Friday, July 8, 2011

Icon Is A New Compilation Of Old Imogen Heap Songs Few Have Heard!

The Good: Vocals are very true, Some interesting music, Duration isn't horrible.
The Bad: No hooks, Not the most compelling writing from Heap, No noticeable difference between Heap and Frou Frou.
The Basics: My wife's gift of the Imogen Heap and Frou Frou compilation Icon was not unappreciated, but it lacks the interesting singles that make me want to hold onto it.

Today, I have a new rule for myself. For those who do not follow my many music reviews, I have a system for purchasing music and it is remarkably simple. I will not buy an album unless I have heard and thoroughly enjoyed three singles from it. A while back, I made an exception to that rule. I had just gotten my first MP3 player and I was excited to learn about how things like iTunes worked, so I bought a copy of Imogen Heap's brand new (at the time) album Ellipse (reviewed here!). My wife noticed that and figured I truly loved the music of Imogen Heap, especially as I had alluded to a sweet and sad song on Hide And Seek (reviewed here!) to her before. So, when the local Borders was going out of business and my wife was pawing through all of the music which was severely discounted and still around, she leapt upon the chance to surprise me with a new album by Imogen Heap and Frou Frou, Icon. It was a sweet gesture and after a month and a half of it sitting around unopened, I finally cracked it open and began listening to it. I am reminded why I have my three-single to buy rule.

The other notable aspect of Icon is that this is my first experience with Heap's band (a duo group with Guy Sigsworth), Frou Frou. It leads me to wonder yet again why people who are successful with another insist on going solo (Rob Thomas, I'm still glaring at you!). There is no discernible difference in the style or quality of music produced by Imogen Heap on her own versus as Frou Frou. Regardless of the lack of differences, this does not sell me on buying up all of the early works of Imogen Heap.

With only twelve tracks, clocking out at 55:32, Icon seems to be the musical vision of Imogen Heap. Heap wrote (or co-wrote, for tracks 2, 7 - 12) all of the songs on the compilation. Heap performs all of the lead vocals on the album and as a member of Frou Frou, she is credited as a co-producer of those tracks. Given how most of the music has a music board creation feel to it (as opposed to artists playing instruments), it is hard to hold it against Heap that she does not play any of the instruments. This appears to be the young musical vision of Imogen Heap.

That vision is pleasantly variable, but it lacks anything truly memorable. She starts off the compilation - which honestly does not have the "assembled" feeling of most compilation albums - with the rock/pop "Angry Angel," which seems like it would be a Goth favorite. It moves into the dissonant, cacophonic sound of "Getting Scared," which has a more Techno, poseur-Goth feel to it, though Heap sings with a real angry passion appropriate to the lyrics and sound of the song. The album goes into more melodic pop with songs like "Oh Me, Oh My" and Heap has a truly beautiful ballad with "Candlelight." The Frou Frou half of the album is more traditional pop rock and I will confess that after eight listens to the entire album, I have found "It's Good To Be In Love" running through my head.

Instrumentally, the diversity of Icon is limited more by the synthesizer and heavy drum combo popular with dance music than by the style those instruments are going for. Imogen Heap borders on trip-hop pop with "Shine" and uses similar instruments in almost entirely different style for "Hear Me Out." The album sounds good to the ear, but the only one that stands apart from the occasionally overbearing audio mash is "Candlelight," which has Heap backed by a sole piano.

Vocally, Icon is a treat to those tired of the same, largely overproduced female vocalists that dominate what is left of the Top 40 stations. Even Heaps later albums, which have suffered because it is unclear how much of the vocals is Imogen Heap and how much is the production elements that accent those vocals, have less authentic-sounding vocals than on Icon. Heap lets her voice soar naturally from alto to the soprano ranges on "Come Here Boy" before production elements hit in the refrain to blend more with the album's instrumentation.

What undersold this compilation for me was the lyrics. Imogen Heap first came to my attention from a friend who knew I was going through a rough breakup. She let me listen to "Hide And Seek" and encouraged me to have a good cry through the imagery of loss and abandonment that song possessed. There are no truly amazing lines on the songs on Icon that would have done that for me. Indeed, only "Candlelight" has even interesting emotion and images to the lines. With lines like "I am alone, surrounded by / The colour blue / Inside a poem, the only / Words I ever knew / Washing my hands, of the / Many years untold / For now I am banned, my / Future is to unfold" ("Candlelight"), the song manages to resonate in an emotional way, but it is the exception to the rule on this album.

Sadly, the rule for Icon is more like "Come Here Boy" or "Angry Angel." While "Angry Angel" opens with evocative imagery - "This is an obsession, a kind of agression with himself / It's the way he'll always be / He loves to rebel to go against his ten commandments / For him, thats just being free. / And he always will, get his thrills, the only way he knows how / Well it might make you frown / But he does the love, being that dove, roaming where he cares to go / To a state of mind that no-one knows" - it quickly degenerates into repeating its title. Similarly, long strains of "Come Here Boy" are just Imogen Heap slowly wailing out that title over and over again.

With Frou Frou and the writing duties, presumably, split, Icon does not explode into anything more relevant. Lines like "Snap out of it / Do just what I tell you / And no one will get hurt / Don't come any closer" ("Psychobabble") are hardly going to set the world on fire, but they are better than most lines from pop-rock music today.

Ultimately, this might be a treat for fans of Imogen Heap who would buy her albums blind, but for those more discriminating, it is a much tougher sell. The best track is "Candlelight," the low point is the utterly unmemorable "Must Be Dreaming."

For other intriguing female artists, please check out my reviews of:
South - Heather Nova
Bomb In A Birdcage - A Fine Frenzy
Many Great Companions - Dar Williams


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!

© 2011 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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