If two of the notable artists on the BBC’s ‘Sound of 2009′ list, Little Boots and La Roux, have borrowed heavily from the 1980s, then Vanessa Brown has rolled back the decades even further to create her debut. Indeed, one might well feel like Marty McFly from ‘Back To The Future’ after playing La Roux and Travelling Like The Light in quick succession. Admittedly this might not feel like the case immediately after hitting the play button on Brown’s grand unveiling; ‘Quick Fix’ opens with a heavy percussive assault and the kind of rock and roll scream normally the watermark of Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The material to come, however, is accurately previewed once the rockabilly guitar and girl-group vocals kick in; the listener may well feel the compulsion to ‘do the bop’ well inside a minute.
Most recent single ‘Shark In The Water’ is the record’s only anomaly with its Scissors Sisters-esque intro and a chorus that rapidly ascends, lifting the song to a power-pop altitude. From then on normal service is resumed, and the middle of the album begins to exhibit a doo-wop-by-numbers approach that becomes slightly tedious, particularly on Brown’s debut single ‘Crying Blood’. She quickly rectifies the slump on the gorgeous ‘Back In Time’, offering the kind of simple yet devastating thoughts one can only stumble upon in the confused aftermath of a relationship (“Why do you wanna hurt me? I did nothing wrong”). The sumptuous production marks this out as an album highlight, helped in no small part by a beat that harks back to The Ronettes and backing vocals reminiscent of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’.
A degree of intimacy is finally introduced on the piano-led ‘I Love You’, on which Brown demonstrates her clear ability to hold a listener captivated with her lovely phrasing as she soulfully delivers personal reflections that reveal touching details about the relationship that has caused her the pain and anger documented thus far. The naïve ‘Crazy Amazing’, which borrows its tune from Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘Heart & Soul’, is playful and executed without shame, leaving the album to close on a sparser note with the title track. A slow beat, handclaps and gentle piano give way to Brown’s vocal as she attempts to adopt a cynical outlook on love but finds that she can’t help herself and the struggle is in vain. It’s a fitting end to a record on which Brown has essentially painted a picture of a failed relationship: love is hard to resist, even when it has messed you up, and if you can get a decent record out of it then even better.
What comes across most clearly on Travelling Like The Light is that Brown sounds like she had tremendous fun making it. The songs are infused with effervescent energy, full of passion and not short of a pop hook or two to boot. Where the album disappoints, however, is in its tendency to lay on the ’50s and ’60s influence too thick – at times Brown sounds as if she’s trying just a little too hard. Debut albums often trip themselves up by straining too much to please when sufficient material is absent, and Travelling Like The Light falls into this category. Still, there is enough here to suggest that Brown will find more strings to her bow given time. Her debut might not be all killer no filler, but she may well outlast many of her contemporaries. We could be travelling with her for a lot longer yet.
[Island; July 13, 2009]
Tagged vv brown