Underappreciated Albums #3: Beady Belle – Closer (2005)

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3.23 on Rate Your Music (Artist Ave = 3.67)

1. Skin Deep (4:03)
2. Pillory-Like (4:18)
3. Goldilocks (4:51)
4. Airing (6:10)
5. Never Mind (5:41)
6. Closer (3:18)
7. Irony (6:15)
8. Stools & Rules (6:00)
9. Tomorrow (2:47)

It’s tempting to knock Jamie Cullum: indie kids think he tries too hard to be in their gang, and jazz nuts think he’s not authentic enough for them. Yet there can be no greater advocate for bridging the two sounds, and he has done a great job in drawing attention to the (predominantly Scandinavian) groups who mix the two aesthetics. This leaves bands like Beady Belle caught between two stools though, as it is unclear exactly who takes responsibility for them – Down Beat? Pitchfork? They fall through a gap which makes it hard for them to come to public attention. This is a great shame, when their songs are so well-crafted and Beate Lech’s vocal delivery is brimming with such white-girl sass.

Lech’s voice is sensual, but poised with a stern distance as she occupies a variety of different female personae, all of whom have a disaffected air of control. ‘Life will go on tomorrow’ she sings in the closing track, paraphrasing Scarlett O’Hara, summarising the carefree confidence she expresses throughout the whole album. She occupies the mind of strong-minded women from literature; Goldilocks and Lewis Carroll’s Alice, in ‘Goldilocks’ and ‘Pillory-like’ respectively. Lech’s sultry whispering, poised atop echoic (Rhodes) piano, seeps into your ear, but the electronica programming grabs you by the hip and makes you gyrate. In the best nu jazz tradition, this is music for coming down from the club as well as the living room.

Lech’s relaxed intimacy sets the tone for the entire LP, which cannot help but bring you under its spell. She described in an interview how the name of the album represented its goal to get the listener in a more personal space with the music, instead of using lush string orchestrations as a largely passive backdrop. The end result is like a more relaxed Jazmine Sullivan, a wittier Portishead, Sarah Vaughan with a drum machine.

‘Irony’ is the song Alanis Morrissette couldn’t write, while ‘Skin Deep’ is one of the more arresting album openers out there – it’s rare that I am hooked on an album instantly through the words alone, but on my first listen Beate Lech’s wry ideal of aesthetic perfection – ‘I like the sugarcoated’ – caught me on the sly and left me wanting more. The lyrics match the atmosphere of the record: dotted throughout are twists on the pull of superficial sound, held up as the antithesis to Lech’s honest intimacy.

The ubiquitous Rhodes piano of nu jazz now comes off as quite cliche and dinner party-ish, but there is enough variation in the texture of the songs – ranging from traditional jazz band set up in the smoky ‘Pillory-like’ to programmed beats in ‘Stools & Rules’ – to keep each track fresh. Purists might not appreciate me saying this, but Closer has something to offer everyone who occupies a corner of the indie-electronica-jazz triangle, and the self-assured delivery of their front woman is very appropriate for our present moment – at the time PureMusic described it as ‘Beyonce goes electronica’. As with fossil fuel exploration, social democracy and melancholy, Norway were years ahead of the game.

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