“Better Than Bonnie”: a song for the other woman, with a sneaky dash of Britney Spears
Concept albums are springing up everywhere. Hot on the heels of Kate Bush’s extended meditation on the white stuff (50 Words for Snow), we have Ooh La Baby, the tale of a fractious love affair with a feckless Irishman told from the perspective of New York-based singer/songwriter Galia Arad.
The genre is where the similarity begins and ends. These two artists occupy completely different territory. But there is one moment – “Snowed in at Wheeler Street”, the duet with Elton John – when Bush’s otherwise largely existential take on the mysterious power of snow chimes with Arad’s earthy, melancholy exploration of the frustrations of an all-consuming passion. Ooh La Baby is a glittering stream of such moments, brought vividly to life in Arad’s wry lyrics and delivered with a voice of deceptive purity and innocence.
Arad is interesting company as she mines a rich seam of rock and roll, blues and folk influences and comes up with a highly individualistic formula of her own – mix the whimsical intensity of a Suzanne Vega with the occasional mordant observation from a Marianne Faithfull and you’ll arrive at something approaching the bittersweet musical spirit of this witty new voice.
One of the standout tracks is the upbeat song of the other woman, “Better than Bonnie”, with its triumphant sideways raid on Britney Spears’s signature song “Oops!… I Did it Again”. Equally good are the slow, gentle ballads like “You’re Always There”, the shuffling “Something Sweet” and the contemplative “Will I Be Loved (By You)”, which edges hesitantly into earshot on the tail of a moving fiddle solo (“Dad’s Intro”).
Moods shift in the blink of an eye, reflecting the emotional ebb and flow of the affair from high intensity to bleak disillusionment. Lyrical beauty is lascerated now and then by moments of Faithfull-esque rage and frustration – nowhere more acerbically than on “Don’t Go”, a prolonged sigh of exasperation and desire.
Less obviously engaging is the input of The Pogues’ Shane MacGowan (on the lilting “Four Leaf Lover Boy” and a foul-mouthed intro to the vicious slugfest “Full of Sh*t”), which is a pity because – perhaps a consequence of the recent annual blast of Christmas evergreen, “Fairy Tale of New York”, a poignant reminder of his glory days – I expected more than the trashed sound of his spoken vocals actually delivers.
The album is beautifully produced by Tommy Faragher, whose track record includes work with Dusty Springfield, Taylor Dayne and Al Green. He’s certainly given Galia Arad the space she and her guitar need to untangle this complex narrative. And there’s enough evidence here to herald the arrival of a compelling new talent.