The Family Jewels has been a long time coming. Since we first wrote about the Greco-Welsh singer/songwriter back in 2008 (here) and named her as one to watch for 2009 (here) Marina Diamandis has been slowly building her following of ‘diamonds’ through the groundwork of live gigging, blogging, twittering and a succession of singles which culminated in the chart success of the American trash cultured obsessed Hollywood and the release of her debut album this week.
In the new web-wide-world artist development happens so publicly, through posting of Myspace demos, blog MP3 downloads and the like, that many of the songs on The Family Jewels are already familiar to fans and followers. In this respect this recording feels not dissimilar to many debut albums, in that it is a summing up of the artists work so far rather than a complete new collection being unveiled. However, there is the odd new song such as the tall standing and muscular piano near rocker Are You Satisfied that will engage and satisfy even the most ardent Marina and the Diamonds obsessive.
So what is the appeal of Marina and the Diamonds that has enabled her (and yes Marina is very much a solo act, even to the extent that she wrote all the songs on the album herself with no co-writing options) to sail into the UK pop charts that are awash with sub-rate R&B and X-Factor or TV tie-in blandness? For Diamandis certainly doesn’t fit into these categories.
The Family Jewels gives the answers even though lyrically it is very questioning. It has qualities that keep the diamond flag flying high for the first time since the sequinned-up frog prince Neil Diamond crooned the pants of some old age pensioners with his career reviving 12 Songs and Home Before Dark. There’s enough diversity to appeal to a cross section of the public, from the quirky cool-kid who typically loves Bjork / Regina Spektor / Bat For Lashes to the more mainstream music fan that is growing out of JLS or Britney Spears right across to the older listener who grew up on a diet of Kate Bush or Lene Lovich.
There are big pop songs in the aforementioned Hollywood and the uplifting drowning your sorrows m-o-r future hit Shampain, tender mournful piano ballads such as Obsessions and a number of slightly left of centre maverick work-outs where Marina can let off steam with her theatrical high drama ballsy whooping. Examples here are the sassy anti-gossip culture eurostomp of Girls and angelic string laden Numb. The name Kate Bush often comes up in comparison, we’ve mentioned it already, but we’d say that Marina’s vocal mannerisms were closer affiliated to Siouxsie Sioux gone pop, although Bush and Tori Amos certainly fall within the set. Lyrically Marina jibes and questions on subject matter ranging through success, femininity and self-doubt, often colouring it with a layer of cold winking irony; “Don’t do love, do do friends, I’m only after success,” she sings assertively on Oh No! Her angsty songs wrestle with questions and challenging statements, but from the word go Marina hints that the answers she may be looking for are not always simple. “Black, white, black, white,” she sings at the end of Are You Satisfied, but you get the feeling that in her heart Marina realises that often the answer is clouded grey.
The combination of brash confidence and insecurity that Marina displays on the album makes for a winning listening experience - one where like a psychiatrist you find yourself returning with her in the chair to analyse lyrics that could have many double meanings. “I’m no good to anyone, ‘cause all I care about is being number one,” being one particular example. Of course all of this would be pointless without the songs to back up the words. Whilst occasionally her simple repetitive piano chords can grate, for the most part the compositions are rewarding and have depth, being formed out of old fashioned live musicianship with just a wash of studio trickery.
The Family Jewels doesn’t have the supernova commercial appeal of Florence and the Machine, another big voiced contemporary solo female artist that Marina and the Diamonds has been compared with, but then neither is it commercially obsolete in its sound. Overall it’s a cracking debut, one that has plenty of idiosyncratic character both musically and lyrically. It justifies the long wait and has enough variation to allow her to go wherever she wants with album number two.