Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s ‘Familia’: Album Review

It’s been 16 years since Sophie Ellis-Bextor catapulted to fame with her feature vocal on Spiller‘s “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love).” The great irony of blocking Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham‘s first solo single (“Out Of Your Mind”) from taking the UK #1 was that Sophie actually sounded posh. To this day, her distinctive vocals sound positively aristocratic —  “It’s murder on the dahhncefloor” — to the American ear.

In the intervening years since that Posh pounce, Ellis-Bextor has released six solo albums. One should not underestimate the unexpected staying power of an artist whose first official solo single was a cover of Cher‘s “Take Me Home.” She’s transcended industry expiration dates for female pop artists.  And in 2014, after four solid dance-pop records, she took a left turn with the folksy Wanderlust, a collaboration with wunderkind artist/producer Ed Harcourt.

Ellis-Bextor returns to Harcourt with Familia (released ),an autumnal record, literally and figuratively. The crisp arrangements are organic, built on bass, guitar, piano and drums. But Harcourt and Ellis-Bextor reference a range of pop styles with details like the bubbling synths on “The Death Of Love” and the power chords that launch the album’s galloping opener, “Wild Forever.” The widescreen love song “Crystallise,” which ranks among Bextor’s finest, has a lush chorus ribboned with violin.

A certain winking subversion has often been part of Ellis-Bextor’s repertoire. The ’70s disco of single “Come With Us” masks a sinister lyric: “If you give us all your money, we’ll give you all your dreams.” The ballad “Unrequited” is simply melancholy until Nada Surf‘s Matthew Caws provides a vocal that’s the object of Bextor’s affection rebuffing her (“you keep telling yourself there’s a future, but it’s over now”)… or maybe he represents her own inner voice?  Either way, he tears a petal off that rose.

What Familia ultimately recalls is the era of female singer-songwriters. Like predecessor Carly Simon, Ellis-Bextor knows that a lifelong career is built on a certain amount of risk-taking. “Why be so ordinary? Why just conform?” she questions on “Wild Forever.” Familia, released on her own record label, is the sound of an artist making the music she wants to make.

Score: 4/5

Stephen Sears

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