Britney Spears wants to be different, but her producers still call the shots - at least Brit School graduate and future diva Katy B is shaping her own destiny
Britney Spears: Femme Fatale
Jive, 12.99 ***
Katy B: On A Mission
Rinse/Columbia, 12.99 ***
BRITNEY SPEARS is back and she's got something she wants to say. First, some little pseudo-orgasmic yelps - the Spears equivalent of clearing her throat. Now stand by for the communication: "You feel like paradise and I need a vacation tonight." Words of wisdom from her recent single Hold It Against Me, a big slab of pure cheese dressed in dubstep robes.But that's not all. She actually does have a message about her new album. Apparently, it's a "fierce dance record". Thanks for that, Britney, nice reading straight off the script. There's more: "I wanted it to sound different from everything else out right now," imparts the Oracle. As if she, rather than her producers Max Martin and Dr Luke - the actual custodians of Brand Britney - has anything to do with how her album sounds.
She's not done yet: "I also wanted to play with my voice." Is that not what AutoTune is for? Britney turns 30 later this year but the arrested development vocals remain.
However, the irony is that with R&B-flavoured pop music in a particularly generic, creatively stunted place right now, Femme Fatale does actually emerge slightly ahead of the curve. Which is a bit like congratulating an athlete on winning the 100-metre dash with the slowest time on record. But so it is that Britney, through no fault of her own, continues her run of half-decent albums with this streamlined, fairly fashionable collection of dancefloor tunes.
A succession of hands-in-the-air club tracks are somewhat soiled with standard- issue sexual innuendo, Britney droning her mechanical come-ons like Kylie's trashy sister. Kylie herself would jump on the ravey rapture of Trip To Your Heart in a heartbeat, while How I Roll, helmed by Toxic producers Bloodshy & Avant, is a deft mix of cool hip-hop and cute bubblegum.
But where is that "sound different from everything else" she was promising? It's not likely to come from overexposed Black Eyed Peas mainman Will.i.am, whose Big Fat Bass Britney admires at length in her best Lady Gaga imitation. Could it be found on closing ballad Criminal with its lovely tremulous flute sample and hokey Papa Don't Preach-for-our-times lyrics? Of course not, but it is fun hearing Brit justify her love of a wrong 'un, using the argument that "the man's a snitch and unpredictable, he's got no conscience." Mmm, sounds like quite a catch.
Spears started her career as a Mouseketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling (better believe it).
The closest hothouse equivalent this side of the pond is probably the Brit School, from which the likes of Adele, Amy Winehouse and Jessie J have emerged to chart domination.
Its latest graduate contender is Peckham's Kathleen Brien, better known as Katy B. Like her fellow alumni, Brien has a fine set of pipes and writes her own material but, thanks to her producer Geeneus's connections to erstwhile pirate radio station Rinse FM, she has become the go-to girl for all your dubstep guest vocal needs.
Her easy-on-the-ear natural tone helped to elevate Magnetic Man's Perfect Stranger from underground track to crossover contender. This latterday Inner City Life, included on her debut album, is the sleek, dinner party face of dubstep. Brien has also recorded a cover of Kevin Saunderson's seminal club track Good Life and cites Jill Scott and Erykah Badu as her favourite singers, which says more about where she is coming from musically than the hard tech blast of dubstep. On A Mission makes a warm and welcoming sound but it is not particularly cutting edge in that its default "funky" genre is basically a stylistic retread of late 80s/early 90s deep house, whose influence can be heard in Brien's intuitive, jazzy phrasing of the memorable melodic hookline to Why You Always Here.
Former single Katy On A Mission puts her peer Jessie J completely in the shade, with its intelligent fusion of pop melody and state-of-the-art beats, while offering a more personal and relatable account of the sensuality of the clubbing experience than Britney's crass bump-and-grind metaphors. Follow-up release Lights On is another free-and-easy house track which manages to bottle the immersive sensation of the best club nights for home consumption. Nice too to hear Ms Dynamite, once the crossover diva of the moment herself, deliver a hearty guest rap.Elsewhere the lyrics revolve around the stock theme of relationship insecurities and emotional manoeuvres, the nadir being the rudimentary boy trouble rhyming of Easy Please Me, but Brien plays Britney and Kylie more shrewdly at their own game on the heady Witches Brew, displaying much greater vocal artistry into the bargain.
Like Britney, Brien has made a club album with strong pop credentials. Unlike Britney, she had a considerable hand in making it happening. Does this matter? To some, perhaps. While Britney will continue on whatever path is laid out for her by whoever decides these things, Katy B, the newest diva on the block, can follow her own muse.