Wednesday, October 19, 2011

IN REVIEW: Nicola through 'Cinderella's Eyes'

It's easy to label Ms. Nicola Roberts as the red-headed stepchild of the Girls Aloud group. It's certainly not a fair tagging, but if her recent debut solo album bow, Cinderella's Eyes, proves anything, it says her overshadowing by her more famous (or rather infamous) groupmates was in seriously poor taste.

Like many of my blogger friends, I hungered for Nicola's solo release since the Alouders announced their "temporary" break in 2009. To be totally truthful, I had high hopes for all of the post-Aloud solo bows -- and in hindsight, each of the paths taken by the three members who braved the solo dalliance are very much in keeping with what a part of me was expecting. Cheryl Cole wowed with her mainstream (and sex) appeal but made us question if her solo efforts were skin deep. Nadine Coyle tried to harness her big voice (with mixed effects). And then there's Nicola. 

Cinderella's Eyes is a monumental record. So much so that it's taken me some time to fully digest it. Girls Aloud is no doubt a very glamorous girl group with an incredibly cheeky appeal. To many pop music enthusiasts, they are among the holiest of the holy (and a lot of that is thanks to the incredible writers/producers at Xenomania). Nicola's record stripped away a lot of the gloss that surrounded Girls Aloud's material -- but retained what made Aloud so incredible: their almost avante-garde, somewhat cheeky lyrical content and risk-taking pop sound. Despite being very alternately synthpop in sound (something only British Popstars are able to do so well, it seems), it still feels remarkably stripped down and raw -- a more honest, insider look into arguably Girls Aloud's most relatable member. While listening to the record, it's hard not to be moved. Nicola comes off as incredibly likeable and real, despite coming from a group that has been relatively plagued by suspicions of cattiness and falsehood. 

While she might not be Aloud's biggest voice (I think that title goes to Ms. Coyle, personally), when Nicola gains full control of the spotlight, it's not just about her pipes (which sound phenomenal throughout), but about her introspective statements. If anyone in Aloud has something to say, it's Nicola. Her first single, the Diplo-produced "Beat of My Drum", is a fun party cut to be sure, but is in no way a true harbinger of what to expect in Cinderella's Eyes. The meat and potatoes of the record centers of on Nicola's honest lyrical content (Roberts co-wrote all of the cuts save "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime", a cover of 1980 single by The Korgis that was also covered by Beck a few years back). She owns the material and despite the hurdles she's obviously overcome, she sounds ever comfortable in her own skin now, and that's what makes her so incredible.

When I say honest, I truly mean it. As much as I adore the more up-beat cuts "Beat of My Drum", "Porcelain Heart" or even second single, the Dragonette co-produced "Lucky Day" (and especially it's mashup remix "Lucky Day Dancer", which samples Snap!'s 1992 dance hit "Rhythm Is A Dancer" -- easily one of the best uptempos of 2011) for the sheer pulsating amazingness, it's the deeper, more intriguing cuts, like the painful "sticks + stones" that made me really fall for Roberts. The song openly discusses the emotional abuse she endured growing up, as well as during her tenure in Girls Aloud, suffering from vicious bullying.

How funny that I was too young for so many things
Yet you thought I'd cope with being told I'm ugly
Over and over I'd read it, believe it
Said "no" to the shrink
I can fix me, I think
I got friends in my head
They've got me on the mend
I am pretty in my mirror
Easy to pretend
Seventeen and thought that
I'd won the jackpot
Seems I didn't read between the lines of this one

I can't think why I could of made you so, so angry
Your bullets, I don't feel them
Come on and fire at me...

Bet that you think that you're on your own
And you've no one's hand to hold
Sticks and stones hurt just a little

It's heavy stuff for a pop record, and sung in such a soft, quivering kind of voice. No small wonder why the song has become a bit of an unexpected anthem for anti-bullying in the UK, especially in schools. It's hard not to be affected by the power of it, as I think everyone can relate to being victim of barbed words.

Much of Cinderella's Eyes reads like an anthematic call to arms for the underdog, proving there is so much more than meets the eye. Another of my favorite cuts, "Gladiator", is full of sarcastic barbs toward suffered falseness in a world where appearances are most important:

I'm Miss Mischievous
Innocent to the bitter end
Make up is make believe
So slap it on, be my best friend
I had to call a fireman
My hair was burning bridges
I'm shooting bullets from my chest
I'm Super Woman, bitches...

Here I go...
Gonna tap...
On the mic now
Say my name now

Those days, I'd stumble in the dark
Angels, give me back my spark
The wrong girl trapped in the right place
I've had enough, I've dusted off
And wiped my blood on you

It's truly difficult for me to enumerate into words how much I love this album -- from front to back, top to bottom, beginning to end. It's easily (and by far) the best of the post-Girls Aloud solo releases. I might be so bold as to say it's the best of all of the Aloud's released material. All that and it is definitely one of the very best albums of 2011, period. If not the best. Do yourself a favor. Grab a copy.

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