Monday, November 3, 2014

album review: 'chapter one' by ella henderson

I've said before that I tend to keep a healthy distance from any pop project backed by Simon Cowell and his label Syco Records. At this point, it's self-preservation, really, and it's not even that Cowell makes 'bad' pop music. If anything, his music projects fall more in the lines of intensely bland pop slurry that are riveted to following major trends instead of leading them, the sort of material guaranteed to sell to a less discerning public. 

And what blows my mind is that people haven't picked upon this yet - I mean, it's not like he hasn't been a major public figure in pop music and the music talent show circuit for years now. If you want to know why so many American Idol and X-Factor winners vanish off the face of the earth after dropping debut albums through Syco, it's because they aren't marketed as unique personalities, but instead just more product in the assembly line of pop stars, their personality boiled down to the broadest essentials for demographic appeal. And sure, it can make for short entertaining flashes, but longer-term careers in pop music are based off of unique personality. And if you want to know why many appear in the spotlight for a brief second before dropping off the face of the earth... well, now you know why.

In other words, I wasn't exactly interested to dig into the newest record from Ella Henderson, a performer who placed sixth on the ninth season of X-Factor, despite being one of the biggest favourites to win that season. Despite that, she was picked up by Syco Records and apparently was given significantly more creative freedom - and indeed, she has writing credits on nearly every song on the album. And that hadn't stopped her from attaining a fair few well-charting hits on the UK Charts - but let's make this clear, just because an act charts in the UK doesn't mean it's anything close to good - thanks to a lack of recurring rules and a smaller population, all sorts of weird crap pops up on the UK charts all the time. But to be fair, Ella Henderson didn't seem to be a flash in the pan - the fact she didn't win X-Factor and still got signed, coupled with solid critical reviews and beating Jessie J's sales in the UK, maybe she was the real deal. So with perpetual lateness, I gave her debut album Chapter One a listen - how is it?

Well, for a pop debut this year, it's actually pretty good. Nothing that blew my mind or was all that revolutionary, but considering we're looking at a Syco Records product, Ella Henderson's Chapter One did manage to surprise me by having a bit more heft and power than I would have expected. But since she's coming off of Simon Cowell's record label, I think it's time I break out my three criteria for debut pop acts, see if Ella Henderson manages to check the boxes and put together a debut that might actually have some staying power.

So, let's start with the first part: establishing the artist's brand - and upon the first few listens, Ella Henderson did not start off strong. Sure, her voice had a throaty, passionate quality that gave her a lot of presence on the tracks - and if she manages her career right, she could probably make a killing in theater or the right musical - but as expected, her instrumentation fell straight into the category of percussion-heavy, reverb-saturated pop that I've heard time and time again through this year, lacking a lot of instrumental colour. Now to be fair to her, she does have some pretty strong melodies behind her when they are given more focus: 'Ghost' has a gripping chorus that balanced well against the pop-flavoured guitars, 'Mirror Man' had a scratchy retro 60s pop vibe with a stellar guitar line, and on the majority of the softer piano ballads, Ella brought a lot of potent emotion that showed a ton of potential. If she was looking to step into more of the baroque retro pop vein, I could see her standing out, mostly thanks to the fact her vocals are less Lana Del Rey and Meghan Trainor and more Lea Michele or even with some of her 'whistle note' moments close to Mariah Carey.

Of course, unlike Mariah you can tell Ella Henderson is working her ass off to infuse her material with an abundance of dramatic emotion, which takes us to our second point: making sure the artist is placed in the best possible light. And here... well, it's hit and miss. While there are songs that try to overproduce her vocals like 'Empire', 'Give Your Heart Away', and 'Rockets', the vocal production is actually eased back significantly, which does wonders for highlighting her voice, it's very telling that nearly half of this album are stripped back acoustic or piano tracks, because there wasn't a lot of money put behind this album for richer orchestration or for producers who could have better cultivated that vintage sound. The strings sections probably fare the best, but you couldn't convince me any of the horns didn't come from a preset or that the percussion lines weren't imported from a half dozen other albums, and what in the Nine Hells are gang vocals doing on this record? That's the other major issue that irked me with this album, in that it seems to be dragged towards both pop and R&B in instrumentation, and Ella Henderson is the sort of singer who works best in the former category. Her delivery is very poised and theatrical, the type that bleeds of classical training, and while she can go a little broad, it works when she's infusing songs with a lot of potent emotion and is able to belt. In other words, she fits very cleanly in the classic pop mold, and the more this album lets her do precisely that, the better the record is.

And now we get to the trickiest category, and that's establishing personality. Let's be blunt, we've got no shortage of pop singers who opt for a lot of the same subject matter that Ella Henderson does, and while she definitely does carry more maturity than most of them, it's hard not to look at her and say, 'Well, Foxes is doing the same thing with a similar voice, better production and more oblique songwriting, so why don't I just listen to Glorious a few more times'? But after doing precisely that, I still ended up coming back to Chapter One for the songwriting, which is markedly better that one would expect. The 'gimmick' that of the song sequencing, as described by her, is that the first song would describe the situation with the second showing how she gets through it, which means the songs aren't so much self-contained as they are locked in pairs. And I'll be the first to say they could do with a little more connective tissue in the songwriting to drive that point home, but to her credit there are some interesting situations here. Take the pairing of 'Glow' and 'Yours', the former being a 'love conquers all' anthem that comes through with the irony that she hasn't even confessed her love in full yet. Or take the pair of 'Pieces' and 'The First Time', the first where she dumps a guy who doesn't want to work to fix the relationship and where he then goes to date someone just like her instead of fixing his issues. A little self-satisfied in the 'I told you so' vein, but it's not like she's wrong in describing how said guys might behave. Or take the warring emotions of 'All Again' and 'Give Your Heart Away', where she encounters an ex who has supposedly changed, she fights off her own impulses to reconnect as she knows deep down it probably isn't worth the heartache, and it's a great fit for her more mature delivery. And it's telling how the one unpaired song on this album is 'Missed', the moment where she finally has control of the situation, and realizes it's not worth it to pursue this and chooses to let him go once and for all. It's a potent capstone to this chapter and it works for anchoring the album.

So in other words. yeah, I liked Chapter One by Ella Henderson. Yeah, the songwriting isn't quite as detailed or intricate as I'd normally like, and yeah, it'd be nice to see her backed by production with a budget or more interesting producers behind her, but with what she's got, Ella Henderson makes a lot and delivers some pretty damn solid pop songs. She definitely has room to grow as a songwriter, but there's a pretty firm foundation of nuance here that reflects a lot of heartfelt emotion and a good head on her shoulders in terms of defining nuance and making smart relationship choices that are best for her. So for me, I'm giving her a light 7/10 and a recommendation. Folks, Ella Henderson has made some major headway on the UK charts, and she's slowly climbing the charts in Canada, and while I'm not one to make big predictions, if Ella Henderson suddenly gets big in the next year or two, I won't be surprised.

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