Greek artist Monika Christodoulou experienced a near-death experience, relocated to New York and reinvented herself – seemingly dispensing with the folk dominated indie-pop of her previous releases.
But the singer-songwriter, who is a very big star indeed in her native country, avoids some of the obvious pitfalls that can be part and parcel of stylist makeovers and imparts substantial chunks of old musical persona with newly flourishing and elegant sonic changes that can be astonishing.
It’s easy to call this Monika’s disco record, and in some ways it is, but this is also a highly nuanced and sophisticated piece of music that dispenses with trendy production teams and writers, and in the process reinforces Monika’s artistic control and considerable abilities.
The first half of Monika’s third album Secret in the Dark is where the most radical changes to what has come before take place. Working closely with musicians that feature members of the Dap-Kings and the Menahan Street Band, ‘Babyboy’ introduces a lazily percolating rhythm that is more associated with the scorching, blissed-out reggae sound of Sly and Robbie during their Compass Point sessions than this year’s Donna Summer. The last part of the track however has celestial backing singers who play second fiddle to most intricate and romantic, live string section that is straight out of the earliest organic disco era of the mid to late seventies. When they arrive it’s like unexpectedly pouring warm, soothing honey down a parched and aching throat; out of nowhere and so, so soothing – a delicious remedy.
The title track is the most outright dance track here, which has a funky synth line that is two parts Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ and one part ‘Black is Back’ (those strings again!). ‘Shake Your Hands’, a duet with Andrew Wyatt, is a bizarre soca-flavoured jaunt that finally ends up being a languid but uplifting anthem: ‘come on baby shake your hands, spread it all over!’
There is more of a melancholic and electronic Chromatics feel to the mid-tempo and vocally dramatic ‘Stripping’. Throughout all of these moods, Monika retains her rich and sensual vocal style, which adds a mystery and intriguing gender ambivalence to the already unorthodox arrangements.
The songs featured in the second half of the album are more acoustic but no less interesting, ‘We Came into this World (to Beat Them)’ is ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ via Saint Etienne and is a gorgeous highlight, and ‘Get off My Way’ is a Motown girl-group stomper.
It’s hard to know whether Monika will cross over into other countries with such an eclectic but accessible collection of songs, and it seems unlikely that she will become a mainstream pop star in a world of carefully put-together Taylors and Arianas. That is indeed a shame, as Monika should be heard everywhere.
Secret in the Dark is too good to be experienced just by those lucky enough to have grown up with her. Make an effort and listen to this record; there’ll be something here that you’ll love.