[28 September 2008]
The first thing to say about Without You is that Natalie Walker has a beautiful voice. That might be the second thing to say as well, just to emphasise the point, and also because there is precious little else to mention about this dreary, instantly forgettable album.
Walker’s debut album, Urban Angel, rightly garnered some heavy duty critical acclaim. Aside from an ill-advised and frankly pointless cover version of Counting Crows’ “Colorblind”, it was a sexy and poignant album that deserved the heavy radio rotation it received. Walker’s tracks turned up on Entourage, Ugly Betty and Grey’s Anatomy, and Sofia Coppola used the Thievery Corporation remix of “Quicksand” for the trailer of her film Marie Antoinette.
For her second album, Walker reunites with Brooklyn production duo Stuhr (the pair of Dan Chen and Nate Greenberg, who have worked with, amongst others, Mya and Bebel Gilberto). But something is missing. Walker’s lyrics, once elegant, sad, and lovely, are now saccharine and dull. Stuhr’s production is now lightweight and torpid.
The clever, glitchy beats and graceful string arrangements from Urban Angel are no more, replaced instead by weak drum machines and monotonous circular rhythms. Much of With You wanders aimlessly along a path of mediocrity, with even Walker’s gorgeous voice not able to drag “By and By”, “Only Love”, and “Monarch” out of the bland wilderness they each inhabit.
When Stuhr take some risks, as they do on first single “Over and Under”, the results are infinitely more interesting. Pet Shop Boys synth burbles and spirals around Walker’s graceful vocal delivery. On the title track, Chen and Greenberg use more synth, guitar, and a muffled drum as the merest accompaniments. When she’s unencumbered and centre stage, Walker’s voice is still tremendous. It’s a shame that she uses it to sing such low-grade, sixth form poetry (“You came into my life and then everything changed / Love this strong never fades… This world is a better place with you”). But despite the cloying sentimentality, the track “With You” is beautifully produced and more than a little bit lovely.
Taken in isolation, the dreamy soundscapes on “Over and Under” and “With You” aren’t dissimilar to David Sitek’s work on Scarlett Johansson’s Anywhere I Lay My Head. Sadly, though, those two tracks stand alone. There is nothing else on With You that comes close to replicating the austere electronica of Daughter Darling or the clear, welcoming sweetness of Urban Angel.
In fact, given Walker’s previously stellar work, With You would be depressing if it were capable of invoking any emotion whatsoever.