When Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s second album revealed itself in the fall of 2003 it was an assured bet to be a hit. Coming off the successful Read My Lips (2002) project, Bextor had competed among some of the finest in British dance-pop and held her own.
Ironic then, that Shoot From the Hip (2003) made a conscious effort to shift itself out of the dance-pop matrix and present an eclectic rostrum for U.K.-inflected pop.
Beginning with the Brit-pop crew theaudience, their eponymous debut was released in 1998 and got the U.K music scene piqued; sales were slow and the promising group amicably disbanded in 1999. For her next maneuver that was more Kylie Minogue than Shirley Manson, Bextor laid her glassy vocals over DJ Spiller’s “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” in 2000. The song became a massive hit and contemporary classic. In 2002 Bextor dropped her solo debut Read My Lips; led by the strutting “Murder On the Dancefloor,” the album and its subsequent singles (including a great recasting of Cher’s 1979 Casablanca Records-era hit “Take Me Home“) found favor with fans, critics and the charts.
It seemed that as long as Bextor played the part of the moody, dancefloor doll she’d have no worries. But didn’t the former frontwoman of theaudience want more space to create in the true, versatile pop style?
Read My Lips was top-heavy despite its high points; the songs felt labored in that general, millennial Euro-pop-dance frame. The second time around, Bextor’s rich British timbre and acute lyrical skillset allowed her to shape Shoot From the Hip in an intimate, albeit commercially aware manner. Bextor did not relinquish her autonomy of writing / producing when she courted collaborators: Gregg Alexander, Matt Rowe, Damian LeGassick and Jeremy Wheatley. All four men had, were and would write hits on both sides of the Atlantic in a miscellany of genres in the 1990’s and 2000’s. With this quartet on board with Bextor, she decided to pry apart the age-old concept that dance and pop couldn’t be done as individual entities.
This is not to say Bextor didn’t have a few mirrorball spinners on Shoot From the Hip, but often the musical backdrop of her record pulled from various places and were tied to other unconventional sounds. Take the Kraftwerk inspired click-clack that worked over a freestyle-like beat line on “Making Music,” or the rock ‘n’ disco integration that frolicked unabashedly on “Love It Is Love”; Bextor was showing her chameleon strengths.
There were some (forgive the pun) pop straight shooters in the pack: the bubbly “I Won’t Change You” and the acoustic four on the floor “Party In My Head” were lip smacking aural treats. Other explorations were savvy and unexpected; her torch ballad touchdowns on “I Am Not Good At Not Getting What I Want” and “Hello Hello” had her capable of delivering softer material convincingly.
Bextor vocally excelled on each track and lyrically her thoughts could be swift and sentimental; examples of this included the 1980’s electro-quakers “Mixed Up World” and “Another Day”. The songs had Bextor as the day-to-day heroine and Girl Power girlfriend respectively. Though the wordsmith masterpiece of the Shoot From the Hip epoch went to the b-side of “Mixed Up World,” the sparingly dressed “The Earth Shook the Devil’s Hand”; capturing the emotional trauma of a bad romance, Bextor gave a plush tribute, unknowingly, to her theaudience roots.
Those that needed an excuse to wiggle their bums, Bextor hadn’t forgotten them. She cooly dished the sleek chic of “I Won’t Dance With You” and “Physical”; originally made famous by Australian songbird Olivia Newton-John in 1981, Bextor’s very British and cerebral reading of “Physical” was tucked away as a hidden track several minutes after the conclusion of “Hello Hello”. Further, Bextor’s cover of the Spanish recording duo Baccara’s 1979 smash “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” (the flipside to “I Won’t Change You”) served up knowing-kitsch done to a high standard.
The album was perfectly titled as it was succinct, quick and full of pop that landed each hit it launched at the listener. It clearly was designed to take Bextor to the next level as a singer and songwriter.
Launching the LP, Bextor moved forward with “Mixed Up World” on 10/13/03 as the lead single; it preceded the release of Shoot From the Hip which dropped shortly thereafter on 10/27/03.
Not immediately danceable as “Murder On the Dancefloor,” the single placed at a fair spot on the U.K. Singles Chart (#7). Globally, it was received well (Denmark #3, Norway #9) or poorly (Ireland #26, ARIA #32, Switzerland #49, Germany #69). The record itself charted in few international territories after it arrived to store shelves not long after “Mixed Up World”: U.K. #19, Mexico #11, Switzerland #35, Germany #84. “I Won’t Change You” was issued quickly on 12/22/03 and managed to perform well at home (U.K. #9) but dismally in the world markets (Ireland #40, Germany #80).
Bextor’s impending pregnancy put a complete halt to any further promotional duties; recently this year, Shoot From the Hip just certified silver in England. The album was Bextor’s second to last recording with Polydor Records; three years bridged Shoot From the Hip from its follow-up Trip the Light Fantastic (2007).
It seemed that the world was not ready for a more reflective, expansive Sophie Ellis-Bextor. All Music Guide critic K. Ross Huffman seemed to summarize the (erroneously) dismissive attitude people had taken toward Bextor in 2003:
Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s second album lacks anything nearly as distinctive as her early singles “Murder on the Dancefloor” and “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love),” but it’s still a solid, perfectly respectable collection of contemporary dance-pop. Of course, “respectable” doesn’t necessarily count for much in pop terms, although Ellis-Bextor has mastered a knack for exuding sophistication without being off-putting and stuffy — she’s so posh (her unmistakable accent) that the slickness of the production complements her personality rather than diluting it.
“Mixed Up World”
Directed By: Rupert Jones
Bextor’s makeover that benefitted from a sense of amity versus just interpretative distance had backfired, sales wise. Many wanted the glossy, radio-ready material that had made Read My Lips safe. Bextor continued on with the mentioned Trip the Light Fantastic and later with a few label struggles that led her to found her own indie imprint (EBGB’s), she delivered her dance fever on her fourth affair, Make a Scene (2011).
In spite of losing her chart clout, Bextor has become one of Britain’s most revered pop figures of the last 10 years; Bextor’s fifth LP, Wanderlust, releases on 1/20/14. Shoot From the Hip was Bextor’s brave moment when she created something to challenge without thought to commercial consequences. The result was one of the unsung pop classics of the last decade. Ranking: Classic
[Editor’s Note: There are two editions of Shoot From the Hip; one includes “Making Music,” “I Won’t Dance With You” and “Physical”. The other edition omits the three former tracks. Both versions are in print physically and digitally as an import. For current information on Sophie Ellis-Bextor, visit her official site.-QH]