Sunday, July 28, 2013

Underrated But Wonderful, White Lilies Island Gives Natalie Imbruglia A Solid Sophomore Album.

The Good: Vocals, Lyrics, Interesting instrumentals
The Bad: Short, Mildly repetitive
The Basics: Decent vocals and catchy tunes make for a pretty solid sophmore effort from Natalie Imbruglia!

Natalie Imbruglia is one of those musical artists who seemed to get nailed with the label "One Hit Wonder" pretty much the minute her single "Torn" hit number one on the charts. "Torn" opened her debut album Left Of The Middle (reviewed here!) big and while there are ample songs on the album that could have been big as well, the album and the artist couldn't place another single that powerfully in the United States again. It is unfortunate that not so many people continued to give Imbruglia the chance; her sophomore album, White Lilies Island is a solid musical effort and it follows up the debut with fewer duds than the first outing.

White Lilies Island is probably best known in the United States for the single "Wrong Impression," which did all right on the adult contemporary charts, but failed to wow pop-rock listeners in 2001 when the album was released. As a result, Natalie Imbruglia seems to have largely faded from the consideration of U.S. audiences. This is unfortunate and listening to White Lilies Island now makes a decent argument for one to give Imbruglia another chance; her style of pop-rock is infectious and surprisingly classy, unlike much of what passes for pop-rock on the radio today.

With twelve tracks, totaling 51:37, White Lilies Island appears to be more of Imbruglia's musical vision than her debut. All of the songs were co-written by Natalie Imbruglia and she provides primary vocals on each track. While she does not play any instruments on the album, nor receive any production credits, the album seems to have the general thematic integrity of the songs written by Imbruglia on her debut.

White Lilies Island is remarkably straightforward in that it is a collection of twelve songs about love and relationships. Right off the bat, Natalie Imbruglia establishes a tone that is captivating by presenting a song that sounds like what it is supposed to be. "That Day" is a frenetic little song about a person who is just in the process of a collapse. The musical protagonist falls down as part of a messy breakdown that leaves her simply looking at the world and reawakening to the simple beauties around her. Musically, it is sloppy and chaotic and it does a wonderful job of illustrating what the song is saying. "That Day" is indicative of the quality of Imbruglia's creative mind on the album; she takes a few risks and they largely pay off.

Perhaps the greatest risk she takes on this fairly heavily produced album - most of the tracks are set to a rich rock and roll sound including guitars, bass, drums and keyboards - is on the album's superlative song, "Hurricane." "Hurricane" puts Imbruglia at the forefront ahead of minimal instrumentals, which forces her voice to carry much of the song. This would normally not be much of a problem, save that "Hurricane" is a fairly repetitive song in terms of poetics. Still, Imbruglia makes it work, even with the repetitions when she sings, "It came on like a hurricane / And I don't understand / And it moved me like a slow dance / Still I don't understand / It pushed me like a tailwind / And I don't understand / And it came in through the back door / And I don't understand / Still I don't understand" ("Hurricane"). Imbruglia makes the repetition work for her, creating a hypnotic track that is haunting and leaves the listener feeling numb, just as the musical protagonist is.

With Imbruglia being branded a one-hit wonder by many, it behooves the listener to try to consider why. For that, I look to the single released from White Lilies Island to try to sell the audience on Imbruglia's Sophomore album. "Torn," the hit from her debut, rocked in part because it had a clear, universal theme. There was a musical protagonist that was broken, confused and hurt. It might well be one of the great breakup songs of the 1990s. White Lilies Island was fronted by the track "Wrong Impression."

"Wrong Impression" has a lot going for it; clear vocals, a fairly infectious pop-tune and a melody that insinuates itself into the listener's mind. The problem with it is that it requires some real attention and a pretty thorough analysis to understand the song. After all, the song is filled with a lot of push-pull motion; it is not the clearest love song in history with its lines like ". . . Haven't you wondered / Why I'm always alone / When you're in my dreams . . . Haven't you wondered / Why you're finding it hard just looking at me . . . Wasn't trying to pull you in the wrong direction . All I wanna do is try and make a connection / Of love" ("Wrong Impression"). Here is a muddled little pop tune where the protagonist feels alone when she dreams of the one she is in love with . . . It's too much thought to be a successful pop song (whatwith most of the music-buying public being young people without any sort of advanced degree in literary analysis). It has the sound, a sugary pop sound, common with many pop hits, but lyrically it fails to make the connection.

Similarly, one of the reasons Imbruglia might be having such a problem following up her declarative hit is that many of her songs simply ask questions. Musings are great for conversations and perhaps a track or two, but they are largely unsatisfying for a musical experience where one is paying to be entertained or enlightened. So, songs like "Sunlight" hold up poorly upon multiple listens as Imbruglia simply asked "Did you ever feel sunlight on your face / Did you ever taste the clouds / Did you ever touch space . . . Did you ever truly live . . . Did you ever breathe hope / Did you ever dance with grace . . ." More than a song that tries to be a simple pop track, the questioning of "Sunlight" becomes rather unfulfilling as a collection of musical musings.

"Sunlight" is the most extreme example of this, though "Do You Love?" is another questioning song. "Goodbye" is a similarly simple song, though the melancholy quality to it is more directly moody than musing. As well, "Satellite" is crippled because the punch of the song is in the asking of a question that goes unanswered by the end of the track.

Fortunately, the album sounds good. White Lilies Island is a well-produced pop-rock album that balances well Imbruglia's mid-range vocals with an impressive array of instruments backing her up. Far from monolithic, the album has sweeping anthemic tracks ("Everything Goes") to near-acoustic songs ("Hurricane"). Much of it is fairly standard guitar and keyboard combinations, but there are catchy tunes.

Moreover, Imbruglia's vocals continue to give her some stretch. She does not remain in the safe territory between alto and soprano, going higher and lower on various tracks in a way that illustrates her willingness to take some musical risks. She is high and musical on "Goodbye" and goes lower for some real gravitas in "Everything Goes."

Anyone who likes strong female artists is likely to find something to enjoy on White Lilies Island.

The best track is "Hurricane," the low point is the unmemorable "Talk In Tongues."

For other works by impressive female solo artists, please visit my reviews of:
The Best Of Sophie B. Hawkins
Glowstars - Heather Nova
The Spirit Room - Michelle Branch


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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