Bruno Mars knows the markets he's flogging to and exploits them with aplomb, but unfortunately he's missed his own goal - beating Gnarls Barkley
Bruno Mars: Doo-Wops & Hooligans
Elektra, 11.99 **
FOR such a seemingly unassuming character, Bruno Mars has steel at his core. At present, he is best known for Just The Way You Are, his drippy chart-topping homage to the wonder of wumminkind, but this LA-based singer is a commercial songwriting machine. In the past year, he has co-written Cee Lo Green's F*** You and co-written and sung on B.O.B.'s Nothin' On You and Travie McCoy's Billionaire, three of 2010's most appealing pop confections, and achieved true global reach by co-writing K'naan's cheering World Cup theme Wavin' Flag. So the man has some pop pedigree. Sadly, he didn't think to save much of that for his own album.
Yet he draws on a commendable well of influences. Mars grew up in Hawaii on a diet of Elvis, Prince, reggae and doo-wop, that most swoon-inducing of pop vocal forms, which he admires for its apparent simplicity. Doo-wop may be direct in its appeal but it is deceptively sophisticated in its execution, especially against Mars's own offerings. As for his contemporaries, he cites Gnarls Barkley's Crazy as the pop benchmark he would like to equal, suggesting that he has high creative as well as commercial ambitions.
He achieves one of those ambitions anyway with this debut album, which he has produced with his songwriting partners Philip Lawrence and Ari Levine. This crack team are collectively known as The Smeezingtons, which doesn't quite have the ring of Holland/Dozier/Holland, or even Xenomania. But mock their artillery at your peril.
Doo-wops & Hooligans is a precision-aimed pop product - doo-wop, with its promise of unthreatening, idealised romance, for the girls, and hooligans for the boys. Mars is, at his very edgiest, more lovable rogue than hooligan, though his wholesome image has been slightly marred by his recent arrest for cocaine possession.
Presumably, he is driven enough to make sure that won't happen again. Wouldn't want to derail the approaching chart juggernaut, after all.
Mars and team have taken no chances with the tunes and the production, ticking off a checklist of proven chart styles from retro soul to lame ska pop. The results are mainly upbeat, a little bit mischievous, a whole lot soppy, utterly throwaway and mercifully brief.
First strike is Grenade, a boy band missile which is a touch desperate in its overwrought overtures to a girl who wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire, but affords ample opportunity for earnest chest-clutching moves.Too intense? Then try out Mars as ladykiller, heartbreaker and rolling stone on the finger-popping retro soul funk bubblegum number Runaway Baby.
If you thought Just The Way You Are was icky - never mind that Billy Joel, not to mention Shakespeare, have already made the same point far more poetically - then get the sick bag ready for The First Time, a reggaefied R&B smooch about losing your virginity which, far from conveying any of the awkwardness, embarrassment or excitement of the moment, is ironically robotic and formulaic in its sentiments.
Next, he aims straight for the boys with a shout out to all the professional slobs in the audience. The Lazy Song is a deliberately dim-witted celebration of head-in-the-sand idleness and irresponsibility. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. Still, God help us if there's another war.
However, this voluntary inaction is preferable to what he gets up to when he gets a foolish drunken notion in his head. Marry You is a PG-rated paean to getting tanked and then hitched, which showcases the best and worst of Mars - his facility for a jolly tune and catchy but disposable rhyming couplets, married (ahem) to a pretty cynical appeal to man's baser behaviours. Well, it worked for Katy Perry.
Talking To The Moon is a stab at a heavyweight pop ballad, following the Gary Barlow stirring-yet-banal mould with what sounds like a slowed-down, doleful version of the Billionaire tune.
Mars riffs again on his own template on the inoffensive reggae-lite of Count On Me, which meekly follows the Jason Mraz/Jack Johnson trend for undemanding beach-bum minstrelsy. But he strikes more of a downer note on simple confessional Liquor Store Blues with guest Damian Marley providing a veneer of dub reggae credibility.
There is nothing here which rises to the Crazy challenge but he comes closest with closing track The Other Side, a confident blend of old school and current soul pop, featuring his old pals Cee Lo "voice of Crazy" Green and rapper B.O.B. Although still a relatively lightweight number, it does at least suggest that Mars could merely be toying with this superficial pop game and that there are untapped depths in reserve. Like Mika, another intuitive pop songwriter who always threatens but fails to deliver something more sophisticated, Mars could just be playing dumb to appease the masses. Or maybe this is actually as good as it gets.