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Review: Betty Who’s Sparkly-Eyed ‘Take Me When You Go’

The young singer demonstrates a sharp knowledge of pop history while moving the genre forward

On Betty Who’s debut album, Take Me When You Go, the 23-year-old Australian singer basks in pop’s sunshine. The 6’1″ powerhouse, who was born Jessica Anne Newham, has been skirting the edges of stardom for a couple of years with a series of EPs — last year’s free The Movement and this spring’s Slow Dancing — that were each promising bodies of work.

Last fall, Betty’s squelchy, ’80s-slathered single “Somebody Loves You” made ripples when a gay couple used it as part of a “surprise Home Depot flashmob proposal” video (see below) that went semi-viral. It seemed like it was finally her moment to shine, opening doors to 2013 CMJ headlining slots (if you missed her at one of her many showcases last October, you probably didn’t go to any shows at all) and a slot on one of Perez Hilton’s digital-only compilation Pop Up albums. In March of this year, almost 18 months after its initial release, “Somebody Loves You” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Dance/Club Play Songs chart.

Then, apart from a lone single here (like her feature on Peter Thomas’ disco-pop scorcher “All of You,” which thankfully made the the album’s final track list) and an EP there, Betty kind of…vanished. That’s not to say she went missing completely, but besides the Aussie star’s core fan base (known more commonly as the Who Crew on Twitter), the music-buying public at large wasn’t biting.

That oversight seems primed to change, and fast, with this week’s release of Take Me When You Go (via RCA Records), a smart dance album that’s both totally of the moment and also mindful of its lengthy list of pop predecessors. The EP’s hits — “Somebody Loves You,” “High Society,” and “Heartbreak Dream” — fit in comfortably among her new and more sweepingly mature tracks. Although Betty says she was influenced by such ’90s pop sensations as Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, what she’s done musically on Take Me is a unique, fresh take on the genre.

Almost all of the songs could score high-energy musical versions of classic ’80s teen-flicks like The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink. That’s no dig, either: Take Me is expressive and emotional, smartly written, and quick to get to the point without pandering to any clichéd notions of what pop music “needs” to sound like or touch on in 2014. Sometimes, though, the enthusiasm goes a little astray. The lyrics on “Glory Days” skew awfully cheesy (“You know I’m burning up the backseat / The sun is heating up the concrete / Yeah everybody is making love tonight / You hang your feet out of the window”), and, sadly, “Somebody Loves You” doesn’t shine as brightly as it once did.

Betty is at her absolute best when she lets us see the cracks in her gloss, like on the halting wallop of an album opener “Just Like Me.” Halfway through the synthy track, she lets a lyric slip that could so easily fall to the wayside were her delivery not impeccable. “I know you kiss me / And in some fucked up way that’s fine,” she sings, her vocals swallowing the final word of the sentence as her real feelings burst right on through. It hits that tricky-to-nail sweet spot of hopeful and desperate at the same time. That right there is nuance you don’t usually see on a debut album. Yes, the chorus is booming and inescapably memorable (don’t be surprised if you catch yourself singing, “Just like / Just like me” to yourself a week from now), but Betty cracks open her vulnerabilities at opportune moments, grounding her songs in reality.

More than anything else, Betty is smart about her melodic choices. On LP standout “Dreaming About You” — an explosive and sugary ode to the obsessive way people can get about their baes — the first chorus cuts out to reveal a stripped-back verse, emphasizing Who’s buttery vocals over any pomp and circumstance. It’s this unexpected little moment of clarity that makes Take Me When You Go stand out from the prototypical, “verse, chorus, similar verse, chorus, breakdown, final chorus” formula that can choke Top 40 fare.

Next month, Betty Who will head back to her homeland to open for Katy Perry’s “Prismatic” world tour. Luckily, she’s stored some arena-ready tracks on the album, like the moody, broody “Runaways,” a worthy successor to her future employer’s “Teenage Dream.” On it, Betty threads together an engrossing narrative about forbidden love, singing, “We sneak out late after midnight / Hijack your daddy’s car / You’re my best bad kind of habit I’m / Your backseat movie star,” she sings, recasting Katy’s storytelling with 100-times the personality.

Though Take Me When You Go is by no means a perfect piece of work, it doesn’t profess to be. It’s the kind of 50-minute album that exposes its own flaws and corrects course when need be. Some fans might be upset at the lack of slower ballads (like “Silas” from Slow Dancing), but what Betty has accomplished on her debut is a marriage between all-or-nothing pop jams (“Glory Days,” whether you think the lyrics work or not) and sultry, “check these vocals out” tracks (“Better,” which translates much better onstage than it does on the record). Her first EP hit shelves more than a year ago, but it feels like Betty’s movement is just beginning.