Pop Essays #23: Alisha’s Attic, ‘The Incidentals’

Time as always to trawl and mine the deepest depths of my old iTunes library and CD racks as we uncover another great lost pop gem with my weekly series, Pop Essays. This week: the re-illumination of a forgotten hit by a sisterly Essex duo…

  • Artist: Alisha’s Attic
  • Song: The Incidentals
  • Release Date: 07/09/1998
  • Writers: Karen Poole / Shelly Poole / Terence Martin
  • Producer: Mark Plati
  • Chart Run: 13 – 14 – 19 – 25 – 33 – 54 – 62

Difficult Second Album Syndrome (or DSAS for short). It is a cruel and unforgiving mistress. On the one hand, it sometimes cuts short the careers of artists that truly deserve it for one reason or another (and I can think of a fair few). But then there are the ones who definitely don’t deserve to meet its untimely hand.

Dagenham sisters Karen and Shelly Poole, collectively known as Alisha’s Attic, the daughters of Brian Poole from 60s beat combo Brian Poole and The Tremeloes, had first been launched by Mercury Records in the summer of 1996.

Their debut album, Alisha Rules The World, produced by Eurythmics‘ own Dave Stewart, was eventually certified platinum, spinning off four hit singles, none of which peaked any higher than #12 (including the genuinely brilliant ‘I Am, I Feel’) but which dominated the airwaves.

Second album time arrived for them almost two years after the release of their debut, in the autumn of 1998, and its first single came just over a year after that album’s last single. And on paper, it very much seemed like business as usual from one of the more quirkier acts in pop at that time.

Titled Illumina, generated from ‘one funny evening after a bit of wine … We wanted a one word title and Illumina was invented’, the first single off the second album was a track that they had managed to write in 10 minutes. Sonically, it was also somewhat removed from what people knew them for to this point.

But that is kind of the charm here with ‘The Incidentals’. A gentle folksy guitar intro is interspersed with Shelly’s opening sort-of-chorus lines “It’s just the little things / The incidentals, it’s like / You wouldn’t even notice when you really turn me on / It’s the little sparks that fly and / Land like dynamite”.

There’s a bit of cosiness, nay gentle sensuality which, with the more intimate feel of the music, really works. And then there’s a sort of bridge into the chorus-y bits which establishes a bit of the drama with the remarkably tight harmonies: “Oooh, you know it’s la la la love / When you dream, a monster just swallowed you up / And you don’t wanna be saved / Oooh, and I am crazy ’bout you babe / You satisfy me in so many ways, so many ways”.

The same sort of intimacy at play in the song also comes into effect with the video, which maybe is a bit more of a literal take on the lyrics (all we’re saying is that Health and Safety nuts would have a field day) but it’s a good companion piece to other videos of that time – here’s looking at you, All Saints‘ ‘Never Ever’ and Fatboy Slim’s ‘Gangster Trippin’ – as well as to the sisters’ overall musical and visual aesthetic.

When released that September, the single entered and peaked at #13, giving them their fifth top 20 hit, staying inside the top 40 for five weeks, thus showing solid consistency with the singles that had come before and suggesting that they still had sizable room to grow their existing fanbase.

Released a month later however, whilst the Illumina album entered and peaked at #15 – comparing favourably with the #14 peak of Alisha Rules The World – it was to only last another two weeks in the top 75 album chart before dropping off altogether, failing to recover with the release of the second and third singles ‘Wish I Were You’ (#29, January 1999) and ‘Barbarella’ (#34, April 1999).

Looked at purely statistically, perhaps the world only ever needed one Alisha’s Attic album. But I own both their first two albums to this day (I am yet to seek out or hear their third and final album, 2001’s The House We Built) and there is a marked growth and development of their musicianship between them that was undoubtedly overlooked.

Indeed, such musicianship has carried over into their subsequent songwriting work – Karen in particular – for artists including Kylie Minogue, Sugababes and Will Young. Listening to a song like ‘The Incidentals’, it has held up remarkably well, and you can hear such foundations being laid that might have been lost to the commercial misfortunes of the time.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new Pop Essays playlist on Spotify, which includes all the songs we’ve written about. What are your memories of this week’s featured song or band? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or message us on our Instagram.

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