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At this point, the Spice Girls’ career trajectory resembles that of no other previous act as much as the Sex Pistols. Like the Pistols, the Girls have so far released a few recordings to a global concern made of equal parts hysteria and horror. Johnny Rotten and the lads toured America once; the Ab-Fab Five/Four have really only come around the one time. And each group had to subtract a mate: The Pistols lost spikey-haired Sid to drugs; the Girls watched spikey-voiced Ginger succumb to the druglike appeal of a solo project.
In some ways, Spice Girl Mel C — aka Sporty Spice or Melanie Chisholm — is an anomaly. With “Northern Star,” her first solo album, she is stepping out with the blessing of her once and future bandmates.
Melanie, it seems, just had to get this record off her heart. Known by those who claim to know such things as the Spice Girl who can actually sing, and punked-up for the September cover of the English magazine Q, which urges readers to “Meet Talented Spice Mel C,” Chisholm has been fooling us by living two lives at once. We all know she is the cross-training cog in the too-sweet Spice machine. But who knew that, inside, the real Melanie is an alt-digging, L.A rocker siren in a Gucci choker?
To record “Northern Star,” and ostensibly discover herself, Chisholm went where most folks hope to become someone else, Los Angeles. She surrounded herself with local talent: William Orbit and Marius De Vries, who between them have produced or remixed Madonna, Bjvrk, Blur and Massive Attack, among others, and Beastie Boys/Chili Peppers knob fiddler, ragin’ Rick Rubin. Liner notes claim Bryan Adams and two members of Beck’s band posed as backing musicians. Oh, and ex-Pistol Steve Jones turned up, too, wouldn’t you know? Pop music, thy name is kismet.
From the word go — which incidentally is the name of the first cut, only excitedly like this, “Go!” — “Northern Star” isn’t a huge departure for a solo Spice. Despite all of the rocker posturing, the songs are about 50 percent dancey, 50 percent ballady and 100 percent shmaltzy. And the lyrics are about stuff like love, trust and discovering yourself in L.A.
Chisholm’s ability to, at times, sound strangely like her hero Madonna — particularly during the soaring yet somnolent mid-tempo title track — makes you think she’d be a kick to karaoke with. And there are a few other surprises, like TLC’s Lisa Left Eye, who rhymes smoothly on “Never Be the Same Again.” There are also about three tracks hidden in the middle of “Northern Star” where the music is too interesting to cast off, where the jaunty piano bit on the ’80s-tinted “Suddenly Monday” is absolutely Squeezable, and where Melanie Chisholm sings with, well, heart.
Mac Montandon is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore.More Mac Montandon.