Mika, With Nod to Pop Royalty

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mika is a nascent pop star with a potent falsetto and a real gift of melody. But the most striking thing about his campy debut, "Life in Cartoon Motion," is the way most of the songs sound: Orchestral, operatic and exceedingly theatrical, like showy Technicolor confections presented in high definition.

Take the album's opener, "Grace Kelly," a daft rant against music industry suits and their apparent penchant for manipulating artists. After sampling some of the actress's movie dialogue, Mika sings: "I try to be like Grace Kelly / But all her looks were too sad / So I try a little Freddie / I've gone identity mad."

Then the chorus kicks in and he tries to be even more like Freddie Mercury, channeling the Queen frontman with a stomping rhythm, buzzing guitars and multi-tracked vocal fly-overs. A "Bohemian Rhapsody"-style bridge takes the homage a step further. It's one of the year's more addictive pop singles. It's also among the weirdest.

The Lebanese-born, British-based singer-songwriter knows from fanciful arrangements and colorful instrumentation, and even songs that would seem to be candidates for stripped-down treatments are dressed up and accessorized on this mostly likable album.

"My Interpretation" opens with a piano line accented by acoustic guitar arpeggiation as Mika sings earnestly of life and death. It sounds at first like an attempt to steal some of James Blunt's fans while landing a slot on the next "Grey's Anatomy" soundtrack. But then the song starts to swell, with an electric bassline and additional vocal tracks, the melody goes skyward, and Mika's swooping voice does, too. While it's one of the album's more restrained songs, it's downright kaleidoscopic compared to Mika's plaintive falsetto-singing peers.

Indeed, if it's monochromatic fare you're seeking, you've come to the wrong place -- that place being the discotheque, where the men wear Jil Sander shirts while singing percussive songs about suckable candy ("Lollipop") and the women get cheated on by their bi-curious husbands. Seriously: "Billy Brown" is a jaunty piano-pop number about a guy who "lived an ordinary life, two kids, a dog and a cautionary wife." And then? "While it was all going accordingly to plan / Then Billy Brown fell in love with another man."

Nobody ever accused Mika of playing it straight! Or did they? The 23-year-old singer, who is already a star in England, says he received a death threat recently because he's refused to discuss his sexuality.

The music speaks on his behalf, and what that music says is that Mika has listened to a lot of Queen, not to mention more than a few pop queens: His obvious influences include George Michael, Rufus Wainwright, the Scissor Sisters and Elton John. Especially Elton, who will almost certainly approve of the bittersweet standout "Stuck in the Middle," since it sounds so much like one of his own.

There's also a heavy dose of modern disco, which forms the pulsating rhythmic backbone of much of the album, from "Relax (Take It Easy)" to "Ring Ring," a killer Killers-type dance-rock song.

Mika is capable of a complete misfire. Consider "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)," which echoes Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" sonically with lyrics along the lines of Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom." It's not nearly cheeky enough to be funny. And besides, there's a thin line between clever and stoopid.

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Grace Kelly," "Stuck in the Middle"

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