Does the world really need another sexy/vulnerable, tongue-in-cheek trip-hop act?
Listen, if labels will stop releasing tasteful, cookie-cutter, chanteuse-voiced, arch trip-hop, I'll stop writing about how it all sounds the same. Sure, The Mating Game from LA's Bitter:Sweet is "cool." It sounds good, especially if you're sipping a martini while sitting on Scandinavian furniture, and it's sexy in a non-threatening way, like a musical Jessica Alba. Shana Halligan is the tongue-in-cheek temptress, while Kiran Shahani, formerly of Supreme Beings of Leisure, is the beat 'n' sample man. It's all very Goldfrapp. Well, actually it's more Hooverphonic, but how many people remember them?
If giving a seductive, mischievous little giggle at the end of a song presses your "racy" buttons, this is the album for you. First, though, you have to realize that you really haven't heard Halligan's voice somewhere before, and stop wracking your brain trying to figure out who originally performed "Don't Forget to Breathe" because, technically, no one did.
OK, I'll admit that a well-produced knockoff of a good band (or bands) is far more preferable to another shitty knockoff of pop-punk or, worse, mope-rock. If you pine for the days before the Cardigans went "serious", then The Mating Game is heaven sent. Shahani is a talented programmer, mixing up hip-hop scratching, drum 'n' bass stutters and Golden Age Hollywood with ease. He delivers the requisite couple of would-be Bond themes in the title track and "Dirty Laundry", and they're both pretty good. "Overdue" alternates a funky wah-wah groove with a very Three Feet High and Rising verse, even throwing in some mouth organ in a rare fit of inspiration.
Halligan, though, eventually becomes a liability. She does the empowered sex kitten thing pretty well -- so well that she sounds just like Nina Persson, Martina Topley-Bird, and a host of others who have played that role. Only Halligan's just playing a role; there's no real vulnerability, menace, or conviction. When on "Overdue" she sings, "Don't care much for inhibition," you're thinking "screw it, she's gonna eat that Dove bar after all." And dealing mainly in stock phrases like "It's just you drive me crazy" and "I'm doing the best that I can" isn't a good idea when your persona is a stock one to begin with. On the fun, upbeat numbers Halligan does what she needs to do. Still, failing to take a history lesson, Bitter:Sweet can't resist "serious" numbers like "Moving Forward" and "Our Remains". On these, the thinness of Halligan's voice and, more damaging, her lack of focus leave her exposed in a decidedly un-sexy way.
By the way, these "serious" songs conspire to take The Mating Game down a notch. Had Shahani and Halligan recognized that their strength is in being a solid, disposable club/lounge act, they could've ended up with a solid, disposable party album. Instead, ballads like "Moving Forward" and "Moody" kill the mood with sheer dullness, while "Our Remains" is the kind of drum 'n' bass Everything but the Girl perfected a decade ago. To use a Bond analogy, why make The Living Daylights when you have a pretty good For Your Eyes Only going, know what I mean?