Life After Spice

Life After Spice

Emma Bunton’s solo album borrows her parents’ pop idioms

<< Emma Bunton grows up in her new CD release “Free Me,” that mixes Latin-inspired tunes with homages to the ’60s and songs that could work in soundtracks.

When the Spice Girls popped onto the scene in July of 1996, they were an undeniable phenomenon. With their hit single, “Wannabe,” they stole the hearts of 12-year-old girls––not to mention a good many gay men––everywhere, making “ girl power” the catch phrase du jour. They even had their own movie, “Spiceworld.”

Geri Estelle Halliwell, a.k.a. “Sexy Spice,” hit the road in 1998, and the remaining four Spices––Sporty, Posh, Scary and Baby––released “Forever” in 2000. But forever proved to be short-lived; five years later, Baby Spice Emma Lee Bunton has found herself out on her own with the dance single “Maybe” from her new solo album “Free Me.”

Bunton has said that “Free Me” is her attempt to eschew the Baby Spice tag and reintroduce herself to audiences as Emma Bunton. According to published interviews, Bunton wrote the lyrics herself, and took a strong hand in the production of the album as well.

Her two singles, “Maybe” and “Free Me,” have been well received by audiences. “Maybe” starts out strong with a solid dance beat, heavy on the synchro percussion and crazy, lilting keyboards. The remixes, especially the “Illicit Dub Mix” with its heavy percussion intro, offer a lot for a skilled DJ to work with.

“When you want it, it’s just a game that you play/ and when you get it, they’re gonna take it away,” sings Bunton, starting out her sad love song about missed chances and self-deception. “Maybe I’m in love,” is the chorus that says it all.

For someone who came from a band that was largely manufactured by PR agents and focus groups, Bunton’s singing voice is rather accomplished. She can easily hold her own among today’s pop stars.

“Free Me” sounds decidedly like Spice Girls fare, very pop-oriented. The theme this time is love, of the one-sided variety. Bunton chroons, “Being with you, longing for something to happen/ biding my time, hoping you’ll have a reaction.” The chorus, “Free me, let me loose to love you, yeah/ I long to seduce you,” comes with the type of bouncing instrumentals and easy accessibility that will have you humming it the next day. It also has a slightly retro feel, as if Bunton took her inspiration from the likes of Motown legends like the Supremes or the Staple Singers.

The “Free Me Full Intention Freed Up Radio Edit” is as good as its name––the solid back beat catches, and the suction-cup sounding break is perfect for the dance floor. With any luck, this tune will receive some radio play.

Bunton has already made a video for both singles, the one for “Maybe” heavily inspired by the 1969 Bob Fosse flick “Sweet Charity” that starred Shirley McClain in fantastical, downtown hippie dance montages. Bunton’s video capitalizes on the current vogue of the dapper Dan theme, featuring well-groomed, suited blokes dancing around Bunton, who, with her blond hair and perfect body, manages to blend both sexy and baby into her spice. The video for “Free Me” was shot in Rio de Janeiro.

The full-length LP showcases “Free Me” and “Maybe” with a very Brazilian pop patina, in contrast to their harder edge on the singles. The remainder of the album moves among songs with a very ’60s feel, ones with a Latin-inspired feel and those that could be sound track music.

In fact, “I’ll Be There” and “You Are” sound as though they are actually from the ’60s, from their chrooning instrumentals to gooey lyrics like “I’ll be there, whenever you need a friend.”

With the tracks “Tomorrow,” “Breathing” and “Lay Your Love On Me,” Bunton goes for the sultry lounge music sound. These songs aren’t bad—“Lay” has some particularly interesting arrangements happening––but I can’t help feeling as though they would fit perfectly as the theme song for an “Austin Powers” movie. They have just enough of that louche sexuality that accompanies the sound tracks of spy thrillers. “Breathing” throws in a little feel of Santana for good measure.

“Free Me” is full of tracks with Latin inspiration. They are easy to spot––just listen for the maraca breaks, whistling and rhythmic foot stomping. “Crickets Sing for Ana Maria” is a fast, fun tale of a girl who sneaks out after bedtime for some kicks on a summer night. “Amazing,” a duet with Luis Fonsi, is a suave piece of Latin-inspired lounge music in which the singers laud each other as “amazing,” “unbelievable” and “incredible.” It’s as though Burt Bacharach put Stevie Wonder in a headlock.

Other tracks are harder to categorize. “Who the Hell Are You” is almost campy. “No Sign of Life” mixes R&B with the Carpenters––imagine “You Can’t Hurry Love” meets “Yesterday Once More.” And “You Are” is pure Jackson 5.

Bunton makes no bones that she has looked to the past for her inspiration, drawing on her parents’ musical loves, from Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder and Dusty Springfield.

The result is a polished, if slightly manufactured, album that takes the best of the past and marries it with the high production qualities of the 21st century. Whatever Bunton does after “Free Me,” I think it is safe to say that with this album, she has made her own voice heard. And while may be difficult for her to get the critical consideration needed to break completely with the Spice Girls image, in the words of Patrick Swayze’s character in “Dirty Dancing,” “Nobody puts Baby Spice in the corner.” Well, close enough.