English songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Imogen Heap is a one-woman machine. For over 11 years, she has made a distinctive brand of music that is a mix of electronica, experimentalism, electro-pop, and rock.
Sound-wise and vocally, her songs range from the dramatic to the majestic, and contain hints of everyone from Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Tori Amos, to Annie Lennox and Bjork. In fact, Heap’s ex-Frou Frou partner Guy Sigsworth co-wrote songs with such noted non-conventional pop artists as Seal and Bjork in the early and mid-1990s before co-producing Heap’s 1998 debut album i Megaphone with Lennox’s Eurythmics bandmate Dave Stewart.
Since then Heap has made three records, one with Frou Frou (2002’s Details) and two more solo full-lengths, including the two-time Grammy nominated Speak For Yourself (2005) and its eagerly anticipated follow-up, Ellipse (RCA/White Rabbit).
Her new album debuted at a personal career-high #5 on Billboard’s 200 chart last month and also debuted #1 on Billboard’s Internet album and Dance/Electronic album charts. When you take a close listen to the album’s 13 tracks, it’s not hard to see why.
To start, the warm electro-pop track “First Train Home” retains the infectiousness of the previous album’s hit single “Goodnight and Go” and is an instant album highlight.
Besides being a call-to-action to clean up our planet, “Earth” is an experimental all a cappella track with a digital vocal harmonizer coloring its melodies, much like Speak For Yourself hit “Hide & Seek.” It also contains some of the oddball lyrics Heap is known for coming up with, such as her imagination of “lego land empires.”
The album loses steam for a bit on the calm but largely unmemorable electronic track “Little Bird.” It picks up its perkiness once again with the slightly spooky electro-pop love song “Swoon.”
Ellipse was recorded in various places around the world, including Hawaii, Japan, China, Thailand and at her newly built studio inside the basement of her family’s 18th century home in London, England. The new album’s name is a reference to the “elliptical” shape of this house.
“Bad Body Double,” written in Japan, is about looking at oneself in a bathroom mirror one day and not liking the image staring back at you. The sight of healthy and fit Japanese women surrounding Imogen Heap and the sudden realization that her own body was out of shape inspired this album highlight.
Besides its overtly catchy rhythm, it features brilliant production, complete with actual bathroom-sounding reverb for a short stretch early on and a snare drum made via a sample of Heap slapping her own buttocks, according to an interview of Heap in The Sunday Herald in August. (Talk about experimental sounds!)
The romantic number “Between The Sheets” features some of the catchiest piano phrases Heap’s written yet, but is over before you know it (and seems a lot shorter than 2:54).
“Aha!,” with its brooding synths and Middle Eastern-sounding cinematic strings is a typical enchanting Imogen Heap track, one clearly ready for a future soundtrack to a scary film. In fact, “Aha!” appeared in a 2009 episode of the new Melrose Place, and “Bad Body Double” appeared in the current (and fourth) season of Heroes, which is no surprise given her contribution of the song “Not Now But Soon” to the 2008 soundtrack to this hit NBC show.
Heap has become a master of marketing her music to TV, films, and soundtracks over the years, from the Garden State soundtrack (with Frou Frou) to The Chronicles of Narnia and the teen drama The O.C. being just some examples.
Elsewhere, spacey, warped beats accompany the romantic cellos of “2-1,” while “The Fire” recalls “Candlelight” from her debut album, as well as Under The Pink-era Tori Amos, due to its ghostly melodic piano runs. Album closer “Half Life” has delicate strings and Sarah McLachlan-esque piano chords – think “Angel” – but doesn’t actually sound like the Canadian songstress overall.
In all, Ellipse is a well-written and arranged album (by Heap), at least 80% of which is worth re-experiencing again and again. Compared to the British songwriter’s other two solo works, this one is, relatively speaking, her quietest collection, even if at least half the material is full of upbeat music.
It’s the first album in which she does not have at least one outright rocker to shake things up a bit, even if “Tidal” does rock a bit towards its end. It’s not a disappointment but a sign of a new direction. And with a batch of engaging songs like Ellipse has, Heap’s rabid fan base will surely continue to follow her career in whatever direction it takes her.