February 21, 2008

Quirky Aussie Not Short on Soul

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Dap, duh-doom, dapping drums; tap, tip, tapping tambourine; and then, “Pick me up in your arms / Carry me away from harm,” sings the Australian vocalist Sia on “Day Too Soon,” the first single from her recently released solo-album Some People Have Real Problems, which is now shrink-wrapped and available for your convenience at Starbucks.

She continues, “You’re never gonna put me down / I know you’re just one good man / You’ll tire before we see land.” The band mimics the cadence of this imagined boat swaying at sea. Chip, chuck, chipping cymbals and slowly slithering synth simmer and, finally, voices ascend in a chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs.”
Just as Sia’s band skillfully mimics her vocal performance, Sia’s vocal performance mimics so many of her contemporaries: Think Norah Jones and a freshly brewed low-fat mocha latte — with skim-milk and extra foam, please. Careful, now, not to discount Sia too quickly.

One of the paramount elements of this surprisingly fantastic album is the band’s technical skill and its ability to perfectly match the singer’s lyrical and tonal sentiments, as best exemplified in “Day Too Soon.” On “Lentil,” also, Sia sings, “Now all I have is riches and stitches and pictures,” and a marching snare-drum pattern rhymes in weight, tone and lilt with the singer’s accented “-iches,” “-iches” and “-tures.” Again, “The Girl You Lost To Cocaine” pulses with a heavy drum-and-bass downbeat, which the singer mirrors acutely with an aggravated snarl as she sings, “No I just don’t wanna, so I’m walking away / There is nothing that you can do, I will not stay.”

At times, Sia takes a turn towards the silly with lyrics like, “You can be my alphabet and I will be your calculator / And together we’ll work out on the escalator / I will time you as you run up the down” (“Academia”). Here, Sia resembles her New York counter-part Nellie McCay — but also, she does so in her overtly quirky behavior and all together funky fashion sense. See her bleached blonde hair, red, purple and green face paint and some mind-numbing yellow knickerbockers: her album cover and the myriad videos on YouTube are prime examples. Still, she is on sale at Starbucks.

Then with her thick — actually, it’s unfortunately almost gooey at times — soul styling, Sia resembles Fiona Apple (compare “Little Black Sandals” with “Criminal”). Lots more comparisons can be made: That raspy quality and sentimentality match Rachael Yamagata (compare “Day Too Soon” with “1963”); and her deep bellow bears a certain resemblance to, but altogether pummels, Amy Winehouse’s famed whine. Sia’s piano-heavy moments (see: “You Have Been Loved”) recall Regina Spektor; and her most pop moments even spark a resemblance to Sara Bareilles.

All said and done, Sia is not too original and does not stretch far beyond conventional norms of songwriting, production nor performance. What separates Sia from other singers, however, is the undeniably high quality of her work: The album teems with power and emotion; Sia can sing.