What would Len Goodman say? Or any of his fellow Strictly Come Dancing judges? Sophie Ellis-Bextor, a recent alumna of the pro-am ballroom, has used the BBC’s premier light entertainment show to give her audience profile a much-needed lift. Smart move. More than a decade after her biggest hit, “Murder on the Dancefloor”, you can’t see the 34-year-old singer getting down with the EDM crowd. In Strictly terms, her pop career is in the dance-off.
While critics haven’t been altogether kind, the public vote may save her yet. Wanderlust, her self-released fifth album (I did a double-take on fifth, too), is likely to debut in the UK Top 10 this weekend. Like the record’s string-laden melodrama, this relaunch gig was a labour of love. Ellis-Bextor’s producer-friend and co-writer, the estimable Ed Harcourt, led from the piano a six-piece band that featured her husband, The Feeling’s Richard Jones, on bass. Well-wishers abounded under Bush Hall’s chandeliers.
Wearing a high-necked, white-lace dress, she looked like a Victorian heroine. In her introductions, she came across as a very nice gal. Alas, her cut-glassy tones struggled to make an impression on the gutsier tracks, such as the turbid opener, “Birth of an Empire”. She’s huge in Russia, apparently (must be the cheekbones), and there was a distinctly Slavic melancholy to those strings. If only she were some musical variant on a matryoshka – with another, more commanding performer inside that charming, doll-like exterior.
With its Dusty/Petula-ish polish and lollipop sweetness, “Runaway Daydreamer” better suited her range. “Young Blood”, however, despite pleasantly trickling pianism, was so drippy it could have auditioned for the next John Lewis Christmas ad. “When the Storm Has Blown Over”, backed simply by guitar, made a virtue of Ellis-Bextor’s vocal fragility. Might there be mileage in a folk direction? Roused by electric mandolin, that notion took more rumbustious form on “13 Little Dolls”.
The climatic “Love Is a Camera” showcased Harcourt’s arranging chops, starting as a clipped waltz, breezing through chanson territory and finishing with a crazy Cossack flourish. As promised, the encore went disco, offering a spritzy “Murder on the Dancefloor” and a medley that included “Groovejet”. It had the feel of an upmarket wedding party.
Len Goodman would doubtless have awarded a “sevvverrrn” out of 10. Being more pursed of lip, I’d regretfully plump for a five.
Tour begins on April 7; sophieellisbextor.net