Los Angeles-based duo Shana Halligan and Kiran Shahani aka Bitter:Sweet return to our stereos with their latest instalment of gauche trip-hop. Excitable listeners should be warned, however, for although the album is called Drama there is little of that quality on display here.
To all intents and purposes, Drama retraces the sonic palette laid out on the duo’s 2006 debut The Mating Game. Set the controls back to the early ’60s, pour a chilled Martini and settle into your faux-leather recliner, and let the lounge electronica vibe wash over you.
Shahani is a founder member of Supreme Beings Of Leisure and you get the feeling he has been saddled with the desire to eclipse that unit’s classic 2000 debut album ever since. Bitter:Sweet’s music has been placed all over American TV in recent years but critical approval has been harder to come by.
Listening to Drama it is easy to understand why this is the case. This is an album that washes over the listener but rarely connects, lacking the guttural punch of the best trip-hop and being just a little too clever, a little bit too pastiche for pastiche’s sake to nail that classic retro vibe that, say, Air did with Moon Safari.
Let’s deal with the positives first. Shahani’s production nous has come on leaps and bounds since The Mating Game and the new album sounds absolutely peach. The lush strings and organic instrumentation lock into a groove from the opening one-two punch of Into Dramatico and Get What I Want and never let up.
Halligan’s vocals have also improved this time around. Her ability to be a kittenish vamp has never been in doubt, and tracks such as Come Along With Me, Sugar Mama and Drink You Sober fairly throb with barely restrained sexuality, although the latter is a tad too close in melody and spirit to Portishead‘s Glory Box for comfort.
Halligan is better when she unleashes her inner animal and goes all Goldfrapp on our arses. The Bomb, Trouble and Love Revolution stomp along in a flurry of strings, electronic pulses and skittering drums, with Halligan shaking free her inhibitions and sounding like she is thoroughly enjoying herself.
And therein lies the problem with Drama. Too often this album paints by numbers and misses the soul at the heart of all great music, something that even the lounge pioneers of the ’60s were able to nail down despite lacking the technology that Halligan and Shahani have at their fingertips.
The album closes with the spare, restrained Everything, and ironically it is the best song by a mile. Stripped of all the sonic finery Halligan’s voice shines against a mournful piano/string arrangement, and for once there is no archness in the lyrics, just a heartfelt plea for acceptance. Frustratingly, the listener is left wishing there could have been more of the same.