Wikked Lil' Girl

Canadian chanteuse Esthero has a lot to say -- too much, maybe.

Esthero name-drops Ashanti, Britney Spears, and R. - Kelly on her latest.
Esthero name-drops Ashanti, Britney Spears, and R. Kelly on her latest.
Over the course of our phone conversation, which lasted approximately 23 minutes, Esthero did the following:

· Snacked on something that resulted in her punctuating every few words with a nonchalant smack of her lips ("I [smack] wanted people to know [smack, smack] that I'd grown vocally [smack].")

· Unironically and unabashedly sang a few bars of Patsy Cline's "Sweet Dreams of You" with all the passionate, one-night-stand vibrato of a karaoke champ.

· Quoted John Lennon in connection with her lyrics ("It's like John Lennon said, 'They're just words and they fit together and they make me happy when I say them.'")

· Affably mocked me for cautiously following each of her stop-and-start responses with a pregnant pause and a very formal "Okay," then referred to journalists as "free therapists" and instructed me to "cut the bitch off, or she'll keep talking!"

· Blamed her infatuation with CSI's Gil Grissom for the seven-year-hiatus between her first album and 2005's Wikked Lil' Girls before engaging us in commiseration about how sucky it was that Buffy didn't get offed at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Esthero's particular brand of casually hyper pretension, alarming honesty, and easy charm is typically the MO of the effusive, room-dominating types who major in theater and pollute dorms with the stench of clove cigarettes -- the kind of people you hate so much, you find yourself fascinated by them. When delivered by a fetching Canadian chanteuse who sings benign, blue-eyed, trip-pop soul in a serious fuck-me voice and takes on topics like the continuing cultural acquittal of R. Kelly (on the unfortunately titled "We R in Need of a Musical ReVoLuTIoN"), this kind of magnetism is both bewildering and disarming. Whether you find her obnoxious or delightful (or, more likely, a little bit of both), Esthero is the kind of artist you almost can't help but want to get to know.

"I remember being three and holding a guitar up, and like, strumming nothing, and being like, 'I'm gonna be a rock star! La la la la!'" laughs Esthero, delivering this last bit in an obnoxiously nasal imitation of herself as a toddling rock-and-roller. So when she turned 18, the artist formerly known as Jen-Bea Englishman hightailed it out of the small town in Ontario where she grew up and headed for Toronto, where she and her brother, an acoustic guitarist, would perform at a little coffee shop down the street from her home. During one of these sessions, Esthero was discovered by her future manager, a meeting that culminated in the release of her first album, the trip-hoppy Breath From Another. "I'm telling you, it was the weirdest thing," she recalls. "He took me into EMI publishing office in Toronto, and the president, without even hearing me sing, gave me money to make a demo, because he thought I was charming."

We have no idea whether that comment is meant to be completely earnest, self-deprecating, or wryly critical of the music industry, and once again, therein lies the allure of Esthero. She's difficult to gauge in the way that most excruciatingly forthright people are -- after a while, all that candor seems as if it's laid on a little too thick.

The same goes for Wikked Lil' Girls. From the title track, with its Bratzlike defiance and scuffed, antique, jazz-age clarinets, to the cutesy intermittent answering-machine messages, to Esthero's constant vocal come-hithering, much of the album feels slightly dated. It's as if Esthero wasn't sure which character she was supposed to play, so she decided to cover herself by really hamming it up.

That's not to say that the disc doesn't have its pleasant moments. When she's not so fixed on playing the tease, Esthero's voice is a lovely, beguiling purr, luxuriously sunning and stretching itself over each track. "Gone," a sunset-hued breakup ballad that successfully pairs Esthero with superfreak Cee-Lo Green, is the aural equivalent of pretty mood lighting. "Bad Boy Clyde" intriguingly opens things up with a subtle hint of theremin. And on the catwalk-strut "If tha Mood," Esthero's sashay down a trumpet-lined runway feels sexy, sassy -- and believable.

When she talks about a track like the aforementioned "Musical ReVoLuTIoN," Esthero seems to have some genuinely interesting things to say. She didn't want the song, which takes on Ashanti, MTV, and Britney Spears, along with Mr. "Trapped in the Closet," to sound like a diss track.

"I'm not trying to attack them," she explains. "They're just merely, like, examples of pop culture, right? And of oversaturation. But it doesn't mean that there's not room for them . . . It's kind of boring right now because there's only that, constantly, you know what I mean? But I think it'd be really boring if everyone only wrote conscious music, too."

Saying this, Esthero sounds self-assured and sincere about a topic to which she's obviously given some consideration. But then her voice takes on a slightly forced thoughtfulness as she adds, "Still, to this day, I don't know if I can articulate to you exactly what I was trying to say with that song, other than [that] I was sitting in the tub, something didn't feel right, I had to say it out loud." She then completes the stilted thought with the John Lennon quote mentioned above.

The music world doesn't need this Esthero, the one who overindulges in squirm-worthy spoken word on tracks like "Dragonfly's Intro." ("I'm at the hip-hop show, head boppin' in the back, smokin' anything that'll burn/During intermission, I'm in the club bathroom, holed up in a stall, praying in earnest for Jeff Buckley's return." Egad.) We shouldn't encourage the Esthero who slathers on the candlelight-dinners-and-moonlit-walks-on-the-beach acoustic guitars and gossamer lovey-doveyness on "Thank Heaven for You" (just, well, barf).

What we do need is the Esthero who admits things like "For a huge portion of my youth, all I heard was, like, 'Su-su-sudio' by Phil Collins and Mariah Carey and, like, Richard Marx. And I'm sure that whether I like it or not, in some small way, that's been an influence on me."

We're pretty sure about that too.