Thursday, April 12, 2012

Queen of Hearts - "Neon" & "A Moment in Love" (Single Review)

Along with Yasmin and Nadia Oh, the young pop singer known as Queen of Hearts is one of the most encouraging new talents currently coming out of the British Isles. Her debut EP The Arrival, featuring the preternaturally perfect "Shoot the Bullet" and the icy, intelligent "Freestyle," landed at #5 on Vertigo Shtick's Top 10 Pop EPs of 2011 list. The set was a skilled revival of the entrancing electronic dance-pop of mid-2000s Goldfrapp with enough variety to elevate it beyond mere retreading yet not so much as to make for a confused stylistic mess. Fortunately, the excellence of the debut set appears not to have been a fluke, judging from the pair of new tunes the artist has released in the early months of 2012. With "A Moment in Love" and the just-released "Neon," Queen of Hearts demonstrates considerable talent and skill within her craft, and confirms her status as an exciting new artist to watch.

"A Moment in Love" occupies a more firmly pop foundation than the techno-dance undercurrent of The Arrival, which might have been something of a letdown in clumsier hands less comfortable in a particular musical style. Instead, the artist is clearly confident and aware enough of the kind of music she wants to make, and can therefore explore the edges of her style without worrying about falling overboard. That solid grounding, along with a demonstrated aptitude for the corresponding skills required, conveys a sense of control on the artist's part that comforts an audience and allows it to receive the music as a benefactor rather than approach it as a would-be critic.

Significantly, unlike with some of the current leaders in pop music production, the music to which the audience is asked to surrender does not insult its intelligence. The lyrics are simple but not inane, artful but not showy: they play an equal role in conveying the story message of the song to that of the melody and accompaniment. Pop in form the song may be, but the smooth, understated electronic instrumentation isn't in fact far removed from the throbbing sound of "Freestyle," although, like "Shoot the Bullet," it looks to 2007 for sonic inspiration, drawing noticeable influence from Britney Spears' "Radar" (not a bad source by any means). On "A Moment in Love," the singer expands her vocal range, demonstrating her effectiveness at hearty, full-voice singing to go along with the enchanting breathy falsetto showcased on The Arrival.

A listener hearing part or all of The Arrival, "A Moment in Love" and "Neon" can start to identify some aspects of musical and stylistic continuity across Queen of Hearts' repertoire, without requiring any beating over the head with one-dimensional gimmicks. "Neon" is also more structurally pop-based than The Arrival, but it is a bit more creative with the form, enough to keep the audience on its toes yet still able to hum along to the chorus by the end of the first listen. The song sounds like what might happen if Kylie Minogue teamed up with Girls Aloud, and it's a combination that's hardly beyond comprehension yet not one so obvious as to occur obviously to even the pop-oriented mind. It's a mildly disarming and ultimately pleasant surprise, like Britney Spears' profound yet intuitive blend of Prince and Janet Jackson on "I'm a Slave 4 U," and it's also a testament to the artist that she can evoke two of the most respected pop acts of the last decade with such aplomb.

Queen of Hearts has a knack for the dramatic, unexpected chord change at the end of a chorus that makes it that much more compelling. It's a subtle stylistic flourish, present on both 2012 singles as well as "Freestyle," that some listeners like me nevertheless really respond to. As with "A Moment in Love," the pace and timing on "Neon" is spot on, each segment running the optimal length, which is comfortable for the audience even while the formulaic idiosyncrasies keep it from being drearily predictable. The artist has proven shrewd in selecting the right producers (another strength she shares with Britney Spears), including The Sound of Arrows ("Shoot the Bullet" and the upcoming "Tears in the Rain") and DREAMTRAK ("Freestyle" and "Spanish Sahara," from The Arrival), and John Myers' innovative and respectful work on "Neon" represents the latest in a string of elegant collaborations.

In her brief career, Queen of Hearts has produced some of the most enjoyable music of the past year, and that she's done so with such intelligence, musicianship and creativity makes it easier to enjoy wholeheartedly with a clear musical conscience. One can only imagine the pressure on new, unknown pop artists and the temptation to sacrifice and subvert artistic ingenuity, individuality and integrity in order to become a mainstream star, and I admire musicians like Queen of Hearts who work simply to create their music and contribute to the art form rather than using it as a business tool. Whenever I find myself especially frustrated by the homogeneity of the Clear Channel radio industry and despondent about the amount of talent being wasted or suppressed, it's artists like Queen of Hearts whose talent, innovative efforts and fearlessness that revive my faith in the art form to which I've devoted so much of my career, and my enthusiasm for the future of pop. To that end, I say Long Live the Queen.

"Neon/Tears in the Rain" will be released on May 19 from ATG Records. The 7" double A-side physical release is available to pre-order ($5). The Arrival (EP) is available now on Amazon and iTunes.

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