Kentucky is blue, and not just because of the countless shirts, caps and jackets adorned with the colors of the University of Kentucky. The grass is blue in select parts of the Bluegrass State. Down along the EST/CST divide near Greensburg, the sky over its knobs is azure well into the night.
La Roux means The Red in the English. I first heard both of The Red’s albums in The Bluest of states, Kentucky, five years apart in different towns.
La Roux’s 2009 debut was a labored nod to the 1980s, an attempt to bow politely in spite of one’s rogue quiff and stiff suit. Its “Bulletproof” improbably blared out of the blue on the speakers of a Lexington bar, while I drank Old Rasputin and chatted with two mathematicians. My blonde hair stood up just like ton the album cover.
Its hooks got under the skin, but aside from opener “In the Kill” and the pouting “I’m Not Your Toy,” no other song on the self-titled LP registered. Listening to it sober was no different than hearing it inebriated; one long, sub-Working for a Nuclear Free City haze, the Reagan/Thatcher years filtered through the “Flashdance” soundtrack rather than The Stone Roses or Grace Jones.
It was the typical 2009 pop record given that just like Lady Gaga’s The Fame Monster (remember “Bad Romance”?) it was basically one monster sleek single, surrounded by material that was consciously retro. Just as Gaga mined Queen, La Roux excavated deep Eurythmics and Duran Duran album tracks.
While on vacation in Kentucky last week, I sat down and listened to La Roux’s belated follow-up, Trouble in Paradise, in one sitting, which I hadn’t sadly done with any other album in more than a month (the last being Deadmau5’s spectacular While 1 2). The sky was clear, there were clinking bottles or talk of real analysis in a crowded room; down home sapphire paradise gave Paradise a rapt audience of one.
The first thing you notice about La Roux’s sophomore effort is the guitar. The rhythm playing on “Uptight Downtown,” by Elly Jackson herself (now the sole proprietor of the La Roux enterprise,) imparts a muscularity that would have seemed gauche 5 years ago, amid all those cold, maudlin synth lines on La Roux. The six-string is a mainstay throughout, and Jackson’s scratchy rhythm playing is sometimes complemented by intricate picking.
Its momentum, started by the opening guitar work, never subsides. The production is open and spacious, with ample room for echoey Caribbean tones and full-bodied guitar, bass and drums. It’s a bit more 1970s than 1980s, with shades of Van Dyke Parks’ silly Discover America in particular and an AOR vibe in general – even the deep cuts are hooky. This is Rumours for synthpop.
“Kiss and Not Tell” (are you getting the clever titles yet?) throws a ton of shit into the mix – piano runs, synth-like guitar, guitar-like synth, prominent bass, multi-tracked vocals (Jackson’s voice is much better utilized here than on La Roux), and yet it never sounds dense. There’s room galore for all that Caribbean (Hawaiian? oh yeah, “Hawaiian breeze” – there it is on “Paradise is You”) air. The music is tight yet there’s space all around.
With the first two tracks so taut and thrilling, the third track, “Cruel Sexuality,” swoops in to loosen things up. For a while, anyway. It takes a left turn into a catchy chant midway through and then slowly weaves the original hook – also memorable – back into the mix. “You make me happy in my everyday life/Why must you keep me in your prison at night?” could be a sentiment for the album’s song structure transitions and balance of breeze and bravado.
There is some sameness throughout, which Pitchfork noted in its somewhat negative review. “Sexotheque” (again with the titles!) uses the rhythm guitar + synth + tropicalia formula from “Kiss and Not Tell,” but it has its own fantastic hook (the same goes for the epic “Silent Partner,” which one-ups Flock of Seagulls). Jackson’s vocal hooks help differentiate these songs. She even dredges up a Grace Jones sample to give extra smokiness to the already sultry “Tropical Chancer” (my favorite of the album’s wordplay titles).
And look at that: there are a mere 9 tracks on this album, with no Best Buy/iTunes/digital exclusives, remixes, or bonus discs. It clocks in at only 41 minutes; it could be an LP! There are two tracks more than 5 minutes long, with one over 7 minutes long. This is a classicist album from an artist who half a decade ago seemed like just another post-album singles act. I hope the next one isn’t five years off.