Readers of Flop of the Pops will be well acquainted with my love and appreciation of Team Ginge's H.B.I.C., Miss Nicola Roberts. She shot to fame back in 2002 after appearing on ITV1's televised talent search Popstars: The Rivals and becoming one of the five female contestants to make it through into all-female pop group Girls Aloud, whose lead single was to compete with the lead single released by a rival all-male group (the short-lived One True Voice) for the highly coveted spot of #1 on the UK Top 40 charts on Christmas week. With a marketing campaign centered around the slogan "Buy girls, bye boys" the Girls' (now iconic) lead single "Sound of the Underground" shot right to the top of the charts, trumping the boys (who peaked at #2 and broke up soon after, despite being the original favorites). A Platinum-selling album and three more top charting singles - "No Good Advice" (peaked at #2 on the UK Top 40), "Life Got Cold" (#3), "Jump" (#2) - followed, establishing Girls Aloud as one of the most potent forces in British pop and making Nicola, together with her four band mates, one of the most recognized and talked about British celebrities of the past decade.
More singles, more albums, tours, endorsement deals, reality shows, documentaries, movie cameos and plenty more besides followed. From 2002 to 2009 (when they went on hiatus to pursue solo careers) Girls Aloud scored 20 consecutive UK Top ten singles, five BRIT Awards' nominations and amassed a joint fortune of over £25 million.
Now Nicola is "back" (not that she ever really left or went anywhere else) with her own solo album, "Cinderella's Eyes", officially released in the United Kingdom on September 26th 2011. Now, before I go into talking about the album itself, this is probably the moment to explain that I never really "experienced" the totality of Girls Aloud, as most of my readers will have done. I heartily enjoyed Sound of the Underground and their other singles from their debut album, but a move abroad at this crucial point in the development of Girls Aloud (and by extension, Nicola) as a Pop phenomenon and bonafide superstars deprived me of being an onlooker to their meteoric rise in fame, of ever hearing their big hits rinsed by radio and television. I remember the girls on Popstars The Rivals, I remember the painfully shy sixteen year old Nicola becoming a household name overnight, I remember hearing an enjoyable cover of "Walk This Way" alongside Sugababes a few years ago, and that's about it.
As such, while I may have lost out on Girls Aloud, I have been more than recompensed by getting to experience Nicola without the preconceptions and tinted shades of a Girls Aloud fan. I don't know much of the group's dynamics, of their partnership with Xenomania, how the vocals were split, who did and said what, and all the other details that fans like to squabble about endlessly. I'm not expecting Nicola to sing like she did in Girls Aloud because honestly, I haven't the faintest what her individual voice sounded like, especially on the group's most recent output.
Nicola's solo campaign kicked off in May this year with the announcement of lead single, the feisty "Beat Of My Drum", together with the launch of her official website and Twitter and the debut of the first episode of her YouTube exclusive series, "Through Nicola's Eyes". The song premiered on June 2nd and followed shortly by the music video and an on-air on-sale release on the 5th. The song was produced by Dimitri Tikovoi - best known for producing Placebo's Meds and writing & producing on both of Sophie Ellis-Bextor's last two albums - and Diplo, who has remixed and produced for numerous A-listers, most notably producing M.I.A.'s hit "Paper Planes" and Chris Brown's "Look At Me Now". Coupling such a production pedigree with Nicola's first cry of freedom, one couldn't end up with anyone but the emphatic flurry of ferocity that is "Drum", a decidedly British counterpart to Beyoncé's "Run The World". (Run The World was also produced by Diplo and heavily samples his club hit "Pon De Floor", whose influence is also highly evident on "Drum").
"Drum" is followed, both on the album's track listing and as a single, by "Lucky Day", co-written with the irreproachable Dragonette. Fans who doubted the quickly revised image of what Nicola Roberts' solo career as a quirky Pop queen might amount to were not disappointed with the follow-up to 'Drum'; it's just as energetic and emphatic but devoid of any clear outside influences (as with Drum/Pon De Floor). One can tell it's one of the first solo songs Nicola ever worked on (as indeed it is) just by how all-out the ginger star goes with her vocal experimentation here; the "shriller" aspect of Nicola's voice is not only evident but actively, purposedly showcased here - a defiant cry of freedom from a young woman tired of being told what to do and how to do it (a recurring theme throughout the whole ensemble).
The third track on the album is "Yo-yo", originally intended by Nicola and her team to be her lead single before being replaced last-minute. One can see why - whilst it lacks the brazen energy of Beat Of My Drum and the frantic joy of Lucky Day, it's a far less offensive offering for the casual listener and nowhere near as full on and polarizing in opinion as the two. The song features the first prominent appearance of Nicola's falsetto on the LP, which works brilliantly.
