Wednesday, June 17, 2015

album review: 'breathe in, breathe out' by hilary duff

Okay, confession time: I used to be a huge fan of Hilary Duff.

No, really. Back about a decade ago when I was a teenager and I was listening to Eminem and symphonic metal, I still listened to her. I watched the Lizzie McGuire Show, which on some level has not aged well at all. I watched the movie based off of the show. And perhaps most embarrassingly for a music critic, I listened to her music - and I was a fan too, to the point where I actually saw her live in concert.

And going back to those albums in the early-to-mid-2000s, most of the material is okay at best. Let's be honest, Hilary Duff was riding a wave where young starlets who could pull off a veneer of acoustic pop authenticity could rack up a fair number of hits. And considering Hilary was being backed by Disney and was signed to Hollywood Records, it was clear her handlers were aiming to capitalize on whatever residual buzz she had from Lizzie McGuire to turn out over-produced schlock that frankly Brie Larson was doing better anyway. The funny thing is going back to it, which she does have some real duds - that self-titled album is mediocre at best - her 2007 record Dignity saw her move in more of a electronic dancepop direction and it worked pretty well for her, as she had writing credits across the board. For me, I always got the impression she was a better writer than actual singer - she didn't have a ton of presence as a vocalist, and unlike Britney Spears, she wasn't about to pile on effects to compensate for it. 

And yet as dancepop was set to blow up with the club boom in the late 2000s, Hilary Duff left pop music entirely for a good eight years. She got married and divorced, had a baby, and did a lot of acting for TV and independent films, mostly in an effort to ditch the more wholesome Lizzie McGuire image. The interesting thing is that while her career hasn't been stellar by any stretch, she also hasn't had the stage of running wild and flaming out that hit other teen stars of her era like Amanda Bynes and Lindsey Lohan, which gave me the impression that the down-to-earth elements of Hilary's writing actually had some authenticity. But at the same time, until the requests started pouring in, I had no interest in looking into her most recent album. For one, she only had writing credits on a third of the record, and for another, it looked a bit like a cash-in, to rope back old fans who want to recapture those glory days almost a decade ago. Hell, that's why I'm here, so I took at look at Breathe In, Breathe Out - is it any good?

Well, it's alright enough, I guess. On the one hand, you can tell that Hilary Duff has a firm grasp on her strengths as a performer and writer and it leads to some good, enjoyable pop songs... but the problem is that it doesn't really lead to great songs, and the more I listened through this album, the less it really jumped out to me. It's not the sort of record that does a lot wrong, to be fair, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a lot that's all that unique or special too, which means I really don't have a lot to say about it.

But I think the best place to start would be Hilary Duff herself. I said earlier she doesn't have the greatest emotive presence or range, and that's certainly true here - she doesn't quite bring an emotionally intense or visceral mood, as her voice falls into very smooth gentle coos that have an easy flow and don't require a multitude of effects to stand out but don't exactly stand out either. I referenced Britney Spears before, but I think a better comparison might be a more relaxed and easy-going Selena Gomez, especially with the latter's choice to embrace more EDM influences, which are all over this album in spades.

Now to be fair to Hilary, while the beats are thicker and heavier like most percussion-driven EDM-inspired pop, she doesn't really compromise on her melodies or choose to overmix and overload her songs, and it really becomes a question of what form those melodies take. So while I didn't really love the whistles and chipmunk fragments that peppered the lead-off single 'Sparks' or when they came back with the weedy synth on 'Picture This', the slightly hollow and muffled keys on 'My Kind' was pretty solid and balanced the groove pretty well. Hell, the ultra-crisp beat and spacey synths on 'Confetti' - along with an interpolation of 'Heaven Is A Place On Earth' I actually dug - and the sandy feel of 'Arms Around A Memory' work pretty well.  Of course, Hilary Duff has always liked bringing some guitars onto her tracks, and it adds a gentleness to the otherwise booming title track, accenting the surprising horns on 'Lies', driving the main acoustic grooves on 'Brave Heart', obviously showing up on the Ed Sheeran-cowritten 'Tattoo', and probably at the best on the stripped back 'Night Like This', a duet with Big Time Rush singer Kendall Schmidt. But I do wish there was more warmth to the guitar lines that don't sound as painfully processed and compressed, or that the percussion, be it the handclaps or beats, didn't always precedence over everything else. But I think the larger issue is that so much of this album is very mid-tempo - despite a few distinguishing factors from track to track, this album reaches a mood and pretty much stays there. And sure, it's a good mood, but it also becomes very easy to tune out or for songs to blur together.

And that's not helped by the lyrics. Now let me stress they aren't bad by any stretch - in terms of pop lyricism, outside of a few annoying rhyming slipups, they're generally agreeable, and they're well-written enough to coast by fairly easily. And even the songs Hilary didn't write are generally mature and respectable enough in addressing the relationships or breakups that I can generally accept them. The problem is that they don't really have a lot of unique personality beyond their maturity and a surprising number of 80s references, from Belinda Carlisle to the straight lift on 'My Kind' from INXS. Which makes sense, given how much I'm reminded of late 80s pop starlets like Belinda Carlisle or Debbie Gibson crossed with a bit of early Kylie Minogue, but it doesn't help individual songs stand out beyond falling into either head-over-heels love songs or break-ups/moving-on tracks. And in the latter case, I'm not sure Hilary or her instrumentation can really sell them - I like the title track or 'Lies' or 'Arms Around A Memory' or 'Brave Heart' or 'Tattoo' or even the overmixed 'One In A Million', but Hilary is way too smooth and reserved or lacking in range to give these songs the anger or real sense of heartbreak they need. And the frustrating thing is that if she had that, I'd probably be all over these songs because there is maturity to them I can appreciate in a pop context, even if they do kind of run together a bit. The song I liked the most was 'Night Like This', for two reasons: Hilary and Kendall Schmidt have pretty good interplay, and there's more of a story here about two lonely people splitting a cab and falling for each other - it's actually pretty sweet.

But look, if I didn't use to be a fan of Hilary Duff, I wouldn't have cared about this record in the slightest, even despite it having some quality. And that's mostly because this album takes no real chances - it's decent, sure, and very listenable, but it fades into the background very quickly. And that doesn't surprise me: you can tell from the writing and the songs she chose that Hilary's not going to go wild or take huge artistic risks. But on some level, I wish this album was less safe or inoffensive - I get the impression Hilary's got talent, especially as a songwriter - I just wish she pushed herself harder. For me, 6/10, recommended if you're a fan of Hilary Duff or you're curious, but don't be surprised if this album doesn't really stick with you. As for me... well, I might as well take all the messages that she wrote and just move on.

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