The appeal of Norwegian singer/songwriter Anne Lilia Berge Strand is hard to explain to friends. With no in-yer-face talent to speak of – her famously weak voice has arguably been her biggest obstacle – one could wax on about her songwriting. Through her previous work with Richard X, as well as Girls Aloud puppeteers Xenomania, her songs share an enjoyably irreverent quality, usually complemented by either a melancholic, euphoric or ominous twist.
Trouble is, listeners tend to blur all sidelined female pioneers of quirky pop into one, with Girls Aloud coming out on top as the most recognisable and vocally distinctive. Why bother with a seemingly meek entity with bat-shit lyrics and the timbre of an air-conditioner when Nadine Coyle is waiting in the wings with her untouchable voice and unintelligible accent?
Damned if I know. There’s certainly something special about Annie, I’ve just never been able to put my finger on it. She has an ear for an excellent pop melody, and a knack for framing different emotions with grace and introspection. Beyond this, it would seem there’s little Annie can do to broaden her appeal.
If anything, this month’s A&R EP shows a regression. She’s gone back to basics by teaming again with Richard “X” Philips, who helmed the highlights of her debut LP Anniemal and its much delayed follow-up Don’t Stop. His sugary instrumentals suit Annie’s voice far more than the weighty production of Xenomania, which occasionally drowned her out.
The pared down, 80’s-inspired beats are reminiscent of Grum’s Heartbeats album, only with a lightness of touch that matches the record’s noble themes of love, friendship, and teen crushes.
That final topic is confined to “Ralph Macchio”, a love letter to the eponymous 80’s star. Musically, it’s consistent with the rest of the album, but with a pleasingly chintzy sheen. “Hold On” is lush and life-affirming, while closer “Mixed Emotions” is an unofficial sequel to “Anthonio” with its soft hooks and yearning lyrics.
Speaking of Anthonio, where is he on “Invisible”? It’s the collection’s crown jewel, a spoken-word battle of the sexes taking place against a cloudy beat. Strand takes on her male (read: pitch-altered) counterpart, who’s credited as Mannie, which is nice. I just feel a reunion between her and ol’ Tony would have been more compelling. Regardless, the track’s a stunner. Annie’s unavoidable breathlessness serves the dark and desperate chorus well: “Your love’s so cruel / You raise me up / and let me fall / you see right through / as I become invisible”. As this year’s pitch-corrected releases go, it definitely puts a certain Mrs. Carter in the shade.
Opener “Back Together” is a sugar rush of shimmering synths and “Call The Shots”-style coos. A tribute to the healing powers of music, it reflects less on Annie’s absence than it does on her triumphant return. After so many setbacks and near-misses, it explains why Strand can’t help but go back for more: “When we need it most / it will bring us close / and here’s where we all belong.”
Truth be told, where she belongs is at the top. But it would seem the hearts of those lucky enough to grasp her greatness will have to do for now.