It's hard to believe it's been six years since Lush's final album, Lovelife. After bursting onto the scene in the early 1990s with their own hybrid of My Bloody Valentine and the Cocteau Twins, the quartet, fronted by guitarists Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson, gradually became less of a rip-off of the shoegazer bands (complete with indecipherable lyrics), and started creating songs that were more personal. The highly enjoyable Lovelife was a modest success, and things were looking pretty good for the group, but it all came to a crashing halt when drummer Chris Acland committed suicide. Acland's death devastated the other three members of Lush so much, that the band just petered out completely, the bandmates amicably going their separate ways.
Emma Anderson wanted to keep her musical career going, and a chance meeting with vocalist Lisa O'Neill (their boyfriends shared a flat) got thing going again. O'Neill, who had previously sung for both Mad Professor and Kid Loco, and Anderson called the new project Sing-Sing, releasing four singles on various UK indie labels between 1998 and 2000, all the while putting the finishing touches on a debut album. That album, The Joy of Sing-Sing, was released by former Creation head honcho Alan McGee's new Poptones label in October 2001, and finally, we in North America have a chance to hear it.
Produced by Mark van Hoen (who has worked with Mojave 3 in the past), The Joy of Sing-Sing, while sounding very different from anything that Lush ever put out, actually incorporates many of the same traits of the original band. There are the gentle, spacey melodies, pretty female vocal harmonies, and a hint of the droning chords that Lush specialized in. But Sing-Sing's album isn't a guitar album at all. Sure, Anderson plays guitar, but it's mostly played in support of more prominent synth accompaniment, a synth sound that is influenced by both '60s pop and '80s dance that manages to sound fresh.
The backing music might be mostly keyboards, but what gets your attention straightaway are the vocal efforts by O'Neill, whose pixie-like voice hints at some darkness hidden beneath. On the standout track "I'll Be", O'Neill sings, "With me / There are no conventions / See me / Without my pretensions / Could be / You're sent from above / I'll be/The one you can love," over a loping hip-hop beat and layers of guitar, piano, and synthesizers, her voice ascending and ascending, like a lost child's balloon, as the song fades out with the sound of twittering birds.
Other highlights include: "Far Away from Home", a trumpet-enhanced retro tune, complete with the "pada-pa-pa" and "doo-doo-doo" vocals that make such songs so whimsical and sunny. "Everything" is lugubrious in both theme and musicality, with the opening lines ably describing a lazy afternoon: "It's been three long years since Sunday / The clock has almost melted away / And every minute lasts like Sunday / And every second so unkind". O'Neill comes off as coquettish on "Command", childlike on the pretty, sing-song "I Can See You", and then switches gears on the techno waltz "Émigré", as her and guest vocalist Vinny Miller's vocals melt away, barely sounding decipherable in the mix. "You Don't Know", written by Anderson, comes closest to sounding like Lush, the most guitar-driven song on the album, while Anderson's "Underage" is an homage to Chris Acland, managing to sound heartfelt without getting ham-fisted. The hidden track "Keep It That Way" is a cute little accordion-accompanied duet between O'Neill and Departure Lounge singer Tim Keegan that sounds like a bohemian stroll in the park (Keegan and O'Neill also duet on Departure Lounge's recent album Too Late to Die Young).
There are three songs that manage to stand above the rest, representing the best mix of synth and traditional pop-rock. "Tegan", which means "beautiful little things" in Cornish, is a beautiful little thing, indeed, combining layers of synths and vocal harmonies, backwards guitar, and a relentless drumbeat, as O'Neill esoteric lyrics ("Ornaments are monuments to me"). "Feels Like Summer" lives up to its title, borrowing a small sample from "Mony Mony" to create a song that's just as catchy (the video for "Feels Like Summer" is on the CD as in the form of a QuickTime clip). Sing-Sing then go completely '80s on us on "Panda Eyes", an entrancing, spacey song that has you picturing a cheesy music video circa 1983 in your mind as the synthesizers drone, the drum machine thumps away, and O'Neill provides her own Alison Goldfrapp-styled vocal acrobatics. What's the song about? According to the band, "it's a fantasy situation where a girl who lives on the moon and commutes to Earth everyday, wakes up with a dreadful hangover and has to face the day with her aching head and her 'panda eyes'." Hey, I'll take that kind of lyrical theme over something like, say, Papa Roach or Nickelback any time.
The Joy of Sing-Sing isn't deep music, and can start to sound awfully flighty during its 53-minute duration, but it's not entirely lightweight either, thankfully. With this strong debut album, Lisa O'Neill emerges as a top-flight vocalist, Emma Anderson shows she's ready to leave the Lush Sound behind her, and Sing-Sing show us all that there's the potential of plenty of good stuff ahead.