If you’re buying a Kelli Ali CD, chances are you’re buying it for that voice.
That voice, of course, is the voice that gave the Sneaker Pimps a fighting chance at bona fide fame, back when trip-hop was saturating the market as the bridge between grunge and electronica in the chronological history of specialized genres with awful names. Remember the Sneaker Pimps? They sold a pile of copies of their album Becoming X, had a minor hit with “6 Underground”, and promptly disappeared from the public consciousness. Still, given that they were competing with such downtempo heavyweights as Portishead and Tricky for air time, that they made any impact at all was something of an accomplishment — an accomplishment that might never have happened were it not for that voice.
Kelli Ali’s voice is typically a breathy, odd mix of innocent child and sultry über-vixen. It’s that juxtaposition that makes her voice a unique instrument, the evocation of a black widow Lolita just waiting to eat the mate she so illicitly seduced. At their best, the Sneaker Pimps provided the perfect backdrop for that voice, combining hip-hop’s immediacy with the drama of a film score.
Perhaps it is that history that most taints this release, as the Sneaker Pimps set an awfully high standard, a precedent that’s been terribly difficult for Ali’s subsequent work to live up to.
Enter Psychic Cat.
Even on its own merits, it’s difficult to see how Psychic Cat could be appreciated by much of anyone. Ali’s voice is still very much intact, perplexing and magnificent in its sound as ever. Still, she’s singing words of such banality over music of such unoriginality that the voice actually manages to become an afterthought in the mess of everything else. For instance, there’s the title track, a song that starts to lose its appeal as soon as you realize that, yes, Ms. Ali is actually talking about a cat. There’s no metaphor, no deeper layers to be uncovered here, it’s just about some cat which might or might not be psychic. Apparently it’s “lost on third street promenade,” so it must not be that psychic. Later on, the opening lines of closer “Last Boy on Earth” are sung with such gravity, that one might be led to believe that they’re Big Important Statements. Unfortunately, those lines happen to be “I wouldn’t kiss your lips so sweet / If you were the last boy on earth”. By the end of the song, Ali croons “Get outta here and let me finish my whiskey”, a sentiment most listeners will be all too ready to identify with by this point in the album.
Despite the awful lyrics, there are a few musical highlights to be found in the bunch. “Ideal” is a fantastic ride, particularly over the course of its creepy verses that feature discordant, layered guitar lines piled on top of each other. “In Praise of Shadows” is an ambient showcase of multi-tracked vocals, which is at least a nice idea, if unexciting in execution. “Graffiti Boy” has some spunk, too. So that’s good.
It’s obvious Kelli Ali has talent — her voice is as wonderful as it’s ever been, and her songs show brief flashes of true inspiration. Still, it’s obvious that in order for that voice to be truly appreciated, it needs to be surrounded by a truly worthy instrumental backdrop. What Psychic Cat fails to do with its Prodigy-lite beats and overdriven, overproduced guitars is prove that she and her cadre of producers and studio musicians are capable of providing that backdrop. For an album whose de facto slogan is “vive la rock ‘n’ roll”, it just doesn’t “rock ‘n’ roll” enough; every attempt at rock is marred by tepid electronics, every attempt at atmosphere just a little too clumsy. Ali, for all her effort, remains condemned to synth-rock purgatory, an ex-trip-hop diva destined to live in the shadow of her past until she can come up with the revelatory statement that demolishes that past. Psychic Cat doesn’t even come close.