When I first heard “Overpowered” shimmying out of my speakers every preconceived notion I had about dance and disco music melted away. With every squelchy electronic bass beat my hardened heart sloughed off, revealing a glittering disco ball pumping silky blood to my feet. Irish chanteuse Róisín Murphy (formerly of the trip hop collective Moloko) has truly sharpened her pop craft since her first solo release Ruby Blue. There is an additional injection of soulfulness on the titular track, the cave-woman dance banger “Primitive” and the swooping “You Know Me Better.” The latter has Murphy aping Cher’s vocal gorges without all the kitschy baggage.
The vocal evolution of Murphy has been a tedious development, starting with her polarizing experiments with Moloko and ending with her most viscerally fun release to date. There have always been the same elements you hear on Overpowered though. The wily dance floor goddess that uttered the unforgettable (not to mention guileless) pick-up line: “Do you like my tight sweater? See how it fits my body!” is back, even if the man she snagged isn’t, Moloko’s counterweight, Mark Brydon. Murphy’s voice also contains all the authoritative power that recent dance-floor singers have lacked. The break-neck gall heard on tracks like “Cry Baby Cry” or the enticing breathiness on “Let Me Know” will hopefully fetch Murphy out of the pop-rock bargain bin that previous efforts have sequestered her in.
All of Murphy’s shape-shifting vocals transmogrified her electronic dance songs into fantastic aural voyages without the aid of Matthew Herbert’s glitch-filled microhouse of mirrors this time. The UK’s DJ/producer offered Murphy’s Ruby Blue the kind of unexpected human warmth to a notoriously chilly genre. The album was largely ignored on the pop charts though. It didn’t chart at all in the UK. Blue resembled a little too much of the musical equivalent of Murphy’s clumsy Halloween costume gone horribly wrong on Overpowered’s cover. I guess nobody but critics are fans of musique concrète (building music from everyday sounds). Although Hubert’s Scale (released in 2006) used everyday objects, such as breakfast cereal, gas pumps and coffins to great effect, both it and Blue’s minuscule found sounds (cosmetics, brass mice, and ornaments) didn’t find a mass audience.
Where Blue and Scale were insular at the outset, Overpowered spills over with pop bombast, inviting brisk and repeatable listens. It seems that ugly Halloween costume has taken on a whole new meaning. Its plump mass of color and bulbous appendages no longer seem tacky and forced when songs like “Checkin’ on Me” flaunt the same impassioned exuberance. The ridged plumage mirrors the same haughty voice heard throughout Murphy’s new dance-floor gem. And despite some dirty feathers in her tail (the plodding “Scarlet Ribbons”) this pop peacock is definitely on her own and loving it. This all means that I better start brushing up on my dance music.