Emma Bunton

Free Me

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Of all the Spice Girls, Emma Bunton tended to disappear into the background. Her four partners in the group all had powerful personas, and Bunton's bland sweetness simply could not compete next to Victoria Beckham's sultry ice queen Posh Spice or Geri Halliwell's brassy, sassy Ginger Spice. So, when the Spice Girls parted ways after 2000's abortive Forever it seemed inevitable that she would simply fade away. Then again, at one time it seemed inevitable that Gary Barlow would eclipse his former Take That bandmate Robbie Williams on the pop charts, and it didn't turn out that way, so first impressions shouldn't be trusted when it comes to British teen pop groups -- a theory that receives further support with the release of Emma Bunton's superb second album, Free Me. It, quite simply, isn't just the best Spice Girls solo album -- which, given such disasters as Geri's Scream if You Wanna Go Faster, isn't that hard -- it's the best Spice-related record, and the best mainstream British pop album since Robbie at his heyday. Taking a cue from the stylish update on swinging '60s London that Saint Etienne pioneered in the '90s, Free Me is a breezy, effervescent set of light pop. Hints of Bacharach and bossa nova are scattered throughout the album, strings sweep songs into their choruses, beats are strong but take a backseat to melody. This music is stylish without being flashy, thanks in large part to the charmingly tuneful, sturdy songs (all but one bearing a writing credit from Emma). While Bunton may still have a small, sweet voice, she's developed a stronger presence on record, giving this album not just a face, but a fetching persona that's hard to resist. Unlike the Spice Girls albums, or most other dance-oriented pop albums, this is not a singles-and-filler record -- it's a collection of strong, effervescent tunes that are immediately winning and get better with repeated listens. If Bunton weren't a former Spice Girl, Free Me would still be a terrific album, but given her past and how she was pretty much considered a has-been, the strength of this record is all the more remarkable.

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