Little Boots - Hands
I’d have gambled my grandmother on this not being much cop. More fool me. But that’s what happens when you develop such a robust anti-hype shield that any new pop act given a mere half paragraph of the ‘Look out for them in 2009!’ kind demands almost instant dismissal. And isn’t that a rule which applies to just about everyone who manages to scrawl their “X” on any old tinpot outfit’s ‘contract’ these days ? Apply that caution, kids. Surely the greatest bounty comes sneaking out of the long grass? But, like I say, more fool me this time. Victoria Hesketh, best known of late as a member of promising dance outfit Dead Disco, is now Little Boots. ‘Hands’, beautifully trailered this past year by an ongoing series of Youtube home videos in which Hesketh plays most of its songs, as well as a smart choice of covers, in her bedroom, is, against the odds, a dream of a record.
It’s a debut album that manages to slink its way laudably between the dual demands of glittery style and skilled endeavour, delivers songs as well as shimmer. Let us shy away from the tedious comparisons and compartmentalisation of late. If you really must revisit the style mags’ current obsession with Women Who Can Do Music, you know where the newsagents is. It does no-one any favours at all to put a critical lasso around every Ladyhawke, every La Roux and every Little Boots and offer scant praise just because they’ve all managed to menstruate as well as manage an A-D-E progression. Least of all the writers.
All that really matters is that Victoria Hesketh has fashioned a record that captures what would appear to be polar opposites of her aesthetic leanings. Those of us who’ve been drawn to those home videos will have found ourselves nodding sagely at her playful ambition. That she managed to translate Girls Aloud’s ‘Sexy No No No !’ into bedroom lo-fi as well as turning out a frighteningly good reading of Joni Mitchell’s ‘River’ points towards tastes and intentions catholic enough to erase most doubts in a flash. ‘Hands’ sounds like an album made by a young woman in love with music and in love with its possibilities. Pitched in that difficult to nail middle ground between wide-eyed dreamy frolics and seen-it-all-already, flinty cynicism, these twelve (ish …) songs offer a much needed does of youthful exuberance coupled to savoir faire and sanity. Twin themes: ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and its unhappy bedfellow ‘Baby, Now That I’ve Found You’. What more do you need? There is precious little on the planet’s economic and environmental meltdown and even less on the futility of war, and for that we give thanks. But there’s quite a lot on what it feels like to hate yourself for still flailing pathetically after someone who won’t love you back. If ‘Hands’ is even vaguely autographical, Victoria Hesketh clearly has no problem grabbing hold of the ‘L’ word. (And none losing it either.) And if it’s not, then you’re confusing me with someone who cares. ‘Hands’ is such a characterful, chromatic confection, its deeper provenance can go swing.
No doubt once the shackles of industry and expectation really start to tighten, Hesketh may well turn out to have ‘something to say’, and substitute her deliciously abstract song titles (a plus, it must be noted) for those that offer a touch more ‘commentary’. Ugh. With that potential pressure in mind, the BBC’s ‘Sound of 2009’ top spot notwithstanding, you turn away from her supposed peers and find yourself drawn to someone like Kate Bush, a similarly prodigious artist who entered the fray at a younger age than Hesketh but with similarly weighty expectations. Like Bush, whose debut delivered, you hope these Boots, clearly made for walking, have in them a marathon and not just a sprint, for ‘Hands’ is everything you might have hoped, but dared not hope.
The songs. Oh yes.
What slightly stops the breath is not just that they deliver on a foot-tapping, choon level, but that they showcase a lyrical moxie you so often move into the ‘unrealistic expectations’ column. On the blistering ‘Mathematics’, a stomper that seems to shed chorus after chorus, we get: “Don't know my Fibonacci or Pythagoras/But the only formula I know will work for us is that/When we're together in the sum of our parts/It's far greater than what we added up to at the start.” Call me old-fashioned, but it near chokes me up when I see a good old AABB rhyme scheme in a pop song these days. (So often it’s the heavy thud of something more like AABZ – forget the C, even.) Hey, no-one’s promoting Pam Ayres ahead of Emily Dickinson, you understand, but a bit of discipline every now and then, eh?
