CD Review of Down to Earth by Jem
Recommended if you like
Dido, Sarah McLachlan,
Everything but the Girl
Label
ATO
Jem: Down to Earth

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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O
n her 2004 full-length debut, Finally Woken, Jem planted her flag in the relatively undiscovered territory between Dido and Imogen Heap, blending confessional singer/songwriter pop with bedroom electronica – and earned herself a few hundred thousand fans in the process, among them the soundtrack supervisors for every twentysomething-skewing drama on the television dial. As far as left-field successes go, it may have edged toward the middle of the road, but still, Finally Woken was one of the better, more surprising debuts of the year.

Four years later, Jem’s back with Down to Earth, and from the moment you look at the cover, you know you’re dealing with a different Jem; where Finally Woken conjured an air of mystery with a tinted picture of the artist as a young girl, the new album’s artwork features a picture of the singer all dolled up, looking vaguely like Hilary Duff, with a classy brushed steel logo and Photoshopped stars in the background. So what gives, anyway? Has Jem gone Fergie on us, or what?

The answer, happily, is “not really” – but with a caveat or two thrown in. For one thing, Down to Earth really is a lot glossier than its predecessor; on her debut, Jem was most effective when blending disparate elements, like loud, choppy guitars and programmed beats, but here, that experimental aesthetic is mostly thrown overboard in favor of more traditional machine-assisted pop. Tracks like “Crazy” and the “Sex and the City” soundtrack anthem “It’s Amazing” could have been recorded by almost anybody, which is a letdown for an artist whose debut showed flashes of such singular personality.

Jem

But even if Down to Earth tempers Jem’s most endearingly quirky traits, it isn’t a total wash – far from it, actually. It isn’t as much fun as its predecessor, but the new album still benefits from Jem’s cool, airy vocals and her gift for coming up with gently hooky pop songs – and it does manage to wander off the beaten path a time or two, most notably on the stupidly named “Aciid!”, which features, for probably the first time in recorded history, a Welsh singer with a law degree attempting to croon in phonetically translated Japanese.

Ultimately, however, those moments are too few and far between to separate Down to Earth from the chick-pop pack – in fact, the eighth track, “Got It Good,” is such a perfectly ordinary (and, it must be said, downright catchy) love song that it’s easy to hear it being covered by anyone from Shania Twain to Rihanna. That’s damning with faint praise, perhaps, but only because of the standard she’s already set for herself – and if this overtly commercial set helps ATO break Jem to a wider audience, it should all be worth it.

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