As a member of the Spice Girls, Emma Bunton sported pigtails, strutted around in platform shoes and coyly responded to the moniker “Baby Spice.” But after the made-to-order girl group dissolved in 2001, Bunton let her hair down, swapped her chunky platforms for spiked heels and dropped the nickname. Four years later, she’s released Free Me, her first U.S. effort. The album abandons the Spice Girls’ artificial aesthetic and fuses her chirpy vocals with sweeping Bacharachian arrangements to create a musical confection that’s more pop than bubble gum.
Free Me is a far cry from Bunton’s work with her former bandmates. Dance beats and synthesizers proliferated on the Spice Girls’ tracks; on Free Me, orchestral instruments supply a less manufactured sound. From start to finish, the record is awash in lush violin, trumpet, piano and flute — even an occasional harp twinkle. Though Bunton isn’t a versatile vocalist, her sound is well-suited to Free Me’s orchestration. The stylistic harmony between Bunton and her instrumental support is enough to keep listeners interested throughout the full duration of the album. Free Me’s sparkling sound makes up for the mediocrity of the lyrics, most of which Bunton co-wrote.
The title track and album opener begins with a sultry, delicate shimmer of strings, flute and keyboards; Bunton starts her crooning, singing of liberation. Next, “Maybe” begins with a rhythmic mix of driving percussion and riveting staccatto vocal syllables that set the stage for one of the strongest tracks on Free Me. This catchy intro to the album is anchored by the album’s characteristic theatrical strings and horns. Vocals create a similar effect on the mid-tempo “Tomorrow,” while a flutter of “whoops” echo throughout “Lay Your Love On Me.”
Bunton’s cover of Marcos Valle’s “Crickets Sing for Anamaria” lacks the kind of style the other songs have; it replaces the strings and horns with some bossa nova. But through her voice, she’s able to make the song feel at home.
Because Free Me is so perfectly suited to Bunton’s girlish vocals, guest artists become unwelcome visitors. Puerto Rican singer Luis Fonsi sounds as if he’s trying too hard to outperform Bunton’s vocals on “Amazing.”
Had Bunton’s handlers decided against tacking on two wretched dancefloor versions of “Free Me” at the end, the album could have ended with some class. However, the presence of these generic remixes doesn’t stop Free Me from being a solid first effort from an ex-Spice Girl.