Since she first emerged in 2003 with the teenage rebellion anthem "Billy S." (probably the only song in history to contain a shout of unabashed glee about how much teachers get paid), self-described bubblegum brainiac Skye Sweetnam has toured summer camps, clubs, and stadiums (as Britney Spears' opening act) in support of her debut album Noise from the Basement; contributed her voice to The Barbie Diaries and her songs to The Sims; turned 16, 17, 18, and 19; emphatically protested the inescapable comparisons to fellow Canadian punk-tart Avril Lavigne (in Basement's "Hypocrite" she ironically refers to herself as "Avril-lite"; at one point her guitar sported an "Anti-Matrix" sticker in reference to Lavigne's notorious production team), and amassed a reported 70 songs in preparation for her follow-up album with collaborators in Toronto, Los Angeles, and Sweden. In 2007 -- the same year that Lavigne unveiled a newly spunky, playful attitude and gaudy fashion sense noticeably similar to Sweetnam's own, and scored the first rock number one in six years with a song ("Girlfriend") highly reminiscent of her bratty, cheerleader punk-pop -- Sweetnam finally emerged with her second album (it had been delayed for well over a year since its originally scheduled release date), which turned out to have been produced and co-written predominantly by the self-same Matrix with whom Lavigne found her initial success. Such is life in the topsy-turvy, high-stakes, and jet-setting world of rock-based teen pop.
And what does Sweetnam have to show for her four years of hard work? First up is the twitchy, adrenalized robo-thrash of "Music Is My Boyfriend" -- "Britney meets NIN" was Sweetnam's précis for the album; this one's more precisely the hyper-processed, techno-fied Britney of Blackout meeting (recent Matrix associates) Korn -- which makes excellent use of its excellent titular conceit. "My Favorite Tune," probably the straightest pop/rock number here, reverses that metaphor -- the title refers to her lover, in this case an actual human, to whom she confesses: "I just wanna play you baby/download you but pay you baby." First single "Human" is a Darwinian anti-conformist polemic, by turns slinky and shouty, that warns: "they're even marketing what I say right now -- watch out!" And "Make-Out Song" is Day-Glo speed-punk that's exhilarating in spite of its smart-alecky self-awareness. So far so good. Beyond the Matrix-produced tracks, Sweetnam teamed with Rancid's Tim Armstrong to come up with the jaunty, infectious "Ghosts" ("I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm afraid of them," runs the refrain), which recalls the SoCal ska-pop that reigning pop princess Gwen Stefani made over a decade earlier with No Doubt. Danish hitmakers Soulshock & Karlin helm the less enthralling boilerplate pop-punk of "Kiss a Girl" -- whose bi-curiosity is borderline offensive, as "maybe I should kiss a girl" turns out to be little more than a threat to her jerk boyfriend.
Sweetnam tries hard to have it all ways on Sound Soldier -- a few tracks are reminiscent of her debut, several revamp that template by upping the electronic quotient, and the rest veer radically all over the stylistic map -- and indeed why shouldn't she? But although a surprising number of her genre experiments are at least partially successful -- the rap-rock "Boyhunter" (featuring teenaged L.A. MC Ak'sent), the classicist third-wave ska of "Let's Get Movin' Into Action" (another Armstrong collaboration, featuring the Aggrolites, which also appeared on his 2007 album A Poet's Life), and the uncharacteristically subdued pop ballad "Scary Love" -- the overall effect is frustratingly uncongealed. It's not that it's a disastrous album -- it may be less than the sum of its parts, but plenty of those parts are compelling enough on their own -- but it's bizarrely scattershot considering that nine of its twelve tracks share the same writers and producers. And it certainly doesn't live up to Sweetnam's brazenly irrepressible Myspace manifesto, in which she declares herself a music warrior, "a tutu wearing new breed of doll with killer lipstick" (an image that crops up again in "Baby Doll Gone Wrong"), wielding her songs "like a razor in a lollipop." It may not be the all-conquering return that fans were anticipating, but Sweetnam hits on some promising new directions here, and it will be interesting to see where she soldiers on to next -- after all, her early twenties are still ahead of her.