Imogen Heap, Ellipse
By Jessica Misener
August 25, 2009
We review the latest from the pop-electronica singer.
Imogen Heap’s big moment of fame was, like most exposure in today’s pop culture, the result of parody. Her song "Hide and Seek," a ballad so overwrought with vocoder it made T-Pain sound like garage rock, was first employed in an episode of The O.C. and then by the SNL crew who aped the television scene in a viral sketch. Once Andy Samberg smears himself with fake blood as your song plays in the background, you’re at least going gold; maybe even platinum if Justin Timberlake is involved.
But despite her unintentional comic notoriety, Heap isn’t cracking one-liners with her first album in four years, Ellipse. The British chanteuse has slightly nuanced her sound since her Alanis-like debut I, Megaphone and 2005’s lush sonic-scape Speak for Yourself. She then scored a track on that indie behemoth, the Garden State soundtrack, as half of Frou Frou, but has still remained immune to any kind of major musical exposure.
Is that about to change? Not one to truck in a production team, Heap recorded and mixed her new album solo with her laptop and Garage Band software. Ellipse is richer and displays more world music influences than her first albums; yet, she still doesn’t veer from her standard pop sun-dappeled by electronica. Album opener and first single "First Train Home" chugs out an airy railroad of pleasant melodies, and "Swoon" benefits from a haunted-house organ and a taut electronic beat. Heap channels The Album Leaf well on the dripping and morose "Canvas."
But sadly, there’s nothing here as arresting or hooky as “Headlock” or “Daylight Robbery” from Speak, and too many songs glisten with a tired veneer of Delerium world beats or trip-hoppy Dido ballads. "Wait It Out" starts off meek and sails into a soaring crescendo but stays sonically at an uninteresting cruising altitude. On “Bad Body Double,” a low-self-esteem catharsis, Heap mires a creative concept with cringe-worthy lyrics like “We look very similar, except she's got some grays and a little extra weight on the sides.” "Little Bird" bears an ironic resemblance to Tori Amos' "Black Dove,” but lacks all of the latter’s poignant charm.
Ellipse’s major flaw is its muddiness. With nothing crisp and remarkable, the electronic ballads become tedious and draw inevitable comparisons to a sound that peaked five to ten years ago. The crackling layers of production on Ellipse obscure Heap’s eclectic voice and deftness with melody; it’s a shame she polished all the smart jagged edges to a mathematical smoothness. A little asymmetry never hurt anyone.