Sunday, March 11, 2007

Career Retrospective: Natalie Imbruglia

Today's post will discuss Natalie Imbruglia, who is key in my autobiography of a music fan (as will be later explained) and who remains one of my favorite pop stars.

My first introduction to the music of Ms. Imbruglia was "Torn", as was everyone else's. I was 15 when it was released and it was a revalation. Unlike many music critics and especially one would presume most pop music critics, I did not grow up listening to music at all. I never listened to the radio and was entirely not cognizant of pop music at all, until high school. Oh, certainly I "liked" some songs, like "Losing My Religion" and "Motown Philly" and "Under the Bridge" but only because my older brother liked them and I was trying to fit in. For my 13th birthday, in 1995, my parents bought for me a CD player. It went unused and gathered dust for well over a year. In high school though, I was introduced, via a couple of friends, to They Might Be Giants. Flood was the first album I bought and I quickly purchased the rest of their catalogue. I started listening to 80's pop. My older brother listened almost entirely to modern rock radio (99X forever y'all), and I enjoyed listening to some of the poppier modern rock hits of the day. I even bought some albums, albums I probably still have around but am now rather embarrassed about, like Radish and Cowboy Mouth and Monaco. In short, I was a pop music fan who knew nothing about pop music and so didn't like any current pop.
Anyways, I was 15 when I first heard "Torn". I first heard it when I saw the video on VH1. I was transfixed. (It remains to this day probably one of my ten favorite music videos of all time). My friends had introduced me to artists, and I had liked bands my brother liked, but this was a pure pop explosion, and I loved it. It opened my eyes to the world of pure pop bliss. It was my first favorite song, and I found out about it all on my own and loved it all on my own. I had first heard it a bit before it absolutely broke out into a smash and never listened to the radio anyways. All I knew was that none of my friends liked it and my brother didn't like it. Music had been kind of a social thing to this point, but this was all mine and I loved it. I guess my entire history as a music fan can, in some ways, be attributed back to this song. (Not to be too melodramatic though, if it hadn't been this song it would have been something else, like "My Favorite Mistake" or "Steal My Sunshine" or "...Baby One More Time").
So, yeah, in America at least, Natalie is the ultimate one hit wonder. "Torn" ruled the US airplay charts for 11 weeks (though it wasn't allowed to chart on the Hot 100 until well after it had peaked, thanks to Billboard rules at the time which eliminated airplay only singles from charting). The followups "Big Mistake" and "Wishing I Was There" more or less failed to make any impact at all, though "Wishing I Was There" was a minor hit. Any discussion of Natalie has to start with "Torn". It's lovely and it's poppy and it's sweet and it's beautiful and I can't possibly be objective about it but I love it to pieces. I've heard it a million times now (quite possibly more than any other song) and I still haven't gotten tired of it. And yeah, it's a cover of an indie song, by a band named Ednaswap, but it's about 100x better than the original. Ednaswap, who had written the song, somehow felt the need to bury that beautiful lifting melody behind layers of distortion and instruments and fuzz. But the point is, while any discussion of Natalie's music has to start with "Torn", by no means does it have to end there.
The weird thing about "Torn" is that it's not really typical of Natalie's music at all. Natalie's music, for the most part, is characterized by oddball, spare instrumentation and very simple melodic lines. These aren't hook filled acoustic pop songs like "Torn", but they generally sport interesting instrumentation, nice (though generally fairly simplistic) lyrics, and one big central hook. Oh, and Natalie is a first rate singer. Her phrasing is outstanding and it turns very simple melodies into amazing ones. What's ironic about Natalie's music is that all of her songs sound like pop covers of grunge/modern rock songs except "Torn", which is her only song that actually is a pop cover of a grunge/modern rock song.
Right from the time I bought Left of the Middle, one track stood out in my head, in addition to torn. "Big Mistake" builds up slowly, with rather spacey instrumentation and not much melody during the verses. But it explodes in the chorus, which is rather rockin. Anyways, at the time that was my favorite non-"Torn" song on the album, but one song that I might now like even more than "Torn" is "Smoke", which IS rather typical of Natalie's career. It's a very, very pretty ballad, well sung and with nice lyrics and with a chorus that's way catchier than it seems like it should be. The lyrics are rather imagery based, about feeling pain and hurting. And the piercing "Whyyyyyy" in the chorus just cuts straight to the heart. It's achingly beautiful and it makes me want to cry every time I hear it. Thanks to "Smoke" and "Torn", this is one of the few albums which have multiple 10/10 songs on it. The actual followup, in America at least, is "Wishing I Was There", which is sunny pop along the lines of "Torn" and which is probably one of the weaker songs on the album, though the verses are great.
