If the news that Geri Halliwell has a new album out leaves you scratching your head and wondering, "Who's he?", then you have some sense of the difficulties the former Ginger Spice will face in trying to establish her solo career on this side of the Atlantic.
Halliwell, who left the Spice Girls on the eve of their American tour a little more than a year ago, is a household name in Britain. Then again, so are Zoe Ball, Chris Morris and Bez, and you don't see any of them being groomed for stateside stardom. (In case you're wondering, Ball is a Radio One morning DJ, Morris a comedian, and Bez the oft-inebriated bassist from Happy Mondays.)
Name-recognition is just part of Halliwell's problem, however. A far more pressing concern is "Schizophonic" (Capitol 21009, arriving in stores today), Halliwell's solo debut.
Fitted out with a slick, showy sound and songs all written at least in part by the singer herself, it's clearly meant to shut the door on Halliwell's Spicy past. In place of the fluffy, mindlessly entertaining fare that helped the Spice Girls sell millions around the globe, Halliwell opts for a more subdued, sophisticated sound. It's almost as if Halliwell set out to make her own version of an Annie Lennox album.
Halliwell, though, is no Annie Lennox.
It isn't just that her voice lacks the luster, the power and the pizazz; Halliwell also has none of Lennox's instincts as an interpreter. Hand Lennox a song like "Last Kiss," and she'd turn the tune's languid, jazzy pulse into a sultry, slow-burning seduction, teasing the melody along with vixenish ease.
Halliwell, unfortunately, comes on like a showgirl in a third-rate musical, belting the accents with metronomic insistence and handling the lyrics as if she were afraid of forgetting her choreography. In her hands, the song isn't about sex, much less romance -- it's about playing dress-ups, with Halliwell casting herself as a latter-day Julie London.
"Look at Me" takes that production-number approach even further, casting Halliwell as a mercurial temptress who commands the attention of all those around her. It's a conceit that works well on video, but the song itself is utterly unconvincing -- in large part because Halliwell's voice barely stands out from the cushion of harmony vocals supporting her.
Those aren't isolated examples, either, as "Schizophonic" is full of ultra-stylized pop extravaganzas. It's as if Halliwell were under the impression she was assembling a TV variety show, not an album's worth of pop songs.
Oh, sure, she tries to add a dash of pop-star wit to the proceedings, but even these sound like the sort of scripted zingers you'd see on a TelePrompTer. "Bag It Up" attempts to seem cheeky by asserting that the best way to treat a wayward boyfriend is to "Treat him like a lady," a line that would seem witty only with the help of a laugh track.
At least the basic idea is reasonably clear, which is more than can be said for "Let Me Love You." As the song careens from dance rock to mock-Indian psychedelia, Halliwell coquettishly insists, "I'm just a girl and I'm in disguise/Just trying to be a woman" -- a line that makes sense only if you don't think about it.
Then again, the same could be said for Halliwell's career. Because if "Schizophonic" is the best she can do musically, she really ought to look into a career in variety shows.
"Schizophonic" (Capitol 21009)
Sun score: **
Pub Date: 6/15/99