Wednesday, June 24, 2015

album review: 'e•mo•tion' by carly rae jepsen

I didn't like 'Call Me Maybe'.

And believe it or not, I wasn't miserable during the summer of 2012 because of that fact - mostly because 2012 was a great year for pop music and I had plenty of other great songs to keep me busy across pretty much the entire year - even in Canada, where that song's ubiquity was even harder to escape. But yeah, 'Call Me Maybe' did very little for me and the overblown hype behind it made things worse: I talked a little about dramatic stakes when I reviewed Kacey Musgraves' Pageant Material a few days ago, and the complete lack of them made the overly cutesy immaturity of 'Call Me Maybe' a little too precious, even for me, and the fact that Carly Rae was deliberately playing up adolescence in her image despite being twenty-six in 2012.

So why the hell am I reviewing her newest album? Well, despite not being a fan of 'Call Me Maybe', I do like Carly Rae Jepsen and think she's a pretty decent pop starlet, especially for her knack in crafting a sticky melodic hook, and when she's on her game, she can really deliver. Hell, I placed 'Good Time', the duet she did with Owl City, as an Honourable Mention of my top hit songs of 2012, and I stand by it. Coupled with the fact she does have some relatably attractive charisma and works with producers like Marianas Trench frontman Josh Ramsey, and she does have primary writing credits on all of her own songs means I will give her a fair amount of credit, even if I do find her technical songwriting to be the biggest point where she can slip up.

And look, even though 'I Really Like You' might have one of the most completely asinine choruses in recent pop music, I can't help but find more things to like about that song every time I listen through it, so I said what the hell and picked up E.MO.TION - is it any good?

Actually, yeah, it really is. And it's a little perplexing why, because on the surface, Carly Rae Jepsen's E.MO.TION isn't that different than the new album from Hilary Duff Breathe In, Breathe Out - modern pop artists who don't have a ton of strident vocal personality and play to the 'girl-next-door' sound when they do, and yet are solid songwriters. So what sets Carly Rae Jepsen above? Well, call it an example of better producers, more energy, slightly stronger hooks, and instrumentation that might call back to the past, but does it with a level of authenticity that recalls more of Taylor Swift's 1989 in its appropriation of 80s sounds and styles - and arguably, I'd say Carly Rae does it a bit better.

So now that you're getting your pitchforks and torches, let me explain a bit here, and I think the best place to start would be with Carly Rae Jepsen's vocal performance. Now my previous big issue here is a lack of dramatic range - she played girlish exuberance well, but beyond that she didn't really show off a lot of unique personality. But the big advantage she brings to the table on this record is versatility, and in a way that doesn't so much imitate other styles but show off more dimension. Yeah, her vocals on some songs do owe a debt to the softer side of mid-80s Janet Jackson and especially Madonna, but there's a feel of innocence and heartfelt earnestness that doesn't bother so much with the image of it all. And with tracks like the gentle coos of 'All That' to the anxious resignation 'Your Type' shows off a surprising amount of emotive range. The one place where I think she does slip up a little is on 'Warm Blood', which demands a sultriness that I think is outside of her dramatic wheelhouse, but she puts forward a valiant effort. 

