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Would you believe that 2009 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the original British girl group, Bananarama? What's even scarier is that in 2011 the two remaining members, Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin will both be fifty years old. Fifty! That's, like, really old! This may not be the only surprising Bananarama-related fact that you learn today, because you were probably not even aware that the group was still releasing music. Indeed they are, and Viva, released in 2009, is their tenth studio album in total. It bombed almost without a trace in the UK, scaling the giddy heights of number 87 in the album chart and barely got a mention in the music press, which is quite surprising, given, if nothing else, the group's longevity in the UK.
The album is produced and mixed by DJ Ian Masterson, whose career covers a varied range of artists and sounds, generally within the commercial dance scene. It couldn't be argued that Masterson brings a particularly distinctive sound to the album, but the two singers co-wrote most of the tracks on the album with Masterson (cover versions aside) and it doesn't suffer, therefore, from a grotesquely over-produced sound. There is some individuality here; it's clear that Woodward and Dallin had a view about what they wanted to do and felt that they were at a stage in their career when they could do it. This doesn't mean, however, that what they do it terribly listenable.
The overall sound of the album could probably best be categorised as electro-pop. Never the strongest of vocalists, the 'Nanas opt for a style that complements reasonably prominent electro sounds, simple beats and vocodered vocals, seemingly intended to cover up the weaknesses of the girls' voices. Overall, this has some initial success, but as you work your way through the album, you quickly stumble across the inherent problems with this approach.
There's an unmistakable world-weariness about Viva. This isn't an album that sounds like two people refusing to give up what they love doing. It sounds like two jaded singers who really don't know how to do anything else and seem intent, instead, on trying to compete with the younger, trendier end of the spectrum. There may be times when the production or the overall effect sounds like something that you might hear on a Britney Spears tune, but you quickly realise it's not when the 'Nanas start singing. Sometimes, this is just about forgivable, at others it's, frankly, pretty tiresome and the resounding effect of all this vocal misery is that you just wish the two of them would hang up their hats once and for all.
It was really the upbeat, cheesy sound of Stock Aitken and Waterman that gave Bananarama the most success. Now, the production just seems to expose their weak, lifeless vocals, as opposed to the way in which the S/A/W sound seemed to disguise. True enough, the girls are now twenty years older and we might expect some change in their voices, but the fact remains that these are some of the flattest vocals you will ever hear on a record of this nature. On 'Seventeen', for example, you could be forgiven for thinking that they can actually be bothered to sing at all. The song's trudging, lifeless beat and crap vocals (kiss me now and make me feel like Marilyn Monroe) is worsened only by the monotone voices dribbling out of the speakers. For a song that's supposed to be about feeling young and alive, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a suicide anthem.
These mixed messages are everywhere. 'S-S-S-Single Bed' is a Kylie-esque boom-chaka breather that should excite, but instead embarrasses. It's rather like coming home and finding your mother in bed with the milkman. Indeed, what is the point of the song? This is the sort of song you might have expected from the earliest Bananarama days, but two grown women moaning about the fact they only have a single bed just doesn't make sense. On 'Extraordinary' they try and get a little bit more excited (defined as they increase the pitch slightly) but the confused 80s/90s/00s/10s/ electro sound just can't decide what it wants to be. The 'Nanas probably thought it sounded quite cool, but it actually sounds a bit desperate.
Occasionally, it's not too bad. Leading single 'Love Comes' is a more solid, consistent pop song and the vocals are at their most synthesised here, almost disguising the aging voices in the studio. 'Love Don't Live Here' is more like the traditional Nana sound we know so well and has that sort of high-pitched peril we knew and loved on classic songs like 'Love in The First Degree'. Indeed, it's when they stick to what they (arguably) did quite well in the 80s that the girls have the most success here. 'We've Got The Night' is likeable on this basis; a simple, upbeat pop song with equally simple vocals that sound like the Nanas of old.
The album contains three cover versions in total, all of which are misguided. Aside from the aforementioned creepy version of 'S-S-S-Single Bed' (originally recorded in the 70s by Fox) the girls also take on a 90s trance anthem and a 70s disco anthem. The Bananarama treatment probably works worst on the 90s anthem Rapture by iiO, which is a pretty pointless exercise here. The original was partly renowned for the distinctive female vocal, which, when covered here, only goes further to expose the inadequacy and occasional clumsiness of Dallin and Woodward's vocals. A cover of The Three Degrees' The Runner is more successful here, given only that we probably associate the Nanas with disco-pop and this, at least, plays to these strengths.
With eleven tracks in total, it has to be said that Viva quickly outlives its welcome and it's hard not to start feeling sorry for them. The album's bland, repetitive nature soon washes over you, leaving probably only 2 or 3 tracks worth any form of mention and it's really no surprise that this didn't catch on commercially. Despite the Nanas best attempts to update their style, they don't really bring any spark or personality to this project. This really is only one for the die-hard fans.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Love Comes
2 Love Don't Live Here
6 Tell Me Tomorrow
7 The Runner
9 Dum Dum Boy
10 S-S-S-Single Bed
11 We've Got The Night