Which one was Fame Academy? I lose track a little. There was the one that produced Hear’Say that was on ITV, I think. And at some point along came Britain’s Got Talent, whose title the show seemed to go out of its way to refute. I think the X-Factor is still going (was that the one that foisted One Direction on the world? Or was it Girls Aloud? Or both?) and there’s something called The Voice which I think is meant to be a little bit more high-minded on account of how the judges couldn’t see the contestants and so were supposed to be judging them solely on how they sounded. BBC rather than ITV. There was one called Pop Idol, wasn’t there? But Fame Academy? It flew under my radar, and, notwithstanding that wikipedia tells me her debut record sold 600,000 copies, I honestly don’t think I’d ever knowingly heard of Alex Parks before her name showed up over at Mookbarks on Sunday.
It begins with Maybe That’s What it Takes, which sounds to me like inoffensive adult-oriented pop. Not something that would have me reaching for the ‘off switch’ but, equally, nothing I think I’m going to remember. The same is true of Cry, and I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to have anything to say about this record. Dirty Pretty Words reminded me a little of that Christian Goth band, Evanescence, that seemed to be inescapable for a while. But not necessarily in a bad way. It feels a little more musically adventurous than the standard-issue talent show radio-friendly unit-shifter. The crunchy guitar sound, weirdly, brought to mind Snap’s The Power. Which wouldn’t usually be a point in a song’s favour, but anything that establishes a little distance from Leona Lewis can only be a good thing.
Um, then comes Imagine. The world is really not crying out for more covers of a song that I wasn’t wildly keen on in the first place, and the melismatic over-emoting really highlights just how awful the lyrics are. I’m not automatically against melisma. I could happily listen to Elizabeth Fraser or Jeff Buckley all day. The more so if they’re dueting. But too often it sounds like someone just wanting to show that they can reach the notes and hold a tune, as if what they are really doing is submitting an application for a part in a Broadway musical.
The choice of cover versions strikes me as decidedly unimagin(e)ative. As it was 2003, we get her take on Mad World which really adds nothing to Gary Jules’ reimagining of the Tears for Fears hit (on the subject of which, couldn’t she have instead had a go at Everybody Wants to Rule the World? I’d sort of like to hear that). Her version of Yellow is, to be fair, further proof that Chris Martin is a rather better songwriter than he is vocalist, though it has nothing on Aimee Mann’s The Scientist. She’s brave enough to have a go at Here Comes the Rain Again, and while I can’t really see what it adds to the original, (though probably the target audience may well have been rather less familiar with the Eurythmics than I am), it does prove that she has the pipes… Everybody Hurts strikes me as exactly the kind of song that ends up getting mutilated on talent shows. Suffice to say I had no need for a six minute version in which Parks manages to squeeze four syllables into ‘hand’…
And then there’s Beautiful (Permit me a digression: I had confused this with the James Blunt song of the same name. He may have produced some of the most toe-curlingly awful music of the last fifteen years, but at least he has a sense of humour… And it turns out that Linda Perry, who wrote Beautiful for Christina Aguilera, was also responsible for getting Blunt a record deal in the USA and was the front woman of 90s pop-rockers, 4 Non-Blondes, who were inescapable on Atlantic 252 for a time when I was in my third or fourth year of secondary school. What’s Going On might have been an interesting choice of cover for this record. Oh, and to digress from the digression, here’s an illuminating interview with the Amanda Ghost, who wrote the James Blunt song, and who, like Linda Perry, also went from song-writing to a career as a record label mogul…).
It’s all competently performed, but it really is the sound of talent-show balladry eating itself. Now I have a soft spot for a good cover version. Or, perhaps, I should say, for an unusual cover. Kathryn Williams channeling Kurt Cobain’s inner folkie with All Apologies, China Drum imagining how Bob Mould might have sung a Kate Bush song or Richard Thompson bringing out the medieval elements in Britney Spears’ Oops I did it again…
(Here’s a playlist I made earlier….)
But none of the covers on this album pass that test. The problem is that talent shows are really just karaoke competitions. And Alex Parks may be very good at karaoke, but it’s not really something on which to base a pop career.
Anyways, back to the record… Stones and Feathers actually sounds like a pretty decent ballad. A welcome relief from the cover versions, on the subject of which, for a moment I was intrigued to see Wandering Soul on the track-listing, but then I realised I’d forgotten that the Portishead song was Wandering Star and Wandering Soul is another original track straddling the line between Evanescence and T’Pau. It’s pleasant enough musical wallpaper, but to my ears at least, nothing more.
There are hints that she might be a more interesting artist than this record lets her show. That in a parallel universe, she might have been the Alison Moyet of the early years of the 21st Century or Adele avant la lettre. Maybe the problem was that it all happened so quickly. Not so much that she was so young, but that the whole thing was, according to wikipedia, recorded in a hurried fortnight after her talent show win.
Perhaps you had to be there. Maybe if I’d been a shy, awkward teenager in the early 2000s, young enough not to be utterly uninterested in Fame Academy. this album would bring back a warm flood of nostalgia rather than the tidal wave of indifference that engulfed me.
Highlights: Um, meh. I suppose Stones and Feathers and Dirty Pretty Words…