Speak for Yourself
ide and Seek” gains its power—contrary to all the ad hoc paeans to the vocoder you saw after the O.C. season 2 finale—from its absolute rejection of a genre’s over-tilled construction. I’ve repeatedly bemoaned the sheer tonnage of electronic sub-genres employing vocals (trip-hop, downbeat, dance) that have devolved into shallow sitcoms of Two Guys, A Girl, and a Turntable. The great ruse behind such an unfortunate situation (ready?) is that the vocals always take center stage. The background music is almost always some nondescript collage of Becoming X B-sides, the lyrics simply boil down to mirthful, effervescent pabulum, and I’m supposed to find contentment from the girl being easy on the eyes.
Of course the song itself is powerful. Imogen Heap (aside: fucking rad name) puts forth her vocals without the assistance of an aggressively anchored chorus, her voice shrinking and ballooning with practically no order. The great irony is the song’s resultant organic pull, employing the voice under an almost nonexistent electronic backdrop. It makes sense, seeing as how Heap produced Speak for Yourself on her own, mortgaging her flat and turning it into a makeshift studio for the record. This is contrary to the linear and unoriginal recording process for just about every Trip-hop record released since ’95, where the collusion of singer + producer = Protection knock-off 1,182. Because “Hide and Seek’s” production and vocals come from the same emotional spot, no disconnect is heard.
Oh, but how quickly the album falls from that great peak towards the mundane. Heap said she pretty much put to music any great ideas that arose, at one point asking members of her online message board to choose appropriate lines for a song. And while such maverick reinterpretation of the musician-fan relationship is appreciated, Speak for Yourself is still buried under the familiar rubric found on Frou Frou’s Details, an album on which she was the singer and one that enjoyed a brief resurgence thanks to Zach Braff’s pet-emo-project Garden State. At worst Heap shows herself as a creature of habit and, at best, close to scratching a plateau that someone like Roisin Murphy reached on the far superior Ruby Blue.
So once again you’re treated to a gravy train of cheeky love songs—some about love lost, some about crushes—and that rarefied, powerful engine that fueled “Hide and Seek” becomes ever distant. Trails of that vocoded goodness pepper “Daylight Robbery,” though the guitar riff far too vividly recalls Elastica or a beefed up Jem. The album moves from just trailing a song to returning full circle to Frou Frou with the others like “Headlock,” armed with familiar high-pitched synth effects, proudly showing itself as a Details B-side. “Just for Now” initially pulls in a different direction, mostly using an orchestral score as a backbone, but never quite reaches a fulfilling apex.
Speak for Yourself isn’t a Details doppelganger in entirety. Subtle differences in beat patterns and instrumentation do signify fundamental shifts, mostly when Heap tinkers with ambient space as on “Have You Got it In You?” and “The Moment I Said It.” But such shades don’t go a long way in changing the album’s fundamental color and at the end you can’t help but feel the entire album was trite, culling again the tired trip-hop and downbeat motifs she had so wonderfully discarded with “Hide and Seek.” It’s a blasé album constructed around the monumental power of a single song.
You see, there hasn’t been a post trip-hop, merely glints of reinvention and reexamination. Björk is, to wit, the only member of this cadre to successfully and repeatedly break away from recidivistic musicianship. The other members of that once critically lauded vanguard have either sunk to obscurity by churning out scores to forgettable films (Massive Attack), retired (Everything But The Girl), or have simply vanished altogether (Portishead). Heap is meanwhile stuck exercising old muscles, sometimes spectacularly manumitting herself from the trip-hop albatross, but far more often succumbing to it.