At a time when some prominent American pop acts hold back the emotion in favor of rigorous control — I'm thinking of you, Lady Gaga, and you, Jay-Z — the full-throated ardor of the British electropop duo La Roux arrives as a nice corrective.
When it comes to singing with heartbreak in her voice, the current American competition for La Roux singer Elly Jackson would be a pop-country canary like Taylor Swift. But there's nothing country about La Roux's clipped synthesizer riffs and tight but expansive choruses. Jackson sings with agonized urgency, a demonstrative defensiveness, on a disco love song like their biggest hit so far: "This time baby I'll be bullet-proof," she cries, as partner Ben Langmaid stabs out sharp notes on a synthesizer.
They rev up the music into a hurricane swirl of stubbornness and vulnerability. She may say she's bulletproof — that's the track's title, too — but Jackson is singing with the wounded cry of a woman who's been wronged and hurt too many times before. There's nothing new about this, of course. But what draws you in is the tension between the mechanical beats and the passionate singing.
"Colourless Color" is very much an example of the 1980s styles La Roux draws from on its self-titled debut album, a No. 1 hit in England earlier this year. Overseas acts such as the Human League, Yazoo and Depeche Mode ring in your ears as you listen to various tracks. Jackson bends and snaps her vocals in a manner that would bring a blush to the cheek of Boy George. And on "Cover My Eyes," La Roux enlists the London Community Gospel Choir to back Jackson in a chorus that, rather remarkably, never becomes overblown. That's because of a lead vocal that's a perfect pop paradox: quavery, delicate yet surgingly strong.
On stage, La Roux can seem a one-person show: Langmaid doesn't tour with Jackson and her backing band. (He doesn't even allow himself to be photographed if possible.) And Jackson makes up for her studio collaborator's absence with a striking theatricality, some of it sitting on top of her head: The cherry-red hair that gives the act its name is sculpted into something that looks like a wave in an ocean storm, or a canoe that's being buffetted by that wave. Combine this with her slight frame and the scrunched-up face she makes when she sings, and you've got a performer who's holding nothing back — in an arch, witty, calculated way.