Former Pipette’s solo debut is a beguiling portrait of an artist unbound.
Alex Denney 2010
Pop music comes in many and varied forms, but sometimes it’s just whatever makes you crackle. Such is the lesson Rose Elinor Dougall took from her split with The Pipettes, the all-female Brighton troupe with which the 24-year-old songstress made her name. The group made polka-dotted 50s pastiche their stock-in-trade, adhering to a strict pop formula which made them fun for a while but a kitsch-laden drag in the long run.
Perhaps sensing a best-before date drawing close, Dougall bowed out from the band in 2008 with ambitions towards launching a solo career. Two years later and she’s tipped her hand with Without Why, a debut which has felt a long time in coming in spite of the not-insubstantial amounts of hype which have preceded its release. As a re-examination of what it means to be a pop writer, however, you’d have to say it’s been worth the wait.
An adult-oriented record of a very organic sort, Without Why is free of the crass signifiers that moniker sometimes brings to mind. That nothing on here lingers long beyond the four-minute mark signals an overall pop-ness of intent. Likewise Lee Baker’s production, which is as clear as a bell and sympathetic to a tee. But it’s also a more complex beast than that, drawing on Brit-folk greats like Sandy Denny and the chiming grace of Felt songwriter Lawrence Hayward for its ambitious blueprint.
Take Stop/Start/Synchro, for instance, which combines celestial harpsichord with a choppy, Motown-ish rhythm section. What’s nice here is how the hooks aren’t welded shamelessly on – rather, the song is allowed to breathe and develop towards its wrenching lyrical climax, neatly evocative of that maudlin feeling that comes at the end of a relationship: “I was once beautiful to you”. Even Another Version of Pop Song, apparently conceived of as a bridge between Dougall’s songwriting work with The Pipettes and her solo material, contains not a single sugar-coated chorus lick in sight, instead emphasising a two-note guitar riff in subtler and more affecting ways.
Find Me Out is beautifully realised, all lowing strings, fluttering percussion and just-so touches of double bass. Third Attempt’s brushed, gossamer arpeggios don’t even bother to crescendo – the pop equivalent of leaving your socks on during sex – but the track is revealed as courageous, the lyrics capturing a moment of uncertainty which resurfaces throughout: “Was this person not the answer, really just a question in disguise?”
Tracks like Watching and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra-esque Goodnight steal a march on still-less familiar territory, marking out Dougall as a serious talent and Without Why a beguiling portrait of an artist unbound.
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