The album title track "Cinderella's Eyes" immediately impacts as one of the most obvious candidates for single treatment on the album. With a highly infectious chorus and lyrics such as "You better pucker up or die/be mine, say I was with you last night" and tales of a ginger bread man trying to seduce the dairy-allergic Nicola, the song is crying out for a full release. Nicola warbles and ventures once again into her falsetto atop club-ready beats that show great promise of how 'Eyes' might remix brilliantly for the dance floor.
"Porcelain Heart", originally intended as Drum's B-side, follows next. It's a great piece of "quirky, bonkers pop" (as her PR people put it best) and features a Whitneyesque belt that is STILL giving me life. It segues into the rock-tinged slow-paced confessional titled "i", which brings us the lyrical brilliance of "I'm scared to wake up one day/ And find that my bubble's burst / I'm scared that someone else has got the new collection first/ I'm scared of seeing ghosts / I'm scared of the unknown / I'm scared to be some two faced person's little stepping stone / I don't like the people that leave comments on the internet / They preach they're perfect while they're killing you with intellect / I don't like that you won't let me speak out irrationally / because you think that it won't sit well Universally, / I hope that one day we stop striving for perfection / I hope that everybody loves my new direction". Note Nicola's record label Polydor is a subsidiary of Universal Music Group - jus' saying.
Track seven is Nicola's heart felt rendition of "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" originally sang by The Korgis back in 1980, and covered since then by everyone from Erasure and Yazz to Vanessa Carlton, Sharon Corr and Beck. Nicola does the song justice and successfully makes it her own, as evidenced by how naturally the tracks before and after it segue into and follow from it. The song is notable for some very strong vocal moments and rather sounds like something Beyoncé should have recorded on her latest LP.
Track eight is the airy and upbeat "Say It Out Loud", a high energy electro-pop cut with some 8-bit bleeps inter-spliced throughout. It's somewhat overshadowed by "Gladiator", which is somewhat akin to something Gwen Stefani and Ashlee Simpson might sing; Nicola seems to be singing through gritted teeth and comes across uncompromising and quite fierce. This is probably where Nicola (or her label) showed the most restraint on not tagging a rent-a-rapper onto, as is commonly done by the majority of young ladies striking out for solo careers these days.
The next two tracks, "Fish Out Of Water" and "Take A Bite". On first listen both songs seemed to lack the energetic brilliance and quirkiness of what preceded it. Even so, they're light years away from being 'bad', or even 'mediocre', and would garner more praise in less magnificent settings. "Fish" especially is a grower and after a few listens finally struck me as the most beautiful song in this set. "Bite" is blessed with an awesome, guitar-strumming introduction, and ends very nicely too, it's just the bits in between that are off-the-mark for me. Nicola's rap verse alone is enough to make this song more than worthwhile. The song is reminiscent of something I've heard before, somewhere, someday, but I can't pin-point it to save my life.
The LP closes with the wonderfully brutal "stick + stones", which I've talked about before. It's a tragically transparent song that draws heavily from Nicola's struggle with being dubbed the "ugly one" in Girls Aloud and seems to resonate in a huge way with pretty much everyone who has heard it - no doubt, a perfect choice for third single, as indeed it seems it will be.
Conclusion: As a whole, "Cinderella's Eyes" is incredibly consistent, with numerous vocal, lyrical and production highlights. Nicola is shockingly candid at crucial points and unpretentiously interlaces her recurring themes of insecurity, love, vengeance and new-found triumph through quirky electro-pop and experimental numbers. While similarities can be drawn between individual tracks and the work of other artists, overall the album is quite unlike anything I've heard before, straddling very comfortably the indie/Top 40 divide and incorporating a wide range of sounds and influences into a single solid offering that flows perfectly. Hardcore fans expecting to hear "Nicola from Girls Aloud" might well be disappointed, but casual fans will be more than pleasantly surprised with what is - by far - the most genuine and most memorable solo offering by any member of the group (thus far - they're all still alive) and perhaps the very best album of this year (thus far).
It's a testament to the overall quality of things that any one of the first five tracks would have worked perfectly as a lead single and pretty much every song could be called a "stand out". Repeated listens only serve to endear the songs to the listener even more.
And there you have it my friends. Follow Nicola at @NicolaRoberts and be sure to get your own legal copy of "Cinderella's Eyes", which is already available for pre-order on iTunes and all other major digital retailers.