Review: “Play With Me” by Lene (CD, 2003)

Today’s POP RESCUE from an uncertain fate, is the 2003 debut solo album Play With Me by Norwegian singer, and Aqua vocalist, Lene Nystrøm. Will this album be a load of fun, or will you want to turn back time? Read on…

Lene - 'Play With Me' (2003) album cover
Lene – ‘Play With Me’ (2003) album

The album opens with Virgin Superstar which begins quite brooding before roaring guitars lead us to Lene’s vocals. The production is slick here, and the rock guitars sit against the breathy vocals perfectly. It’s a catchy little pop stong, and a strong start for the album. It’s therefore no surprise to find Karen Poole (Alisha’s Attic) on the writing credits – her first of many on this album.

Next up it’s second and final single Pretty Young Thing and this is a much softer song by comparison, loaded with croaky lyrics that hit a much lower register. That lower vocal reminds me momentarily of Cerys Mathews, before the track shifts onto the catchy pop chorus. There’s some really nice sweeping strings that help lift this track up. As it progresses, I’m left thinking that it could easily sneak into a Texas album. The UK didn’t think it so pretty, and sadly it failed to chart.

Lead single It’s Your Duty follows this and it is loaded with rocky guitars that roar throughout. This sits perfectly alongside Lene’s vocals that leap from breathy seductress, to a cartoon hero, to the powerful defiance you’d find in the likes of Girls Aloud or Britney. The track is really really catchy, and was the perfect lead single. However, despite its catchiness, great video and a handful of promo editions for the UK, it failed to chart.

The album’s titular track, Play With Me, follows this, and it sees a return to the heavy rockier sound. Lene’s ‘gang’ style vocals really make the perfect dueller to the guitar and the synth leads. It’s a fairly simple mid-tempo track that plods along, despite its overtly sexual lyrics.

Bad Coffee Day is next, and the tempo is back down again, perhaps supporting a hungover party-goer in need of a coffee. This soon steps aside though for the chorus, as the electric guitars slide in effortlessly. At times this reminds me musically of some of the tracks from Natalie Imbruglia’s debut album.

That’s followed by Here We Go, which almost takes on a kind of calypso sound. This song once again reeks of Girls Aloud, so it’s no surprise at all to learn that this is the first of the Xenomania contributions on this album. Of course, it’s catchy as hell, and oozes vocal harmonies, effects, and gurgling synths at high tempo. It’s another nice little song.

Some simple piano notes lure us into Bite You, but then you realise that there’s a snarling dog, and Lene’s found a menacing vocal style as she sings ‘Just ’cause I have red hair, don’t mean I’m red down there‘. This reminds me of tracks when All Saints would ‘get nasty’, and the electric guitar is out in full force again. The over all effect is something angry and dangerous.

Next up is Up In Smoke, which has the guitar chords back, and Lene is joined by Felix Howard who gives lots of breathy samples that instantly makes me think of Justin Timberlake as soon as the beat starts. The result is a catchy little track that sits slightly to the side of the rest of the album genre so far.

Then it’s on to We Wanna Party, which picks up a lovely bass guitar and tempo from the outset. Lene’s vocals sit perfectly on top, commanding the song towards the catchy chorus, it’s just the verses that are a little lyrically flat. Again, it has all the musical signatures of Xenomania all over it, and a glance at the sleeve notes confirms this.

Pants Up follows this and we’re back to an almost-All Saints song. The vocal style, along with the more RnB sound, makes it hard to imagine anyone else performing this song. It’s definitely an album track, but it’s nice enough with some little brass stabs along the way.

Penultimate track Surprise is next and it bursts in with some vinyl scratching and growling guitars, making it sound like it’s almost trying to pinch some of Walk This Way by Run-D.M.C with Aerosmith (although it doesn’t). Again, i’m reminded of All Saints’ album tracks.

The album closes with Scream, which opens with some dreamy simple synthscapes. Lene finally gets to show off her rich warm vocals with little interruption. Finger clicks join her, before the electric guitar gets to drop in a few notes for the vocals. The vocal is the focus here though, and Lene really gets to show off her voice. It’s a nice contrasting end to this album.

Lene’s lead single ‘It’s Your Duty’ from 2003.

Verdict

Over all, this album has pop royalty right through it – Xenomania, Brian Rawlings, Karen Poole and more, and therefore you’d therefore expect it to soar, but in reality it failed to chart.

It often sounds like All Saints or Girls Aloud, perhaps even Britney Spears, but then it throws in the harder rock sound, and that may well have been the problem. Lene’s performance here struggled to stand out amongst these other hit-making artists. As part of Aqua, she stood out, but that also brought her the ‘comedic’ baggage of huge hits Barbie Girl and Doctor Jones, but that’s not who this album is – and the mixtures of dance-pop and rock guitars makes it a confusing style.

With some stronger promo in the UK, and sheer determination by the label to power through with more singles, I think that this may well have diluted Aqua’s childish legacy, and allowed Lene to have her own solo career.

It’s Your Duty is definitely the high point here, and there are many other really good tracks. Bite Me simply doesn’t deserve another play.

Rated 4 stars - You're missing a treat!
  • POP RESCUE 2020 RATING: 4 / 5
  • 2003 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: Did not chart.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £2.25 from an eBay seller.

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