What do you get when you combine the mature and intelligent lyrics of an early ‘70s singer/songwriter, the sound of orchestral pop, modern dance and A/C arrangements, and a sweet, childlike voice on top of it all? After listening to her Return to Planet Earth, I’d have to say Kim Fox. And, I would add, the resulting music is fantastic. The native New Yorker, who is currently based in Los Angeles, has brilliantly mixed sounds spanning the last four decades of pop music to create a new, modern archetype of the singer/songwriter. And while it seems like a simple enough idea, try naming anyone (with the possible exception of Rufus Wainwright) who has successfully executed it.
The resulting sound is all Fox’s own—an impressive achievement since this is only her second album—but there are lots of helpful comparisons to be made. Musically, Fox has integrated the influences of admitted heroes like Laura Nyro, Elton John, and Burt Bacharach, with a little Carly Simon and Kate Bush thrown in for good measure. Fox’s interest in the music of Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer also makes sense, as drum machines occasionally find a place among the airy acoustic guitar, piano, horns, ukulele, celeste, and cello. It’s surprising and exhilarating to hear how Fox and producer Linus of Hollywood pull these disparate elements together into solid arrangements. The opener, “Ladybug”, is as good an example as any. It starts off sounding like ‘60s chamber pop, complete with the poetic lines “I was at the well wishing for a good omen / When into my hand you did fly” and “ba bum bum” backing vocals. When the chorus kicks in, though, the song erupts into modern dance beats. “Baby I Want You Back” is similarly deceptive, beginning with baroque strings leading into “ba ba ba ba ba” harmonies, but it winds up being the album’s heaviest dance track. Other songs are more straightforward but just as diverse. “Little Piece of Heaven” is a full-on piano ballad; “Feel Like Crying” has a Tin Pan Alley lilt; and “Lazy” is sunny ‘60s pop. Fox’s high, ultra-feminine voice holds it all together while bringing to mind a host of girl-women singers including Susanna Hoffs (for whom Fox is a dead ringer on the track “I’ve Got Music”), Juliana Hatfield, Patti Rothberg, and Harriet Wheeler of the Sundays. Without the diverse musical approach, Fox’s thin voice might become grating, but instead it blends right into the carefully constructed pop arrangements.
Impressively, Fox plays a lot of the basic instruments herself and wrote or co-wrote every song on the album. Her songwriting talent, in fact, is what first got her noticed; she landed a publishing deal with BMG Music before getting a record deal with DreamWorks, which released her 1997 debut, Moon Hut. It seems musical talent is in Fox’s blood. Her father, Norman, led the ‘50s doo-wop group Norman Fox and the Rob Roys and her brother is a classical conductor. Fox’s knowledge of and respect for pop tradition is as apparent in her songwriting as it is in the lyrics of “I’ve Got Music”: “To an empty apartment / Who greets me when I’m home? / A record player and a pair of headphones. . . . / I’ve got music / So I’ve got love”. Judging from the high quality of Return to Planet Earth, we’ve got a lot to look forward to from Kim Fox. Let’s just hope her hard-to-categorize sound can find a place on the niche-driven airwaves so her music can find the audience it deserves.