[8 November 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It doesn’t take a press release to know that Anjulie is a sister in song to Nelly Furtado and Corinne Bailey Rae. Within the first few notes of “Boom”, the opening track on her eponymous debut, Anjulie becomes the latest nasal-charged vocalist to enter the fray. Whatever uniqueness listeners derived from Furtado or Bailey Rae unfortunately amounts to imitation here.
This isn’t Anjulie’s fault. I’m sure somewhere there was a meeting in the kingdom of Hear Music trying to concoct an artist with the latest proven pop sensibilities—tiny frame, tiny voice, and exotic looks coupled with retro-ish production—like a sickly sweet frozen coffee confection. On the evidence here, it doesn’t appear that Anjulie is capable of singing beyond a whiny, juvenile croon. If she is, then the producers are at fault for keeping her voice under wraps and not finding the right material to reveal more vocal dynamism.
What’s frustrating about Anjulie is that the music and production are really quite excellent. Producers Colin Wolfe, John Burk, and Jon Levine, who each have a co-writing credit with Anjulie on all songs but two, are generous with their creativity. Fueled by a Starbucks trademark and presumably more of a budget than an average indie label can provide, Anjulie has the luxury of renowned producers and studio musicians who embellish each track with instrumentation (real horns!) and effects that lend a little more musical weight to the project.
Setting aside the contrivance of the album, the producers devise plenty of hooks to delight in, not the least of which is “Some Dumb Girl”. Segueing out of “Rain”, which runs about a minute longer than necessary to get the point across, “Some Dumb Girl” boasts fantastic production by Colin Wolfe. The melody maximizes Anjulie’s limited voice, as she curls the ends of her phrases over a programmed drum track. Wolfe even plays bass and keyboards, adding musical mite to the production.
Though his contributions comprise only one-third of the album (Jon Levine has the most credits), Colin Wolfe is actually the key to the most impressive moments on Anjulie. His instincts showcase Anjulie in the most honest, natural way, in contrast to Levine’s approach (“The Heat” and “Boom” are among the most obnoxious examples). Wolfe tag-teams with John Burk on “Colombia”, what I consider the unheralded highlight of the entire album. Rather than the bombast of “Boom”, this sparkling ruby of a three-minute pop masterpieces should be on the airwaves. Turning her daily ennui into fantasies of traveling to tropical locales, Anjulie sings as if she’s skipping down the sidewalk into a world of daydreams.
To her credit, the best track is one Anjulie wrote by herself. “Love Song”, also by Anjulie alone, does not bode quite as well. Falling for the “cheesy things in life”, which she defines as disco balls, wishing wells, and limousines, Anjulie comes across like a teenager reconciling premature hipster angst. Of course, those lyrics may very well reflect the truth of Anjulie’s heart, but some things are just not meant to be worked out in a pop song.
Fortunately, there’s a song that compensates for every misstep. Like they did on “Colombia”, Colin Wolfe and John Burke craft another winner for Anjulie on “Same Damn Thing”. A lilting melody and pseudo-reggae rhythm support the singer as she rids herself of inner demons by walking on the sunny side of the street. Despite the knife in her back, Anjulie knows everything will be all right.
Another irresistible little ditty produced by Wolfe and Burke follows “Same Damn Thing” on “I Want the World to Know” (and this time the knife in Anjulie’s back is replaced by a “dagger in my stomach”). The first chord instantly recalls “The Love I Lost” by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes but soon turns into a Holland-Dozier-Holland-inspired melody. It’s an effervescent tune, and, at track 11, would be an effective, triumphant album-closer. Rather than trim the track listing to a more sustainable running time for listeners, two more middling songs follow “I Want the World to Know”, plus one hidden bonus track. (Note: it’s bewildering that this far into the CD age, hidden tracks are still seen as a value add. Why not just make them a separate track, rather than doubling the duration of the last track?)
For all its misfires and blemishes, Anjulie is by no means a bad album. It’s just that the limitations of Anjulie’s vocal range (and some of her unrefined lyrics) wear the listener out early on. Regrettably, I can’t imagine that even the best songs on the album would translate well to a concert setting, save for a small coffee shop. Even Starbucks is too big for Anjulie.