There was a time when even the most elementary student of pop music could tell the difference between hip and easy listening . That was, of course, before the days of such smooth operators and post-lounge lizards as Sade, Simply Red and Everything but the Girl.
To that list you can add Julia Fordham, a low-key, high-voiced Englishwoman who made her local debut Monday at the Roxy. Fordham has made a mark with critics for her honest, vulnerable lyrics, and with “wave"-format radio stations for her easy-to-take balladry. It’s quintessentially nice after-dinner music--especially if you ate dinner by yourself, since many of her songs are so lovelorn.
There are some brave ideas floating around in that 25-year-old head of hers. “The Comfort of Strangers” deals uncompromisingly with the temptation of casual sex. “Few Too Many” is about a lover who says all the right things only when he’s plastered to the gills. The single, “Happy Ever After,” wins points for daring to equate romantic misery with the misery of racial inequity in South Africa, even if you wish she’d made the connection a little clearer.
If Fordham’s lyrics can be courageous, there’s nothing risky about the musical context, except perhaps the risk of dozing off. The opening song, “My Lover’s Keeper,” had her five-piece band (plus two female singers) tapping into a Sting-like, light funk groove, bottom-heavy with an airy synthesizer topping. The slower numbers, while better, still veered toward cliches of what sensitive cabaret music should be. You could almost choke on all the tastefulness.
Fordham herself often seemed an actress playing out a mild-mannered part, shaking her hands in the air in practiced moves that had little to do with the music. Yet she remained enormously likable. Once she strapped on an electric guitar over her bright red mini-dress halfway through the set, she appeared to be more in her element, and it was obvious for all to see that this more relaxed Fordham is every bit as sweet as she is skinny. If only she could find a more compelling, less “easy” context for her hard little revelations.