You never know which way a 25-year-old former teen-pop star is going to go. So many potential avenues are open to her. The one labeled “Springsteen-inspired homages to late ’50s and early ’60s pop” is not the expected one, however. Give Louise Burns props for creatively re-imagining her career trajectory. Better yet, give her props for a fine song, and consider it a great instance of making lemonade from lemons, as “Drop Names Not Bombs” draws upon past bad experience from her days as bass player in the teenybopper Canadian band Lillix.
Now as much as people are impelled to talk “girl group” when they hear Burns’ solo debut, Mellow Drama, there’s more to it than strict revivalism. Springsteen himself is grounded in that late ’50s/early-’60s sound, and Burns here is clearly channeling the girl-group thing via the Boss—I hear it in the chimey, piano-driven backbeat, in the organ flourishes, and most of all in the melodic resolution (check out 0:55, around the lyric “I’ll be buying them drinks all night”). As Bruce drew (and continues to draw) so much from the girl-group sound, it’s a lovely counterpoint to hear a female musician double back and tap into that same spring via his subsequent language. That the mezzo-ranged Burns sings with a hint of Ronnie Spector angst lends an extra charge to the proceedings.
And okay, while I don’t want to bog down in the Lillix story, it’s too central to ignore. Formed in Cranbrook, B.C. as a four-girl band when Burns all of 11, Lillix (originally named Tigerlily) was four years later signed by Madonna’s Time Warner-funded Maverick Records imprint. This was 2001. Fed to the star-maker machinery, they got a name change (there was a preexisting Tigerlily), were handed over to mercenary producers and songwriters (the girls had previously written their own music), and forced into pandering marketing efforts (two were sent to weight-loss camp). An early breakthrough: a cover of the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” was used by the 2002 WB sitcom of the same name. After two years of major-label fussing, the first Lillix album emerged in 2003, to mixed reviews at best; it cracked the Billboard 200, barely. In 2004, Madonna, an early booster, was driven from the label in a flurry of lawsuits. A 2006 follow-up album did well in Japan, and nowhere else, and Maverick, itself foundering, dropped the foursome while they were touring. Burns left the band and started over, diving into the Vancouver music scene and embracing noisy, experimental material as an effort to overcome both her teen-pop history and her music-industry bruises. Landing for a while in a goth-y trio called the Blue Violets, she has seemingly come to accept that she is a popster at heart. But sensitivity about her past remains. In a June interview, a couple of months after her solo debut was released in Canada, Burns said, poignantly, “It’s nice that people are giving it a chance despite my background.”
I’m giving her a good good chance. Mellow Drama was long-listed for Canada’s Polaris Music Prize in June; her label, Vancouver-based Light Organ Records, released the album in the U.S. this week. MP3 via Rolling Stone.