[12 December 2011]
Hey, fun! We’ve been getting a lot of pop artists groping desperately for the ebullience of past generations and aesthetics ... and on first impressions, Made4tv seemed no different. The first track doesn’t bode well, and for that matter neither does the second: they both come on a bit too strong, by which I mean they come on loudly without having anything in their arrangements or performances to back the energy up. They don’t fare well lyrically, either—“31 Flavors” in particular seems like dressed-up titillation, with the kind of cheap “ow!” noises filling it out that feel tired in the retro-soul revival we’ve been witnessing in the last few years.
But here’s the weird thing: not only does Made4tv gain hooks as it goes on (rare for a pop full-length these days, even a 40-minute one), but the arrangements get zestier, the lyrics get much wittier, and the singing meets its backing with a real offhand charm. It feels like a live show that starts off like a dud ... before all the players lock into comfortable step with each other.
Not that there are a bunch of other players. Little Jackie is a duo, comprised of Imani Coppola (vox and word) and Adam Pallin (beats and arrangement). They had something of a hit in Britain back in ‘08 with “The World Should Revolve Around Me”, as precarious a title for a good song as “My Life Would Suck Without You”. Made4TV is their follow-up.
Pallin’s arrangements are very ‘60s Motown—peppy horns, violin glissandos, all that good stuff—but what’s especially impressive is just how much spunk he manages to deliver with that aforementioned retro-soul sound that we’ve been hearing so much lately (not just the late Amy Winehouse, whom Coppola audibly resembles, but also the success of Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You” and many others). The thing is, these arrangements don’t sound like imitations of the Motown sound, even though they are—they sound like outright samples. That’s how well Pallin’s got the tone down: the saccharine strings, skipping xylophones (the transition into the last chorus of “Time of Your Life” is notably wonderful), horns that don’t sound overly-bombastic like most imitation does … it rarely feels redundant or at odds. Closer “Love Will Find Me” even makes use of the “Where Did Our Love Go” clap and manages to play it right; the chorus of “Fairy Tale Ending” conceals a violin flourish that many bigger names might not have bothered with. And damn if “Time of Your Life”—not dissimilar in beat and faded arrangement to Lily Allen’s classic “LDN”—doesn’t give me a legitimate “vacation in Naples” vibe. Sugar, this stuff.
The draw, though, is the singer. Coppola, who really does sound like our dear departed Ms. Winehouse—a lot like our dear departed Ms. Winehouse—is certainly not without her faults as the front-and-center: she tends to stress her low end on some words in a way that I find a bit disconcerting. It sounds like she’s fluctuating those notes because that’s the way she thinks people want her to sound. The backing harmonies could be better, too—in their copiousness with everything else going on, they give off a kind of “multicultural lite” vibe that feels coerced (the “oww!“s in “31 Flavors” being a good example).
But man, is she clever. Those first couple of tracks may not be much, but when the record hits “Cock Block”, everything seems to hit its stride. The strings, horn fills, and harmonies would be delightful enough, but Coppola gets the song moving from a slightly-unsure verse melody into a quite melodic chorus. It’s one that will stick in your head. And lyrically, this is the most pro-sex(ual intercourse) singer I’ve heard in a long while. I used the phrase “titillation” earlier to describe one song, but I want to be clear in saying that that track is a rare exception. Anyone who can deliver “This paradoxical phenomenon’s a baffling case/An experimental kind that just blew up in my face” and wind it back into a vow to masturbate alone if she can’t find a guy ... well, that person is obviously thinking outside the box. Or take “The Pact”, which not only makes use of the phrase “Holy moly, matrimony” (it seems so obvious!), but also a chorus in which Coppola joyously suggests, “Let’s get married even though we don’t believe in the institution, there are tax benefits/Let’s get married just to get you a green card, American citizenship.” This is a singer who has a social drinking problem, proudly knows nothing about monogamy, and has ADD. In other words, Imani Coppola gets along just fine with Generation Y.
But therein lies the crux. Even though Coppola herself isn’t a Gen-Yer (her first somewhat-hit, “Legend of a Cowgirl”, came out way back in ‘97, and in Made4tv‘s “21st Birthday” she sings about getting her cougar on over an irrepressible string hook), she seems to understand something about said generation that many people don’t know or don’t want to admit: we’re usually sweet instead of caustic. Hence, there’s an endearing friendliness to the way Coppola’s lively yearns are met with Pallin’s buoyant hooks. Observe the way she sings the word “smile” in “Fairy Tale Ending”: she carries it to the sky because she knows how many singers take that word for granted.
Funny? Yessir. (“Why can’t you be more like Johnny Depp, put a little pep in my step?/What the heck, at this point I’d settle for Shrek.”) But also encouraging.Made4tv is an album which wants to leave you with a general and agreeable message: “We gotta pick up the pace in the human race.” You’ll be well aware that the album isn’t breaking any mold, but it’s the kind of record that you can’t help getting caught up with; you may just have a lasting affection for it. I did, and look forward to the duo’s next album. See? We can be sweet. Good to hear somebody who understands that.