British retro soul artist delivers catchy '50s kitsch spliced with grown-up retro soul -- but struggles to find her own voice.
While many readers of PopMatters will undoubtedly mourn the death of the album, you can't help but think that, in some ways, it was inevitable anyway. OK, so the album hasn’t actually died -- yet -- but the steep rise in the sales of digital downloads over the past few years has put the emphasis back on the singular track, meaning, really, it's only a matter of time.
Why didn't we see this coming much earlier? The idea of album "filler" has been around ever since the Beatles cut Please Please Me -- before that, even. And when filler hasn’t been ruining what could otherwise be a perfectly amazing, flawless album, it's been the tendency of many artists to "try different things", which, while in theory should be welcomed, in practice can make for inconsistent, incoherent, and sometimes unlistenable albums. So, in many ways the advent of the Internet should have been a welcome thing, as far as putting out music is concerned. These days, if you're a band, there's no need to worry whether your album follows a linear pattern from start to finish: most people will probably only download a few tracks anyway.
Which brings us on to VV Brown, a young British female solo artist who, depending on which tracks you listen to when you cherry-pick this album the next time you're on iTunes, is the new Kate Nash, a '50s-obsessed funk-soul diva, or an adult-oriented US pop starlet.
Having written, sung, and played instruments on Travelling Like the Light, VV Brown is doing her own thing -- except in some ways she isn’t. Prior to the album's release, the singles "Crying Blood" and "Shark in the Water" cranked the hype machine into action, and this album came with more than its fair share of expectation. Both tracks conflicted with each other. The former is a '50s-tinged romp that’s as fun and playful as anything S Club 7 put out in their career. The latter is an expensive-sounding, glossy pop song that Xenomania would have been proud to have written.
So, where does that leave the rest of the album? If anything, with a mild case of identity crisis. VV Brown employs enough personas to suggest she’s struggling with the decision of who to appeal to. It’s a shame that she hasn’t got a voice of her own, but that’s not to say the album isn’t without its highlights. Once you’ve gotten past possibly one of the worst album openers of all time in "Quick Fix" (The Go! Team covering the Bottom theme tune with little conviction), you’re left with an obstacle course of an album, but the high points are worth it. "Game Over" is a retro-soul treat that chugs along with infectious horns and determined stabs of "Oh-no-no-no"s. "Leave!" and the aforementioned "Crying Blood" are the Noisettes reborn as a '50s-reviving doo-wop wonder, counter-balanced by the pure adult-pop balladry of "I Love You" and "Travelling Like the Light".
And then there's "Shark in the Water". Even on an album that flits vacillatingly from Eartha Kitt to kiddy-kitsch in the blink of an eye, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Yet it's one of the finest pop songs you’ll hear this year, a true testimony to the fact that simplicity is the most effective way to deliver a killer chorus. Unfortunately, it conveys such an honest lyric it makes the rest of the album seem a little, well, false.
Yet the fact that this one single is such a flawless, utterly-believable slice of pop music brings us back to our original point. "Shark in the Water" may inadvertently overshadow the rest of VV Brown’s debut album, but it makes it whole lot easier for the rest of us. Worried about paying good money for an album that’s only half good? Skip the rest of Travelling Like the Light and just download this track. Three cheers for the Internet!