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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1572

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Imogen Heap: Ellipse
by George Graham

(RCA Records 88697-50605 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/16/2009

Technology has always been a part of music. Every musical instrument going back to the earliest, involves engineering some device to make sound. How people use that technology is, of course, the difference between good art and bad. A couple of hundred years ago when the peak of technology was the elaborate pipe organs that are still marvels, it still took a good deal of skill on the part of the musicians to make music with them. Today, digital and computer technology are not only used for the generation of sounds, but the performances as well. So it's not hard for someone to boot up the software, play around for a while and come up with something that sounds like music. But it takes a genuine musician to go beyond the pre-fab sounds and sequences of so-called "laptop audio" to make something that has some substance and creativity.

This week we have a fascinating example of an artist who has embraced technology in multiple ways to make a new recording that goes well beyond typical commercial electronic pop, but which nevertheless has already found wide audiences. She is Imogen Heap, and her new, third solo recording is called Ellipse.

British multi-instrumentalist, synthesist, composer and vocalist Imogen Heap was born into a not particularly musical family in 1977. While attending boarding school, she did not much get along with the music teacher there, so she took it upon herself to teach herself electronic music and sequencing on an Atari computer. Later, she hooked up with pop artist Nik Kershaw, and consequently was signed to a record label at age 18. Also at an early age, she was booked to perform at the 1996 Prince's Trust concert in London, sharing the bill with Eric Clapton and the Who. She released her debut album in 1998, but was dropped by her record label. In 2001 she was part of a group called Frou Frou, which also enjoyed some commercial success. But she resumed her solo career, including releasing her material independently, before again being picked up by a major label, releasing her Speak for Yourself, which was nominated for two Grammy awards. Some of the songs from that CD were also used in films.

The making of her new CD Ellipse involved not only the contemporary technology used for making and manipulating music, but Ms. Heap has developed a large base of fans which she has involved though Twitter and a sequence of video logs, letting them know how the recording was coming day by way, and also involving them in seeking ideas and sounds, which have been incorporated into the music. Also the CD booklet's artwork was contributed by fans who would submit images through website Flickr, based the song lyrics she was putting out. And, in order to seek feedback from fans, she would use web postings to let them know about small-scale preview events at various locations, inviting her fans to come and listen and give feedback to the new recording in her presence.

It's all rather innovative, at least in making use of the current technology in creative ways and in combination. And with over 700,000 fans following the development of the recording project, the CD has immediately gone to the upper reaches of the Billboard charts.

Having and using the technology is one thing, but making worthwhile art is another. Fortunately, perhaps because of the ideas coming in, but I would say largely due to her own creativity and skill as a musician and composer, Ellipse is one of the best electronic-based pop albums I have heard in a long time. It's sonically interesting -- while avoiding a number of the cliches that the style has accumulated -- and it's lyrically worthwhile.

While there are some musical guests, the great majority of the sounds are from Ms. Heap, playing various keyboards, numerous synthesizers and doing the appealing, sometimes electronically altered vocals. She also plays a little guitar, and employs some additional guitar and string players to round out the instrumentation.

The CD opens with a song called First Train Home, which does incorporate a lot of the ingredients of 21st Century electronic pop, but uses them in interesting ways. <<>>

Also with an outwardly electro pop sound is Wait It Out, which quickly shows the creative way Ms. Heap uses the technology to surpass the cliches. She waxes somewhat philosophical in the lyrics. <<>>

On her previous recordings, Ms Heap has done creative things with multiply overdubbed and electronically processed vocals. This recording further builds on that. A track called Earth is essentially a cappella, and brilliant in its execution. <<>>

Also strongly based on Ms. Heap's vocals is a song called Little Bird, which features a minimal synthesizer line that suggests birdsong while Ms. Heap's vocals do the rest. <<>>

Another highlight of the album is a Between Sheets, a kind of love song in waltz time also with relatively minimal instrumentation. <<>>

Ms. Heap includes a song with cleverly whimsical lyrics, Bad Body Double, which considers the question of who is that not very attractive person there in the mirror. <<>>

The CD is not without its songs that seem aimed at wider pop audiences. With its more danceable beat, Swoon heads down that path, though it's not without its more interesting musical moments. <<>>

On the other hand, the track named Aha! reflects the more eclectic, and sometimes downright quirky side of Ms. Heap. Perhaps reminiscent of Kate Bush or Tori Amos, the piece is also one of the creative highlights of the CD.

Ellipse by Imogen Heap is a thoroughly engaging recording that makes very creative and artistic use of the technology which otherwise has transformed so much of today's commercial pop music into lifeless tedious computer sequences. Ms. Heap uses the tools of the digital computer-based studio technology in a way that helps to realize their potential, rather than just being a poor substitute for real musicians. She's a talented composer and lyricist, so she has a substantial creative foundation on which the electronic sounds can be built. She's also an appealing vocalist. Her interaction with her fans through the Internet no doubt contributed to substance of this recording. Release was delayed some while she tweaked it and worked with her on-line community, and even used them to suppress a prematurely released version of Ellipse.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." Normally this kind of heavily electronically oriented and digitally manipulated recording will have a dead, artificial sound, with usually all its dynamic range compressed out of it. But Ellipse makes use of loud and soft, and actually maintains some of the volume differences that are rare among such recordings. But I would quibble with the occasionally obvious use of electronic pitch shifting on Ms. Heap's vocals. I'm sure she is very much capable of singing on key, but it was probably added as an effect, which is turning into a fad. It's a sound that drives me up the wall.

Nevertheless, Imogen Heap shows that she is one of those rare artists who both cleverly exploits technology and makes worthwhile music irrespective of the digital bits.

(c) Copyright 2009 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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