Welsh singer/songwriter Jem Griffiths has been subjected to all manner of comparisons, from Dido to Beth Orton. (OK, so a broad range it’s not.) Still, I’d like to submit one more: Nelly Furtado.
Both artists indulge in kitchen-sink, sample-based production, melding elements of hip-hop, rock and mainstream pop into an earnest, accessible adult-contemporary style. Jem lacks Furtado’s bracing idiosyncrasy, partially rooted in Furtado’s multicultural approach, but more than matches the Canadian songstress’ facility with a hook.
Yet Jem falls short of even Furtado in lyrics, an area that, with such timeworn clichés as the chorus of hit “I’m Like a Bird” isn’t exactly Furtado’s strong suit, either.
This year, Jem released her debut full-length Finally Woken, but all that album’s basic elements are present on her 2003 EP, It All Starts Here ...
She uses the simplest of tools: spacey samples, funky basslines, dreamy acoustic guitars, and buoyant melodies. With them, she crafts well-produced tracks that ooze with accessible optimism, the kind that can easily fade into the background on a minivan radio and lift passengers’ moods without their even noticing.
Much of this accessibility is due to Jem’s almost preternatural catchiness. Acoustic track “Flying High” strips away the Furtado-esque orchestration of the disc’s previous songs, laying bare her knack for perfect hooks. The lofty two-part harmony of its chorus could rival anything the Matrix ever crafted for Avril Lavigne for its sheer, stick-to-your-brain-cells indelibility. If ever a singer was destined to be on the radio, it’s Jem.
With melodies like these, Jem could be singing lyrics like “Mentos, fresh and full of life” and you’d still never forget the tune. Indeed, upon closer inspection the words she does sing are not much better than a TV jingle. The most beautiful moments of “Flying High” involve her singing phrases that make one wonder what was so bad about Britney Spears.
“You feel so nice / You know you feel so nice,” she says at one point, before uttering the song’s utterly trivial chorus: “I’m flying so high / Flying so high / High off the ground / When you’re around.”
You can almost see the teen-movie credits running before your eyes.
The other tracks don’t exactly improve upon Jem’s total inability to pen an original phrase, but they mask it with her deft production. Opener “They” repeats the words “I’m sorry / So sorry / I’m sorry / It’s like this” over and over again, but makes such banality interesting with hip-hop rhythms and nonsensical samples of children’s voices. “Finally Woken”, the track that brought Jem to the attention of Los Angeles radio station KCRW, certainly brightens any morning with its simple, atmospheric lilt. But I can’t help worrying that it reminds me of any Sugar Ray single.
Jem ventures into equally hook-laden territory on “Just a Ride”, which virtually duplicates the laid-back adult-contemporary vibe of “Finally Woken”. This track does venture into mildly evocative lyrical territory, apparently lifting its chorus from the late comedian Bill Hicks.
In his “It’s Just a Ride” routine, Hicks waxed philosophical, comparing life to an amusement ride and concluding with a call to take all the money spent on weapons and use it to buy food and clothing for the poor, to build “a better ride.”
Jem says nothing so memorable. Rather than provide an original voice, Jem is content, like a vacuous beauty pageant winner, to be merely pleasant. Buy her CD for your mother if you must, but if you all want in music is something “nice” that doesn’t demand much thought, Clear Channel owns 1,200 radio stations for your absent-minded enjoyment.
// Notes from the Road
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