It’s weird to think of Emma Bunton as the only Spice Girl still with a record contract. Never the most gifted of singers, her appeal mainly lay in being eye candy for teenage boys and slightly peculiar older men as she ran round in videos sporting pigtails and short skirts.
Yet, over 10 years after Wannabe, the erstwhile Baby Spice is still going strong. Whereas Mel B, Geri Halliwell and Victoria Beckham are only fodder for the tabloid gossip columns these days, and Mel C was unceremoniously dumped from her label a few years ago, Bunton seems to be carving up a new niche for herself as an all-round family entertainer.
Handily released just as she’s appearing on Strictly Come Dancing (surely just a coincidence…), Life In Mono is Bunton’s third solo album and follows on the ’60s pastiche sound of her previous record Free Me. It’s as light and fluffy as candyfloss, completely inoffensive and, in parts, surprisingly good.
There’s a whole host of songwriters and producers been roped in to give Ms Bunton a helping hand – chief amongst these is Gary Clark. Clark was the leader of Scottish jangly pop stars Danny Wilson (who remembers Mary’s Prayer?) in the ’80s and has since become a pretty respectable ‘songwriter for hire’, working with Natalie Imbruglia, Skin and David McAlmont amongst others.
Clark’s songs are amongst the stand-out moments, although perhaps the highlight is the title track, a blissful cover version of trip-hop duo Mono‘s song. Keeping the John Barry stylings of the original, the horns and strings combine beautifully while Bunton’s breathy vocals add some sensuality. Similarly arresting is opening track All I Need To Know, a beautifully tender piano ballad that the likes of Lucie Silvas would be well advised to take note of.
Yet a full album of such sweet sugary moments soon becomes tiring. The arrangement for most songs is exactly the same – the horns, the strings, the expertly constructed ’60s conceit – that after a while it all begins to mesh into one. Take Me To Another Town does step up the pace, painting Bunton hopping from city to city with a story to tell in each (“I go to London, I go to Hollywood, there are too many people who would kiss me if they could”), but Undressing You comes over as anodyne when it should be crackling with sexuality – Bunton’s just far too cute and nice to ‘do an Aguliera‘.
Better is I Wasn’t Looking (When I Found Love) a mid-paced number with lyrics that Emma’s target audience of teenage girls and Bridget Jones types will readily identify with. Yet too many songs, especially in the album’s second half, lack character and personality, just coming across as bland, albeit radio-friendly.
Where the album really falls down is the oddly entitled ‘bonus tracks’, chief amongst them being the recent Children In Need song Downtown. You need a good strong voice to belt out the old Petula Clark classic, and Bunton’s wistful whisper just doesn’t work. It’s karaoke-pop of the worst kind. More successful is Something Tells Me (Something’s Going To Happen), which is sleek, light and a lot more suited to Bunton’s vocals.
What Life In Mono is missing is a couple of real hook-filled pop moments, as it does sometimes disappear into easy listening sludge. Yet it has to be said that this is a lot better than the majority of tasteful, adult-orientated, melodic pop that’s cluttering up the airwaves at the moment. The one remaining post-Spice success story looks set to roll on.