The voice of Frou Frou brings the house by herself.
Imogen Heap has the kind of fame that's mostly invisible. Her voice swirled behind the season finale of a nuttily popular teen soap, and her music has had equal luck invading clubs and Garden State. But 10 bucks says she could walk into the mall right now, buy 30 copies of her own CD and not get a second look from the counter dude.
Such anonymity is usually the case with ethereal/clubby types. In Frou Frou (with producer Guy Sigsworth), she was required to provide the requisite breathy vocals over fantasyland soundscapes, swirling currents of noise wherein you might expect to find unicorns and hooded travelers. (Not making this up -- I wrote that sentence about 10 minutes before discovering she was called on to provide a song for the soundtrack of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. So there you go.)
But her second solo record, Speak For Yourself proves the 27-year-old Heap has much more burbling around in there than angelic-sounding emo anthems for the downtempo set. This is assured stuff, the sort of thing that happens when an artist steps into the studio with a little cred and confidence in her pocket.
Heap's conjuring up all sorts of production spells here, and if the effect occasionally smacks of effort, it's good-natured effort. (Or maybe it's that Heap literally mortgaged her future -- in this case, her apartment, to pay for its recording. And she seems quiet lovely, and you want it to work.)
There's the jittery "Have You Got It in You?", where she stages a brief inner Lilith Fair before giving the reins over to a jittery soft-club beat. "Loose Ends" reaches back into the Human League's bag of fuzzball snares and electronic minimalism, but weaves in a two-stepping chorus of monster catchiness. "Clear The Area", which spray-paints some electrified African-sounding effects behind a wall of gorgeous pop, is pretty indicative of her softly expressive, if a little abstract, lyrics: "You find your way back down / and I'll keep the area clear."
There are other little detours as well. The hopscotching "Daylight Robbery" adds welcome rock to the proceedings, and its guitars and dark effects might have come from preliminary "Downward Spiral" sketches -- not hard enough to harsh the buzz, but enough to let you know she's serious. And "I Am in Love with You" has a carbonated riff and a monster groove; it takes a while, but Heap can make you shake it, before placing you gently back down on the futon.
But even if you know it's coming, "Hide and Seek" stops the show midway through; it's expressly designed to make you come to a adead stop you on your drive or walk like it did when it popped up in The O.C. An a cappella blend of Heap's hyper-layered pipes, it's sonic trickery makes the song lap itself; there's so much synthetic beauty in there that it comes off sounding organic anyway. Besides, it's uniformly gorgeous; no beat required.
As the album's shapeless but stirring anchor, "Hide" illustrates that through it all, though, her vocals remain a sweet, stirring center; she may be ready to play around with the buttons and bleeps but she keeps her intense, dipping and diving vocals up front. Heap's smartly taking a page from the handbook of Kate Bush, Björk or McLachlan: whatever she installs around it, her voice -- as is generally the case with gently sweeping soundscapes like these -- are what'll maintain listeners or catch the ear of TV soundtrack producers. And if Heap can keep this up, her phone'll keep on ringing.