Like any overachiever, Charlotte Aitchison remains unsatisfied with her current success. It’s not enough that she’s created some very good, if not exceptional, pop songs. She strives to craft what she calls “luscious and beautiful and cinematic” music. And though she’s been getting plenty of positive attention since 2011, she longs for stardom. Aitchison has toiled to reach both goals – artistic recognition and big-time celebrity – for four years now. She first made the rounds singing for small crowds at East London raves, after being discovered as a singer-songwriter on MySpace. Eventually landing a record deal under her nom de pop Charli XCX, she collaborated with some world-class producers, released a number of singles and mixtapes, opened for superstar acts, and co-wrote a genuine hit for Icona Pop (perhaps you’ve heard it). And now here comes True Romance, nearly three years in the making, her debut album and first grasp at making her dreams real.
Oh yeah, I ought to mention one more thing: Charlotte Aitchison is only twenty years old. Take a moment to let this last fact sink in. A churl could try to diminish Aitchison’s achievement by pointing to Taylor Swift’s triumph as a performer and songwriter at an even younger age (she was sixteen when she released her breakthrough debut). As an admirer of both Swift and Aitchison, I think it’s an unfair comparison. Taylor Swift was a genre softball lobbed at the Nashville charts. It was only on Swift’s second LP where she attempted – and nailed – crossover success. Charli XCX aims higher and takes more risks on her first album, though with mixed results. And while her chilly electro-pop anthems come with obvious barriers to mainstream entry, Lady Gaga has proved those walls are hardly impenetrable. In terms of quality, True Romance is just a notch below The Fame, itself a flawed debut, which should give Aitchison hope for future worldwide pop domination.
Like The Fame, about half of the songs on True Romance justify enthusiasm. The rest merely serve as bland-yet-passable padding, doing their best not to distract from the album’s undeniable peaks. Those who’ve followed Charli XCX will be familiar with True Romance’s highlights (which sound all the better on the album). “Nuclear Season,” a previously released single and the album’s opener, forms the sonic and thematic outline for each song to come. Aitchison’s inviting, 80s-influenced vocal melody is always the centerpiece within the lavish, if busy, production flourishes by the likes of Ariel Rechtshaid, J£ZUS MILLION, Joakim Åhlund, Todd Rundgren, and Patrik Berger. Synths ring, electronics buzz, and beats patter and crash as Charli recounts the ups and downs of her romantic exploits (on “Nuclear Season,” she seeks shelter from the literal and figurative fallout of a breakup).
And so it goes over thirteen tracks. With repeated spins, True Romance’s chaff begins to spoil its wheat. “Stay Away”, “Grins,” “Cloud Aura”, and “You’re the One,” my favorites, suffer when heard alongside inferior, similar sounding tracks such as “Take My Hand”, “So Far Away,” “What I Like,” and “How Can I.” The skip button becomes a growing necessity the more you listen to True Romance.
Charlotte Aitchinson has an outstanding talent for melody and a durable vocal delivery. For now her ability seems to end there. Her strength as an artist is at the forefront on “You (Ha Ha Ha)” and “Grins,” where she essentially sings over established tracks by Gold Panda and Blood Diamonds. Both songs are improved by her contribution – they sound fantastic – but neither are deepened or radically reimagined. This shouldn't be problematic for anyone, including Charli XCX herself. True Romance may not match Aitchison’s high ambitions for her debut, but it’s a hell of a start. [B-]
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