‘New in Town’ you will no doubt know, and as an opener it’s nigh on perfect. That said, its pounding stomp is actually about as muscular as ‘Hands’ gets. The remainder, a beautifully realised mix of pulsing synth pop, is both sleek and chic. Musically, the comparisons to date have been reasonably on the ball but a little more detail can only help. Yes, it brings to mind classic Pet Shop Boys. Hell, what doesn’tthis year? Yes, it’s a little bit Kylie (most obviously, the steely beats of ‘Fever’), a little bit Annie and at times, more than a little bit Saint Etienne. On the odd track you hear echoes of Goldfrapp’s ‘Supernature’ with its similarly skewed take on disco and, always a plus, you suspect Victoria knows ABBA’s ‘The Visitors’, their frosty, final album, synth-drenched and as affecting a chronicle of battered hearts as you’ll find in the modern pop era. (I propose adding a cover of ‘Under Attack’ to the repertoire, Ms. Boots, if you’re taking requests.) But ‘Hands’ defines itself so very well as nothing other than itself, carries enough weight of character and identity to stand out from the ho-hum, that … well, influences schimfluences. Little Boots is most definitely Little Boots.
The songs, back to them, keep the pace. The Korg swell of ‘Earthquake’ tests the foundations. ‘Stuck on Repeat’, previously released independently, deserves another chance to secure our devotion. It’s astounding, and the album’s sparkling peak, built on a spare, sequenced beat and its breathless “Every time I try to break free …” hook. Shudder every time. ‘Click’ slows the pace and laments love broken down. With a bridge that so perfectly recalls prime Pet Shop Boys (“And now promises fade away/Have you forgotten yesterday?/I’ll love you anyway …”), every time I hear it, I find myself overlaying Neil Tennant’s chilly tones. My good man Matt James recently referenced Tennant’s love for ‘tragi disco’, music that simultaneously gets your feet moving and your heart breaking. There are more than a few moments where ‘Hands’ hits that particular mark but none more so than here.
‘Remedy’ pitches its cerise campery at a level that out-pinks even Kylie – it’s a distant cousin of her ‘Your Disco Needs You’, surely. ‘Meddle’, one of the handful of ‘old’ songs here (the fan forums talk excitedly of the half dozen ‘new’ songs the album brings), is just as glittery but altogether more jittery than anything we’ve heard so far. It’s vocodered “Don’t meddle with the heart, or meddle with the mind” chorus is a peach. Whoa - we’re not even onto ‘Side 2’.
Hold on. Because this where the sleight of hand is usually most gainfully employed. Hide your filler around the tracks 7-10 mark. Right? WRONG. ‘Hands’ gets greedy with the half time oranges. ‘Ghosts’ is phenomenal, built around parade ground drum and spectral piano. Anything that parallels Kate Bush’s ‘Army Dreamers’ like it so deftly does, deserves plaudits. The blinding ‘Mathematics’ turns my world around, burns the disco down. ‘Symmetry’ is doing similar things and then I swear, as soon as Phil Okay turns up (and it really is him – unbelievable) I genuinely, on first listening, burst out of laughing. In a good way. The multi-levelled irony of actually employing such a prime mover of that whole dreaded ‘80s’ thang is not lost round these parts, oh no.
If ‘Tune Into My Heart’ and ‘Hearts Collide are a little sugary and not quite so vital as what comes before, you let it go – largely because the opening couplet of the former goes: “Communication is never easy/Especially when it’s you that’s on the receiving end …” Which is just about the most gymnastic piece of wordplay I’ve heard in an age. Flowers, awards, medals, everything. ‘No Brakes’ closes things. It’s as snowy and windswept as you like. The intro, I swear, is a triple measure of Pino Donaggio; in my head I’m dressed to kill and stalking strangers around the Metropolitan Museum. The only ballad – of sorts - on ‘Hands’, with its “And there’s no brakes, no heartbreaks, love overtakes” chorus, it’s a lovely, delicate thing. And then, just when you think it’s over, just when you think you have the measure of these Boots, there’s a twist. And it’s a corker …
To conjure up an even vaguely sniffy attitude to this lustrous, luminous record would be an achievement of some magnitude. Couched in ever-emerging detail, lovingly engineered and beautifully performed, 2009 will surely not see a pop record fit to, ahem, lick its boots. In how it marries the silvery gleam of its beats with some genuinely supreme songwriting, ‘Hands’ exceeds expectations and then some.