And it definitely helps that Carly Rae Jepsen's songwriting has a certain personality of its own, even finding ways to work some of the awkward clumsiness to its advantage. And the funny thing is that this seems to be more of a purely technical issue, because there is a fair amount of nuance in the writing that caught me off-guard. Take the lead-off single 'I Really Like You' - yeah, I've already mentioned how dumb the chorus is, but the overall sentiment of being on the precipice of love is a potent one, and the lyrics play to that well. Granted, much of this album plays to that yearning infatuation from the straightforward and fairly well-executed 'Run Away With Me' and 'Let's Get Lost' to the excellent ballad 'All That' to the resignation of 'Your Type', where she's trying to hold back her own feelings as she realizes she's just not her crush's type. Hell, while I still think 'Warm Blood' played things a little too cute, the writing still conveyed the anxiety that comes from nearly revealing dark secrets. Granted, tracks like 'Gimmie Love' and 'Making The Most Of The Night' do repeat the love song formula to diminishing returns, but thankfully Carly Rae does have a little more... and honestly it's a bit hit-and-miss. The title track is a weird one trying to remind an ex of everything he lost, and regardless of who dumped who, I'm still left wondering why she doesn't just move on. 'Boy Problems' has the opposite issue, where she has plainly moved on from a breakup... and yet she's annoyed with her friend talking about boy issues? At least she gets that maybe she and her friend aren't in the best of places with each other and I get friends going on about breakups, but still, doesn't quite land well. The break-up track 'When I Needed You' is much stronger, as she admits she wishes she could change for the guy, but considering he never gave her the time she needed, she doesn't have the same problem walking away. That leaves 'L.A. Hallucinations', a track about breaking out of the showbiz fairy tale for something real... and look, I know how we all hate Buzzfeed and TMZ for obvious reasons, but they're symptoms of the larger celebrity-obsessed problem in LA, not the source, and it seems odd Carly Rae would single them out.

But really, the element that I want to talk most about is the instrumentation - and while people said Taylor Swift's 1989 was a love letter to the 80s, E.MO.TION is a much more focused tribute, specifically to the gleaming, punchy, mostly overproduced era of late 80s dance pop and even R&B. And this is where Carly Rae Jepsen's strongest asset comes into play: a focus on ridiculously catchy melodies that remain prominent in the mix. The opening track 'Run Away With Me' begins with a horn line that anchors the entire track and while it's not quite as bright as the saxophone that sneaks into 'Let's Get Lost', it's given enough presence to stick out in an expansive mix that gives it room to breathe even as the low-end synth and drums give the song its groove. And sure, there's reverb, but the mix depth and exceptionally strong balance courtesy of Ariel Rechtstaid, Josh Ramsey, and a host of other sharp producers allows the songs to never lose that melodic momentum. Same case for 'I Really Like You', especially with the insane earworm of the hook. And that's before we get to the stripped back gorgeous mid-tempo ballad 'All That' with a great textured bass against those shimmering synths that have enough modern elements to not feel imported straight from late 80s R&B, the bass-heavy rollick of 'Boy Problems', the jittery low end synth on 'Your Type' that's supplemented with these gleaming keys over the chorus, or the buzzy synths against surprisingly punchy percussion on 'L.A. Hallucinations' that sounds like what a modern interpretation of a early 90s Madonna track should sound like. There are two places where the production does work against Carly Rae, firstly in some of the underweight melodic fragments that pepper the more minimalist tracks like the title track or 'Gimmie More' or 'Let's Get Lost' - although in the last case the chorus morphs into a groove that recalls more new jack swing than anything else, and it's a great fit. The more objectionable case comes the most aggressively annoying part of late 80s pop, and that's the Stock, Aitken & Waterman-inspired overloading of the mix. Yeah, I know that the mix gives a lot of space for melodies to breathe, but that's not exactly an excuse to overload the mix on tracks like on the chorus of 'Making The Most Of The Night' or 'When I Needed You', the former of which is probably the least likeable song on the record and with 'Boy Problems' proves that Sia's writing isn't a good fit for Carly Rae.

But putting all that aside, I really enjoyed this album. Yeah, it's lightweight pop that operates with a pretty simple formula, but I've always said there's a way to do that right, and Carly Rae Jepsen brings enough personality, energy, and strikingly good production to make it work, especially if you're a fan of the late 80s. Thus for me - and believe me, I'm as surprised as anyone - I'm giving this a very light 7/10 and a recommendation if you want some damn solid pop music. I might not have liked 'Call Me Maybe', but E.MO.TION proves that Carly Rae Jepsen has real chops - let's just hope the charts give her the space to reward it.

1 comment:

  1. Can you please do I review on
    The Pierces///Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge. What do you think of the album?
    I know it was from a few years ago but it would be awesome if you can do it.
    It's really one of my favorites.