Indie soul one-hit-wonder follows up her great, idiosyncratic first album with a drearily positive sophomore effort that strikes out for the mainstream, only to succumb to anodyne stupor.
Only truly superficial people think that looks are unimportant.
-- Oscar Wilde
Am I alone in feeling vaguely amused whenever someone describes music as being "from the future"? Back in the '80s, Kraftwerk records and the Detroit sound seemed to provoke images of flying cars and holidays on Mars, a world both encased in and liberated through artificiality whose soundtrack has dated laughably in scarcely two decades. Pierre Schaefer's musique concrète concepts also placed their faith in the creation of unknown technology to unveil the sound of tomorrow, freed from structure, instruments and indeed musicians -- a depthless investigation of the sonic moment, atemporal and divorced from connotation. Back in good ol' '05, Madlib is smoking up more than is probably good for an entire clan of fourth-dimension-inhabiting martians, skateboy P claims that making simplified rip-offs of prime Timbaland methodology is the product of channelling alien melodies from the future, and futurism (or indeed retro-futurism) is taken with a pinch of salt and much tongue in cheek; there's a copy of Deltron 3030 on my stereo, Futurama's on the box and The Time Traveler's Wife has a well-earned place on my bookshelf next to Möbius Dick and The Forever War. Forget Nietzsche and Hegel, my darlings, the future's so last millenium...
In the face of a global society bereft of conviction that's rushing into a future of potential economic, ecological and political catastrophe more or less blindfolded, it seems only natural that much modern culture should have turned its gaze far inwards, to its very DNA; haplessly toying with the building blocks of its own heritage in smugly post-modern attempts to hide its lack of creative courage behind witty disassembly and juxtaposition of the past. Afraid of the poor visibility to the fore of the good ship Humanity? The internet gives you history laid out like an orderly jewelry display (or, depending on your cynicism, like electric LA in the last rays of a toxic sunset) to delve into at no risk to your good selves.
With Hollywood's blockbusters this year comprising several looks back at the earlier episodes of comfortingly well known future histories (Batman Begins and Episode III, anyone?), perhaps the "urban" mainstream could benefit from some retro vibes before the whole colossus finally shudders to an imagination-free halt. Lina would seem to be a fair bet; after all, even if her excellent debut vanished without a trace after delivering the minor hit "Playa No More", it showcased a mixture of '40s jazz atmosphere and shiny production -- courtesy of her two in-house producers -- that could strobe and pump with Timbo's otherworldly gleam. So she's got a elegantly kooky, opera-trained voice, she can write real love songs and party tracks, she's looking further back than most people and she's looking to the future? Plus, she's now signed to Jazzy Jeff's Hidden Beach, but still has her old producers at the helm? Hot diggity this is going to be one outstanding album...
Except it's not; in fact it's a pretty bad album in all respects. Having listened to the entire thing four or five times, I can just about remember two songs, and one of those mainly because of a great, ice cold trumpet solo that occurs two thirds of the way through. Lina's lyrics simply don't cover relationships from an even vaguely new angle, or cover old ground in a vaguely memorable way. This fall from prior grace might be partially excusable if her songs were really dynamic or hugely atmospheric, but sadly the production, though bright and crisp, fails to proffer much more than backing loops over solid mid-tempo beats, and consequently the whole things fades into a haze of pleasant but meaningless balladry, with Lina's distinctive voice multi-tracked into edgeless anonymity on the choruses. Without the benefits of her personality, old-fashioned songwriting (ie. songs underpinned by, rather than carried by, drum beats) or dynamic energy, the strange and wonderful Lina of Stranger On Earth who bid you "jump up now like a kangeroo" before coaxing you close with smoky allure and innocence has turned into a platitude spouting espouser of The Inner Beauty Movement, and is paradoxically all the more superficial and boring for it. Ahh, he knew a thing or two, that Mr Wilde. Keep away from this; if there's one thing that grows older faster than the future, it's the past reheated with a dash of shallow nostalgia on the flame of commercialism.
Anyone who thinks I'm just being pretentious and didn't bother to listen to the album properly, take note: Anthony Hamilton guests on one song, and I almost didn't mention him. For a voice like that to be obscured by disinterest takes some pretty mediocre songwriting; I guess I'd argue that the wishy-washiness of the project as a whole just washed him away