Like most upstart musical styles, electronica infiltrated rather than overwhelmed the mainstream. While dance-club visionaries prophesied the end of the pop song, the most popular disco-rooted performers continued to rely on lyrics and melodies. Among those pragmatic divas is Madonna, who picked up one of her recent tunes, "Nothing Fails," from Welsh music publicist Jemma Griffiths. That credit, and woodshedding with producers Yoad Nevo and Guy Sigsworth, led to a debut album for the singer-songwriter who now calls herself simply Jem.
"Finally Woken" does not position Jem as competition for Madonna. Most of the 11 songs feature sauntering electrobeats, delicate acoustic guitar and breathy vocals, suggesting the work of such British folktronicists as Beth Gibbons (sans Portishead), Dido and Beth Orton. The material ranges from the jauntily girl-groupish "Wish I" to the reggaefied "Save Me" to the Verve-like "24," which contrasts a lilting violin figure with heavy guitar.
More typical, however, are such songs as "They" and the title track, with their trip-hop shuffles and girlish vocal chorales. Jem is a dependable melodist, so the album is never dull. Her sense of style is still developing, however, which may be why "Finally Woken" sounds more like a collection of songwriter's demos than a finished work.
Although he's Louisiana-born and New York-based, Louque shares a few things with Jem, including multilayered trip-hop and a shortened name. (He was born Dustan Louque). Rooted in Louisiana's abundant musical traditions, the singer-songwriter's "So Long" is grittier than much synth-driven music. Yet Louque has also been influenced by dub reggae and ethereal post-punk; in addition to eight songs co-written by Louque, the album includes a cover of Mazzy Star's "Cry Cry." Its most distinctive selections, including "Still in Waiting" and "Lifeline," warm the machine-generated beats with earthy chants and juke-joint piano. This music's spine may be mechanical, but Louque fleshes out the sound with live instruments and his plaintive tenor.
-- Mark Jenkins
Appearing Tuesday at IOTA. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Jem, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8104; to hear Louque, press 8105. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)