Cher Lloyd’s ‘Sticks & Stones’: Album Review

Sam Lansky | October 2, 2012 5:33 am
Not many Americans realize that Cher Lloyd became a star overnight in her native UK by delivering an exceptional cover of a mediocre artist’s cover of another mediocre artist’s song on a nationally televised talent competition. It’s a weird way to kick off a career, but it’s an apt image to summon when discussing Cher Lloyd’s Sticks & Stones, out , which feels kind of like that: it’s an album that walks a fine line between frustrating mediocrity and thrilling pop finery, sometimes in the same three-minute song. The album’s missteps probably rest more on the shoulders of her production and management team than on Lloyd herself. She’s always had precocious instincts, and charisma to spare.

For the uninitiated, Lloyd became a phenomenon in her native UK immediately upon auditioning for The X Factor, where she performed a thrilling, jerky rendition of Keri Hilson‘s version of Soulja Boy‘s “Turn My Swag On.” She was nervous, and the caliber of her vocal performance was dubious, but star potential radiated from her, palpably. 

Unlike many of the acts lobbed at American listeners from across the pond, Lloyd actually took off here, and in an unexpected way: pairing her with US X Factor runner-up Astro on a remix of “Want U Back” didn’t generate much buzz, so under the watchful eye of her mentor L.A. Reid, Lloyd’s label Epic Records ditched the rent-a-rapper approach and bet on Lloyd as a solo artist. It paid off when “Want U Back” went Platinum in the United States.

Sticks & Stones has already been out in the UK for about a year, but appearing here in its retooled version for American audiences, it’s a very different album. The lead tracks are still radio-friendly, like the ubiquitous “Want U Back,” with its layers of bubblegum synths and arcade game bleeps, framed by Lloyd’s constipated grunts that form their own weird little refrain. “Grow Up,” which features Busta Rhymes, is mostly just annoying in its faux-ragga posturing, but “With Ur Love” is deliciously light and sweet, buoyed by Max Martin‘s razor hook.

The new tracks feel even more masterful in their radio-ready shininess: “Oath” is the only song on the LP that comes courtesy of master hitmaker du jour Dr. Luke, with a guest spot from up-and-coming rapstress (and Luke protege) Becky G, and it might be the sunniest song on the album; if only they’d had time to push it out as a summer single. (It’ll still be a hit through the fall.) “Behind the Music” isn’t as instantaneous, but it’s still mouth-puckering radio candy.

The front end of the album is heavy on Swedish production, and accordingly, the melodies feel crisper and more focused in their songcraft; the latter half takes a more intriguing turn, with the exception of the dreary, maudlin ballad “Beautiful People,” which features Carolina Liar. (Even in that song, though, there’s no escaping the melody.) Buried in the second half is her first UK single, the brilliant, postmodern pop swirl “Swagger Jagger,” with its grating-but-irresistible interpolation of “Sweet Clementine.” Although it went straight to No. 1. in the UK, here it sounds decidedly un-American and structurally entropic. The overstuffed RedOne production “Playa Boi” and the hypnotic strings on “Superhero” are exciting and fresh.

The most interesting detail about Lloyd’s success now, though, is that “Want U Back” has charted higher in the United States than in her native UK. Maybe it means that there’s some geographically specific pop magic in that song that didn’t resonate elsewhere, or perhaps it’s that we’ve begun to warm up to Lloyd here in the states just as her homeland is tiring of her.

The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: One of the UK version’s most innovative tracks, the snarling grime-nugget “Dub On The Track,” is withheld in favor of more accessible pop. Listen to it elsewhere. It’s worth it.

Pops Like: Ke$ha with less whiskey-breath and Carly Rae Jepsen with an added dose of kooky likability.

Best Listened To: On a flight across the Atlantic. They just do pop better over there.

Full Disclosure: This reviewer has watched Lloyd’s The X Factor audition video dozens of times without ever getting bored of it. That means I’m a big fan of Cher Lloyd, but it also means I have unreasonably high expectations.

Idolator Rating: 3.5

Sam Lansky