On her first attempt at a recording career in the mid-aughts, Northampton singer-songwriter-model-kook V.V. Brown was pushed in a conventional R&B direction in the mold of Beyoncé. Brown balked at that prospect and bailed on what would have been her debut record before finally re-emerging with Travelling Like the Light. Indeed, a record packed to the gills with oddball production flourishes and nonsense lyrics, Light suggests that Brown has far less in common with Beyoncé than she does with Beyoncé‘s quirky sister Solange Knowles.
If there’s something a bit too calculated about all of it, the deliberate weirdness of Brown’s style ultimately works in her favor. The breadth of influences she incorporates into her idiosyncratic pop tunes keeps the set from growing stale. From the heavy funk rhythm section of “Game Over” to the rapid-fire doo-wop on standout “Crying Blood,” Brown makes some truly unexpected, inspired stylistic choices. Not all of these choices work equally well: It’s hard to imagine any song that could overcome the structural gimmick of lifting its entire melody from Billy Joel’s “Heart and Soul,” so “Crazy Amazing” never gets off the ground, but Brown’s borderline recklessness rewards her risks more often than not.
Brown brings that same sense of fearlessness to her vocal performances. With her slightly raspy timbre, Brown makes for a terrific, swaggering frontwoman. She sells the bitter kiss-off “Leave!” and fantastic lead single “Shark in the Water” with real aplomb, splitting the difference between Amy Winehouse’s authoritative sense of phrasing and Janelle Monáe’s otherworldly inflection. She may have the pipes to be a modern-day R&B diva, but Brown sounds most comfortable on songs that boast a heavier rock influence like “Crying Blood” and “Shark.”
What gets Brown into some trouble is that she often lands on the wrong side of the line that separates homage from rip-off. The Billy Joel lift is the most egregious example, but opener “Quick Fix” also sounds like April March’s “Chick Habit,” which played to tremendous effect over the closing credits of Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof, to the point of distraction. There are far worse crimes than sounding like a track from Tarantino’s legendary jukebox, and “Fix” fits with Brown’s retro vibe, but it stands out as derivative when placed alongside some of her more genuinely creative arrangements. She needs an internal editor to reign in some of her more scattershot impulses.
Still, that boundless creativity makes Brown a new talent worth following, and it’s a pleasant surprise that a major label is still gambling on such an unconventional artist. Given the fates met by similar albums by Nikka Costa, Amerie, and Little Jackie over the past few years, it remains to be seen whether or not Capitol will give her the promotional push she’ll need to compete with the likes of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Ke$ha in the current pop market, or if she’ll follow Solange to the fringes.