"The girls' songwriting has moved on significantly, both lyrically and melodically," says Berman. "I'll be very surprised if the new material doesn't work well internationally, and disappointed if The Incidentals (the sparky, upbeat first single released on September 7) doesn't provide them with their biggest hit. I think with Illumina they've achieved a record that will be as good as any album by a British artist this year."
Eschewing the offer of plush studios in which to write new material after their breakthrough, the sisters returned to the Dagenham attic belonging to a schoolfriend's father where they wrote the first album, this time deciding on a "no gimmicks" change of image. Keen to reflect their musical progression, Karen and Shellie Poole then telephoned producer and mixer Plati themselves.
Karen says "We'd heard some remixes Mark had done and we loved his work with other artists so we just asked him. He was interested but busy with other projects, but we decided to wait for him and it was really worth it. We didn't realise what a song focused person he would be, and how musical. He played bass on every track, as well as most of the instruments on The Incidentals."
Berman says the pair had originally planned to record just a couple of songs with Plati as well as using Stewart, but Plati ended up producing most of the album and mixing it once it became apparent that "something special was going on" in the New York studio.
The creative environment was such that the sisters also wrote some new songs which ended up replacing other planned for the album. Berman explains "Karen and Shellie had a batch of songs they'd written in Dagenham which were going to be the nucleus of the album, but they kept on writing when they were in the studio and the songs just seemed to get better and better. They were on a roll/"
When the album was finished and on the verge of being mixed, Berman received a demo of the track The Incidentals by courier from New York. "It was one of the last songs they wrote in the studio. The production was stunning and the vocal arrangements enchanting", he says. "I knew it had to be the first single. What we didn't quite capture on the first album was the unique quality of their vocals. With the first single, I Am, I Feel I (which reached number 14 in July 1996), the vocals were in your face - they swaggered. But they didn't on other tracks. With Illumina we've put the intricate vocals, which are all Karen and Shellie's own arrangements, under the spotlight again."
The album is also more diverse than its predecessor, with Indian elements on the catchy Wish I Were You, a rocky start to Dive In, and some electronic effects making the odd appearance. "We wanted to be a bit more diverse with the sounds but not chuck in the kitchen sink. You don't need an awful lot going on around vocal harmonies. We think it's a real progression from the first album," says Karen.
On first listen the two Dagenham sisters have come up with more than a match for I Am, I Feel, which was such a massive hit with radio programmers nationwide, enjoying around 1,250 plays per week in August 1996 and heavy support from Radio One, Capital and ILR.
Most importantly for Alisha's Attic is that they appear a very safe bet for radio at a time when it appears unwilling to take risks. For example, Alex Jones-Donnelly, Radio One music scheduler and right-hand man to head of music policy Jeff Smith, says he is already impressed with a sneak preview of the single which has yet to be serviced to radio. "It's very much a return to form. We'll certainly be looking at playlisting it," he says.
And with a widespread European tour planned for the autumn, it looks like Alisha's Attic could well achieve better success than many acts have enjoyed with their second albums this year.