Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Exploring the space

Some People Have
Real Problems

Score: 6

The third full-length from Sia shows that she's progressing as a solo artist. The Australian singer, now probably most notable for her hit "Breathe Me," anchored some of the best songs on Zero 7's early albums. When she's away from her electronica collaborators, she's free to explore the space beyond their chillout framework. Sometimes that leads to unexpected pleasures. Sometimes it leads to pitfalls. Some People Have Real Problems has some of both.

In many cases, Sia pushes herself vocally, pulling off brassy bellows and soaring melodies in addition to the easy-and-deliberate style that is her hallmark. It's a surprise, considering the aural yarn that is her standard range, always soft and lightly frayed.

She rises to the challenge delivered by the opening of "Day Too Soon," a gentle lope put forth by her rhythm section of bassist Sam Dixon, drummer Joey Waronker, guitarist Gus Seyffert, and keyboardists Ed Stevens and Larry Goldings. It calls for some heat, and Sia brings a warmth that, while not quite soul, is closer to neo-soul than to pop. This carries into the next track, "You Have Been Loved," a slow-burner that Sia squeezes even more feeling out of.

"Electric Bird" and "Beautiful Calm Driving" similarly find her testing the waters, both having choruses requiring plenty of lung power. "Electric Bird" likewise features a bevy of horns that adds vigor and boldness to Sia's feathered symbolism.

Other songs, it's clear, were no sweat. "Little Black Sandals" harkens back to her Zero 7 contributions, and the bass line and drum tempo could have been lifted from any one of their albums. "Lullaby" turns down the lights with its guitar and piano parts played ever so delicately. The way Sia's voice wavers on a few verses fits the Kinks cover "I Go to Sleep," and the string section is a nice touch.

Throughout the album, though, Sia gives up ground here and there. "Playground" has a fidgety chorus. "Death by Chocolate" goes overboard (the line "tears on your pillow" is an early warning) as Sia and a choir have a Celine Dion flashback, which isn't bad per se, but the song isn't dramatic enough to merit it, nor is it melodramatic enough to be boosted into the realm of camp. Still, it's better than "Academia," a jumble of mixed metaphors ("And if you are a number, you're infinity plus one / And if I am four words, then I am 'Needing of your love'").

Clearly, ambition doesn't guarantee good songs, but it does help a singer grow. And Sia has definitely grown.

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