At a time when pop music doesn’t leave much for adults and electronica all but neglects the older demo, along comes Mandalay. The British duo, comprised of Nicola Hitchcock and Saul Freeman, are poised to make a splash on this side of the Atlantic with their album Solace, containing tracks from their two UK releases Empathy and Instinct. Perhaps sparked by superstars like Madonna who have dabbled in the genre, a new market for song-driven electronic music has emerged in the past few years. Coming from the same school as fellow Euro-acts Hooverphonic and Mono, Mandalay makes Adult Contemporary music with electronic bite. While trance and drum n’ bass continue to flounder in the underground, Mandalay offers up what is essentially pop music for the masses, all ages heeded.
Solace blends Freeman’s atmospheric soundscapes and Hitchcock’s shivery vocals with songwriting that is both mature and intense. Hitchcock’s sophisticated poetry is set to quiet, pulsating percussion on the track “Enough Love”: “You could weather me if I turned to stone/Something like a statue/You could keep me hidden in your garden then/No one need ever know.” The menacing “Flowers Bloom” enters Portishead territory with its macabre orchestrations and lyrics revealing a deep-rooted sadness: “Sometimes the reflection I see/Bears no resemblance to me.” Hitchcock likens herself to a barren garden imbedded with the hope that happiness will come.
Tracks like the luscious “Deep Love” and “It’s Enough Now” display Hitchcock’s unique phrasing style and unusual regard for pauses and breaks. The latter pumps along like a rush of blood, complete with asthmatic electronic effects and a sultry trumpet solo worthy of an old murder mystery. Irresistible pop melodies and infectious choruses abound on tracks like “Insensible” and the upbeat “Kissing the Day.” Hitchcock’s buoyant voice often couples with Freeman’s shimmering textures as if it’s an actual wind instrument and the only flaw is that her vibrato is a bit too fraught (primarily on the tracks from last year’s Instinct).
While two-step has yet to prove itself on our shores, Mandalay poses a more traditional method of reclaiming electronica: good ol’ fashion songwriting. With the way already paved by the likes of Dido, Mandalay provides a missing link for mature electronic fans and pop music in general. And with tracks like “Not Seventeen” and “Beautiful” already club hits, radio will be the key to exposing this talented duo and their exceptional “debut.” Solace could prove to be the best pop album of the year.