‘Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me/ Calling me, all the time like Blondie/ Check out my Chrissy behind/ It’s fine all of the time’ intoned foulmouthed electroclasher Peaches on her signature hit ‘Fuck the Pain Away’, simultaneously drawing attention to the inevitable objectification of the independent rock-chick whilst also attempting to position herself in the women-who-rock canon as the natural successor to her influential eighties predecessors; namely Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde. Ida Maria doesn’t sound a bit like Peaches, but she finds herself in a similar predicament: presented as a 21st century incarnation of those aforementioned artists, and attempting to overturn preconceptions by occupying a traditionally male lyrical and musical standpoint. Too often on her debut Fortress Round My Heart, however, Maria is merely trailing behind Chrissie and phoning in Blondie-lite.
‘Find a cure/ find a cure for my life’ is the repeated plea that opens the record, and given the lyrical territory covered over the course of the record you suspect that that cure might be something as simple as an Alka-Seltzer. ‘I know I’m always drunk/ As drunk as can be’ Maria admits on ‘Louie’, ‘You only call me when you’re drunk’, she lambasts a cold love-interest on ‘Forgive Me’, ‘Morning Light’ barks that ‘You’ve got a liquor stain/ on your uniform’ and ‘Queen of the World’ wonders why inebriation can’t be a permanent state: ‘let me stay like this’. There’s nothing wrong with lyrical honesty, with writing what you know, and Maria appears to recognise the downsides to this lifestyle: ‘Pour myself a cup of coffee full of sober nights/ Cos nicotine and coffee are my friends in this fight’ she observes on tender centerpiece ‘Keep Me Warm’, but this catalogue of drunken nights and the consequences thereof does mean that the occasional attempts at lyrical depth sound laughable. ‘Oh God I can’t believe in you/ Just because I’m afraid you’re true’ she attempts to meditate on closer ‘See Me Through’, but her effort at introspection just comes across as trite and contrived.
Maria is at her lyrical best when her eye for distinctive minutiae evocatively renders believable situations. ‘I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked’, which has deservingly found it’s way to the verge of the Top 10 in the UK, is the album’s catchiest moment, and also it’s lyrical highlight, vividly detailing the awkward atmosphere when she finds herself alone with a potential lover. ‘Oh the clever/ things I should say to you/ They got stuck somewhere/ Stuck between me and you’, sings Maria, but all this awkwardness would evaporate ‘if you take of all your clothes’, before the track builds to a pretty hilarious (in a good way) sing-a-long climax of the repeated title refrain. This song kicks off the strongest section of the record; during follow-up ‘Keep Me Warm’ it suddenly becomes apparent that Maria actually has a rather lovely smoky Cat Power-esque voice, as she tenderly croons that’ you, you keep me warm’, before immediately qualifying this with the admission that ‘All your cigarettes and cup of coffee/ It keeps me warm’ as if she is afraid of fully admitting her own sentimental tendencies. Then comes ‘Forgive Me’, another highlight that sounds like it’s been lifted right off The Strokes’ Room On Fire, all fainéant slurring and bass-driven breakdowns.
From there on, though, moments of interest are thin on the ground. The indie-pop of ‘Morning Light’ is chirpy but repetitive whilst ‘Stella’, like ‘Louie’ before it, relies on the lazy chorus-device of repeating an arbitrary name. Its story of how ‘God hands over the whole wide world to/ a 43 year old hooker from downtown’ might be a novel meditation on the innate human need for intimacy if it weren’t so clumsily conveyed, and ‘Queen of the World’ suffers from a similarly unwieldy refrain.
Fortress Round My Heart isn’t a bad record, and it’s easy to see why it’s met with success: you’ll be hard pressed to get ‘Oh My God’ or ‘I like You So Much Better…’ out of your head, and indeed hard pressed not to be won over by them, but overall there is just a bit of a lack of imagination and a bit too much posturing. If Ida Maria can forget her anxiety over the influence of the monolithic figures with whom she is compared, stop feeling like she needs to throw out snippets of cod-philosophy, and just let herself have a bit more fun, there is enough on her debut to suggest that she might have a tasty album up her sleeve in the future. She just needs to let down the fortress drawbridge a bit.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2008