by Jeff Fiedler
Albums from the Lost & Found is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com in which contributor Jeff Fiedler reviews and helps us rediscover great pop albums that seem to have been lost to time.
About ten years ago, I was perusing the CDs at a local library and ran into an unfamiliar album by the title of Free Me, billed to an artist simply by the name of Emma. The album cover nearly looked like something out of the ‘60s, and until I inspected the back cover for a copyright date, I thought it make actually be an archival reissue of an obscure album from decades past. I was wildly intrigued and had to borrow it. Not until I was back home scanning the liner notes on the disc while the album played did I notice that all the songs were co-credited to an “Emma Bunton,” and only at that point did I realize, “I have just brought home an album by Baby Spice.” The funny thing is, had I not known her proper name, it might have taken me much longer to realize who I was listening to, as it is nearly impossible to tell from the music on this album that you’re listening to a solo album by a Spice Girl. Even funnier, the album impressed me so much that I actually ended up going out and buying a copy for myself the next week. Mind you, I was in disbelief the entire time I was standing at the checkout counter that I was actually buying a solo album by a Spice Girl – thankfully, I don’t think the cashier could tell who “Emma” was, either – but the record was quite seriously that fantastic.
Even if you don’t particularly take to the retro-flavored adult-contemporary pop of this album, you still have to be impressed by how utterly daring of a solo album this was for Bunton to both make and release. There was absolutely no way this album ever had a chance of getting noticed in America, although it did make some waves in Britain. This album not only doesn’t sound anything whatsoever like the Spice Girls’ bubblegum of old (except possibly their ballad “2 Become 1”), but it doesn’t even sound like an album made in the ‘00s. Instead, Bunton has drawn almost exclusively on the sound of swinging ‘60s pop as her model for the songs on this disc, this album being steeped in the sounds of such sophisticated adult-contemporary artists of old such as Burt Bacharach (whose music is clearly a huge influence on the disc), Sergio Mendes and Brasil ‘66, Dusty Springfield, Astrud Gilberto, and Petula Clark.
This is music that – sadly – was already out of vogue years before Bunton was even born and isn’t particularly well-known among younger ears. (If you’re not familiar with the name Burt Bacharach, do yourself a huge favor and go look him up.) It’s consequently thoroughly shocking to think that a former Spice Girl even is familiar with and enthusiastically absorbs this music, never mind being enough of a fan to want to construct an entire solo album around this kind of material at the potential detriment of their career.
Free Me ends up being the equal of the ’60s pop albums it wants to emulate: it’s retro yet hip, sophisticated and classy, effortlessly sexy without ever actually being risqué, alternately laid-back and Technicolor-vibrant, extremely relaxing in its gentlest moments, lushly orchestrated, and carefully designed to work as an album piece. Bunton, who co-wrote all but one of the tracks here, may not have been the most distinguished vocalist in the Spice Girls but her gentle purr fits the mood and style of these songs just perfectly, and she lets the melodies stand on their own beauty, and, boy, are these ever well-crafted songs!
The title cut sounds as if it could have been the theme to an early Bond film, while “Maybe” is a note-perfect bossa-nova tune with a well-integrated hint of vintage-French-pop in its instrumental breaks. “Crickets Sing for Anamaria” is an amazingly well-done cover of a vibrant bossa-nova number from an Astrud Gilberto album from the late Sixties. “I’ll Be There” brings a slight hint of early Motown to the proceedings, while “Amazing,” a duet with Latin singer Luis Fonsi, is an easygoing samba. The fluffy pop of “You Are” is contagious, and the devastatingly pretty “Tomorrow” has the most sophisticated, Bacharach-like melody in the bunch, and even fittingly works a trumpet into the instrumental arrangement of its choruses. The orchestral arrangement of the album-closing ballad “Something So Beautiful” is brilliant, the track’s final twenty seconds bringing the retro-flavored flavored album to the most fitting of endings.
I don’t have a good excuse for why I bought Geri Haliwell’s Schizophonic.