La Roux is swimming against the current. At first, it appears a solo act, but look a little closer and you will find that alongside talented androgynous singer Elly Jackson sits Ben Langmaid, an equally able producer. They are a balanced duo, aping past influences Pet Shop Boys and Eurythmics. Duo’s lost out, however, to the Britpop and mainstream group era in the ’90s. On paper, La Roux’s kitschy electro-pop has no place in the modern world.
It’s a surprise, then, to see their steady rise on the charts, something I believe is largely down to Jackson. A childhood obsession with folk and rock music developed her songwriting skills (a shared task between the two), but also helps Jackson happily trample on the sensibilities of synth-pop. She isn’t trying to be anything other than herself, gloriously different and talented.
Second single “In For The Kill” spent a whole month at number two in the UK, a huge crossover hit that only really took on a higher meaning when handily assembled with some heavy bass foundations (namely in Croydon dubstep artist Skream‘s tutelage). It’s a song that lends itself extremely well to reinvention, and numerous remixers have taken to it like a set of Meccano. The falsetto vocal is the key element, and Langmaid’s backing has been largely disregarded, the synth-pop removed to amp up floor-filler potential.
Jackson is a particularly versatile vocalist, harnessing numerous styles and an impressive range on La Roux’s self titled debut. She is the showman, strutting around in her Patrick Wolf-esque style with an impressive quif and colourful war paint — her eye liner spreading out into a solid block of colour around her eyes. Langmaid works behind the scenes (an arrangement that has infiltrated their live performances). From what I’ve seen, she is captivating, and Langmaid doesn’t impinge upon this, neglecting to take part in live performances, where two studio musicians bolster the sound.
“Tigerlily” showcases some bite, the same bouncy synth pop wrapped up with a fiery delivery. It’s sorely missed on some of the other efforts. There’s a notable cameo from Jackson’s father, too. It’s a low-key, personal affair, and the tinny production is the only other sign that this was made on a budget. “Quicksand” forces her back into the pleasantly screechy falsetto, this time matched for impact by jarring synth lines.
The arsenal also contains the chart topping “Bulletproof”, a bizarre mix of processed beats and an audacious vocoder breakdown… a tame “Courtship Dating”, if you like. The Crystal Castles comparison is not unfounded — Jackson is a more capable, less aggro Alice Glass, Langmaid and Ethan Khan similarly removed. Both bands are unlike anything I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Despite the originality, there is no real subtlety, their obsession with 80’s style electonica arrangements is clear to see. For the dance-floor, their own efforts are borderline, leaving this effort in No Man’s Land. Are they aiming for critical reception at the detriment of sales, or do La Roux dream of commercial success? I feel it’s almost out of their hands, although in the long term, their efforts may lean towards the latter, early material already showing ample reworking and single potential rather than that of album cohesiveness.
“Colourless Colour” marries electronic strings with a catchy floating verse. The album was born out of Jackson’s relationships, a fact that isn’t very obvious. The clearest hints are “I’m Not Your Toy” and “Fascination”, loved-up ballads with a twist, coming across all funky and upbeat: “It’s all false love and affection/You don’t want me, you just like the attention”
“As If By Magic” initially takes cues from Lily Allen’s “The Fear”. La Roux supported Allen on her recent tour, and they’ve obviously been taking notes. The vocal harmonies are on point, but the synths barrel their way into a song where they have no home. It is the only mark against an otherwise perfectly executed song.
Regardless, La Roux has made their point. Perhaps synth-pop is about to experience a renaissance? This is an excellent, inspired first effort from the duo, wholly unlike anything heard for the last 10 years but also commercially viable. The elements are all in place, but album number two will hopefully benefit from some more robust editing. There is, simply, more to come.