight.

Enrique Iglesias, following The Hurts and Neil Tennant before him, is allocated duetting honours on the deceiving ballad “Beautiful”. It’s deceptive because of its highly vocodered vocals and soulless machines suggesting something macabre and narcotic, when it is in fact excruciatingly sentimental and dull; a low point indeed. “Fine” is a handbag house type affair with lyrics suggesting a positive outlook equals a positive life cliché. It’s not the most adventurous song Kylie has ever made and like a lot of the songs here (see also “Million Miles”)  it does a perfunctory job of producing workman-like album tracks. This leaves the one other Sia Furler penned song, the title track, “Kiss Me Once”. Given Sia’s song-writing style which is now becoming recognisable – dots can be joined that connect “Diamonds” to “Perfume” to “Pretty Hurts” – “Kiss Me Once” is unmistakable only as a Kylie song. Lush and dreamy, romantic and multi-coloured, it will be become a favourite for many. Kylie herself sounds re-assuring and warm and the bells and the beats that surround her balance out any concerns of mawkishness. It is a performance and song that could have come from the best of Minogue’s PWL years, the Cathy Dennis sessions of “Fever” or her first album for Deconstruction; a Kylie Minogue song for all seasons, beautifully realised. 

If there is a comparison to be made between this and another of Kylie’s albums then it would be 2007’s “X”, another album that suffered from a long gestation period with many songs being recorded with a myriad of producers and writers and then a patchy final track-listing that lacked cohesion and quality control. Like “X”, “Kiss Me Once” also features some of the best material that Minogue has put her name to but also some of the worse. Only on her best but not most successful album, 2009’s “Aphrodite” (executive producer, the extraordinary Stuart Price) was this problem averted with a collection of expertly judged songs that formed a tight and unified vision of pop superiority. There is always a degree of good will placed at Kylie Minogue’s tiny feet, she appears loved by many in an industry that excels in back biting and a desire for always younger, fresh talent  and a general sense that the UK, her biggest audience, do not want to see her suffer or to fail. ‘Kiss Me Once’ is not going to change that and is a crowd pleasing but uneven effort at maintaining her status as pop’s eternal princess. Her more interesting songs, of which only a couple appear here, have always hinted at a darker and more introspective and experimental Kylie; maybe it’s time now for her to embrace this side and allow us more than just the glimpse that she’s permitted over her 27 year tenure.

Product DetailsMNDR is best known for being the shared lead vocalist on Mark Ronson’s last album’s first single, the eccentric “Bang Bang”. She is as charismatic a singer and performer as her vocals and video presence confirmed in this 2010 hit for Ronson and it’s taken 3 years for her full-length album to arrive. Her oldest song “C.L.U.B”, oddly re-titled “U.B.C.L” here, originally released in 2009, still sounds innovative and fresh and like the shockingly-ignored (at least commercially) Cocknbullkid, MNDR has the ability to write a pop song and become the kind of interesting pop star that once upon a time would have actually charted and been on TOTP. These days though, due to a uniformity of sound that doesn’t seem to want to budge (stadium dance or Adele), when it comes to Top 20 success she unfortunately doesn’t stand a chance. But let’s not worry about that, some of you reading this won’t even know what TOTP is and there are a thousand ways to promote music in 2012.

MNDR and her invisible partner in musical crime Peter Wade have made a brash, fashionable electronic dance album but thankfully its roots are in more traditional, song-based pop melodies. “#1 in Heaven”, (or Evan as MNDR endearingly pronounces it and not the similarly-titled Sparks song in case you’re wondering), is a big, euphoric singalong ‘Tell them I’m smiling, send them my greetings’ she joyfully refrains in a song that I would love to see in the top ten. The appropriately speeding “Faster Horses” shares equal billing as the best song here and “Stay” is based round a “Funky Drummer” loop, a sample used ad infinitum in late 80’s dance music, and adds a little shading to the overall pretty frantic pace and is the definition of the perfect album track. “Fall in Love with the Enemy” opens with a teeth-gnashing snyth that sounds a lot like a metallic “Hey Big Spender” and continues to dominate and charm in equal measure.

Burning Hearts” is an equally angular but more glacial track that really highlights MNDR’s personality with its cascading ‘oh, oh, oohs’ and perfect middle eight. All these little but so very important  touches demonstrates that she understands pop in a way someone like Robyn does and Cheryl Cole doesn’t. Vocally she is sometimes reminiscent of Kim Wilde and readers who know what TOPT stands for will also remember “Chequered Love” (I wonder if I can get this on tape?!).  “Feed Me Diamonds”, the title track, has the feeling of being an important song to MNDR and it does have a grandness and drama that anchors the album with some very eighties clanging and clattering going on before a middle tempo groove is established with the best vocal performance on the album.

The last quarter of the album is not as strong and the final songs start sounding like any electro indie female artist from the last 5 years or so; not bad but not up to the standard of  the brilliant first half. I hope that MNDR finds a way to promote this album effectively as there is more than a hint of star quality here and I would like to hear it develop. And it actually gets an extra half a star as well.