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I Blame Coco

The Constant

(Island; US: Import; UK: 1 Oct 2010)

In addition to growing up with Sting, I Blame Coco (aka Coco Sumner) grew up on the music of the Sex Pistols, reportedly memorizing every chord of their catalog by the time she was nine years old. That influence seeps through on the defiant lead single, “Caesar”, which begins with the brash quip, “I want to annoy / And I’m going to enjoy it”. She proceeds to do just that, ironically denouncing the commercialism of the industry she is entering over electronic flourishes and a rugged fuzz bass. “We’re gonna knock down the walls!” she sings. It is a track loaded with attitude, energy, and a youthful angst that recalls the alternative anthems of bands like the Ramones and Nirvana.


Yet the song is also, in many ways, radio-ready pop, featuring a massively catchy hook and guest vocals from Swedish superstar Robyn. It sits, then, somewhere between disparate worlds, not unlike the artist herself. Such paradoxes percolate throughout The Constant, which is by turns aggressive and vulnerable, sophisticated and childlike, punk and pop (with additional elements of electro, reggae, rock, and New Wave). The end result is an exploratory, sometimes inconsistent album, which nonetheless manages to impress with its quirky intelligence and eclectic sonic mix.


The album was recorded in Sweden, where Coco was influenced by the electro-pop sound of local producers like Klas Åhlund (who previously worked with Robyn and ended up contributing to several album tracks). She also drew inspiration from ‘80s groups such as Duran Duran, the Psychedelic Furs, and more recent acolytes the Killers, seeking to achieve a colorful, accessible frame from which to deliver her often dark, moody, existential lyrics. In addition to the edgy “Caesar”, the album standout is “Selfmachine”, a fantastically poetic reflection on identity in the Information Age (“Lonely robot in a wasteland / Rusting in a lonely harbor”) with a luminous, fluttering synth sheen.


Several other songs make strong impressions: “Playwright Fate” is a charming, Caribbean-tinged track calling for love in spite of (or perhaps because of) our alienated state “in a land where we don’t belong”. “In Spirit Golden” showcases Coco’ s unique, husky voice in a soaring tune about the fragility of life. “Please Rewind” begins ominously, before breaking out in an exclamatory chorus reminiscent of the Police. “It’s About to Get Worse” is a gorgeous, string-laden ballad that provides perhaps the album’s most honest personal moment.


Every song on the album—with the exception of a cover of Neal Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”—was written or co-written by Coco. Her lyrics often put American pop stars like Katy Perry and even Lady Gaga to shame, offering an array of compelling metaphors and unusual allusions. The musical pictures she creates, particularly with her unique tone and intonation, can be as vibrant as they are idiosyncratic.


Some of the album’s depth and power gets buried, however, in busy production (“Summer Rain”) and poor pacing and sequencing. While songs like “Quicker” sparkle with a minimalist agility, tracks like “Party Bag” are cluttered and forgettable.


Yet on the whole, The Constant is a worthy and promising debut. It is a young album that avoids certain risks (all the songs are in the three minute range), but there is a vitality and ambition to it that is rare and refreshing for pop music. After all, what other current pop star draws from sources as varied as the Sex Pistols and Lord of the Flies, experiments with electro, reggae, and jazz while ruminating on the nature of mortality? Coco Sumner may be young, but this is far more than your typical Teenage Dream.

Rating:

Joe Vogel is the author of three books, including the forthcoming Man in the Music: The Creative Life and Work of Michael Jackson (Sterling, 2011). He has been interviewed by numerous media outlets, including NPR, Democracy Now, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Vogel writes about popular music and culture for The Huffington Post and PopMatters. He currently resides in New York where he is an instructor at the University of Rochester.


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