It's not just the singles on the album, pretty much all of the songs on the album are at least very good (heh, except "Impressed"). Personal favorites are "One More Addiction" which is probably the most alt-rock songs on the album and features psychadelic guitars in the chorus, which is possibly the catchiest on the entire album; "Pigeons and Crumbs" which is another very pretty ballad like "Smoke", although it's got more busy and more oddball instrumentation behind it, although the melody never really goes anywhere; and "Intuition" (even better than Jewel!) is very mid 90's, but it's got a nice sunny alt-rock sound to it and the melody is extremely strong throughout (warning: will get stuck in your head).
Natalie followd this album up with White Lilies Island, which is a much more downbeat affair entirely. Most of the songs are co-written with Gary Clark, and you can tell because it's all a bit same-y. Though very good nonetheless! This is a whole album of "Smoke"s and "Pigeons and Crumbs"s, gone are the sunny pop numbers like "Torn" and "Intuition" and "Wishing I Was There". The closest to it is "That Day", unsurprisingly a single from the album. The main guitar hook is nice enough here but what really makes this song is Natalie's performance. The verses are basically spoken word, but remain extremely catchy, due to Natalie's phrasing and wordings. It all leads up to a chorus which not much above spoken word itself and which features musical background that is substantially similar to the verses. The whole song plows ahead like a charging rhino, barely going up for air and just showing a hint of vulnerability. Like most Imbruglia songs, the lyrics are extremely imagery based and don't necessarily tell a complete narrative. As far as I can tell it's a breakup song, but clearly the lyrics are conflicted. The conflict in the lyrics though, is belied by the confident and charging vocals, which makes for an interesting contrast. The other single from this album is "Wrong Impression" , which has a very catchy chorus but isn't really as good as some of her better work. In any event, the album is good, though due to the saminess it's the worst of her three albums.
Other than the singles particular highlights: "Beauty on the Fire" rolls along with a very laid back melody into a prechorus. The song seems to die off right after the prechorus, and I start to lament that she hasn't taken it far enough. But just when it seems about to fade off back into the verse it blows into the chorus which really works in the context of the song. More of the odd spacy instrumentation though. "Satellite" is an acoustic pop song, though it doesn't soar like "Torn", it just kind of rides along sweetly and is very pretty. A great love song. If I could play guitar I would totally cover it. "Talk In Tongues" is a very simple song with not much of a melody at all, but it's very low and sad. And it's catchy enough anyways.
I feel like a broken record here which I guess hits to the main criticism of Imbruglia, which is the similarity of it all. Basically spoken word, very melodically simple verse building up into a big catchy pop chorus, is the basic Imbruglia song structure and most of her songs fit the bill. But the pop hooks are good enough and the verses are pretty enough and her performances are charismatic enough to overcome it all. To me at least.
The singles on her third album are "Shiver", which is a nice ballad that has a good catchy bass hook. The melody on the verses is very classic Imbruglia (one Imbruglia criticism: the verses all sound kinda alike), and it builds up to a pretty standard rock ballad chorus but is catchy. "Counting Down the Days" contends for my very favorite non-"Torn" Imbruglia song, with "That Day" and "Smoke", as it's very pretty and very catchy! It's a song about regretting a breakup, and it probably sports the best lyrics of any Imbruglia song in her catalogue. The production adds a lot to the song too. And it's a hundred times more lively than anything on White Lilies Island.
She only turns to Gary Clark for 2 songs on this album, "When You're Sleeping" and "Sanctuary", and you can tell because they sound exactly like the songs on her second album. Gary Clark is apparently kind of a one trick pony here, but when he does the one trick well enough I'm kinda willing to overlook it. I'm glad she's decided to work with multiple co-writers here though, because it adds a bit of new life to the album. She even turns to Kara Dioguardi for two songs, "Starting Today" and "On the Run", which are two of the particular highlights on the album.
Anyways, the music isn't as relentlessly hooky as most of the stuff that I talk up on here, but if you are in the mood for some more downbeat and pretty pop music, Natalie Imbruglia is one of the finer purveyors of that form. Her songs are a bit soundalike, especially on White Lilies Island, so that means it isn't going to be for everybody. But if you find that you like some of the singles that I linked, definitely go out and buy Left of the Middle and Counting Down the Days. She's just finished up a new album, and apparently it will be released in "Spring 2007", which would be any day now.

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Blogger joshall said...

She is going to release her Single Collection on 10th September 2007, with Glorious, the new single on 27th August. To me, it is raned between Torn and Shiver in term of the music! Torn is still remembered until this day!

12:08 AM  

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