Wednesday, July 29, 2015

album review: 'not an apology' by bea miller

So as some of you know, I'm twenty-five years old. I've got a full-time job beyond this, I pay rent on my own apartment, I buy my own groceries and do my own laundry. And even by the nebulous way most people tend to view my generation, I can marginally be defined as an 'adult'. But even as I get older, pop music tends to stay the same age, which is now leading to the situation where I'm reviewing music that might speak to experiences almost a decade disconnected from my own. Now in theory, this isn't a problem: good music can surpass barriers of race, class, gender, and sexuality, and age isn't as much a barrier as you'd think.

But I'll admit feeling hesitant covering Bea Miller, mostly because warning flags began popping up all over the place. Coming in ninth on the second season of X-Factor, signing in the first ever joint venture between Simon Cowell's Syco Records and Hollywood Records, and all of it at the age of sixteen! On the one hand, there's a certain gut reaction of surprise, but thanks to YouTube and Vine and the ease of creating content skewing younger and younger, I'm not surprised. Hell, even though she wrote less than half of the songs on her debut album, she's probably got a firm hand on her pop career at this point. And besides, teen starlets have existed before, I shouldn't be fazed by this.

No, my flags were more tied to the presence of Simon Cowell and Syco Music, a label that does not have a good reputation with me in bringing out quality, mostly thanks to bland, regurgitated production that is the definition of formulaic. At best, you get acts like Ella Henderson who can rise above it, but at worst, you get Cher Lloyd or Fifth Harmony, the former of whom only started improving when she tore away from Cowell's clutches. And that was my big concern for Bea Miller's debut titled Not An Apology - was I proven wrong?

Unfortunately, I wasn't. At this point, I'm flat-out considering a boycott of Syco Music on the basis of their production alone, because this album is another classic example of a pop debut that should have shown off a lot more promise than it does. To put it another way, Not An Apology by Bea Miller mostly has good intentions, but it's a complete mess that reflects mismanagement more than a lack of a talent.

Want an example of that? Bea Miller herself - she's not an immediately striking presence behind the microphone in the way that similar teen starlets like Lorde were, but I reckon that some of that will come with time and experience, and I definitely appreciate she takes a hand in writing that does come together with a few nuggets of unique wit. Most of the writing on this album is pretty bog-standard teen pop - a few inspirational ballads, a few love songs, a few break-up songs, and plenty of attempts to establish Bea Miller as your underdog teenage starlet. And while I found attempts to get darker to be absolutely hilarious - 'Dracula' might as well have been imported straight from a Hot Topic jingle - songs like 'Paper Doll', 'Enemy Fire', and 'Perfect Picture' are pretty solid when it comes to teen pop anthems, even showing hints of nuance and solid poetry with lines like 'is it true hurt people hurt people'. And yet the lack of consistent writers definitely shows, because it becomes hard to define who Bea Miller is. Is she the earnest inspirational balladeer who fights for the underdog, is she the girl who can handily dump guys who behave like preening, abusive dicks, or is she the star-struck girl who years for popularity and romance? It's the last category where the writing definitely takes a turn for the questionable, with 'Rich Kids' thrashing over-privileged snobs looking down on her even after she's successful and then yearning for their acceptance and trying to rationalize their humanity. It reminds me a lot of the same problems that hit Echosmith's 'Cool Kids', in that it tried to tell both stories and couldn't capture either completely. And 'Force Of Nature' raises even uglier questions - yeah, I get being lovestruck by the bad boy, but describing him as a 'bad, sick situation' and that she'll be left broken afterwards and that he's just a 'force of nature' and thus not accountable... yeah, that's all kinds of questionable.

And you want to know the really exasperating thing? It's one of the few songs on the album where the production didn't completely suck, riding on a surprisingly textured acoustic groove that sounds really solid. A look through the lineup of producers Syco gives Miller is just dispiriting, because the only one who brings this album remotely any fire is busbee on 'Enemy Fire', the only song that comes close to actually rocking with the bright, energetic riffs. But with the rest, time and time again we run into percussion placed way ahead of any melody, any guitars crushed and compressed into the upper end of the mix, a near complete lack of organic drums or solid basslines to give Miller's vocals some foundation, and all of it played with a staccato lack of groove that means the album loses whatever flow it tries to pick up from the guitar's low end. To be fair, there are moments that had more potential - the choppy riff of 'Fire N Blood', the piano fragments of 'I Dare You' and 'Paper Doll', the actual bass guitar on 'This Is Not An Apology' - but too often the production feels more concerned with building to a pummelling, drum-machine driven chorus that suffocates Miller's vocals and feels increasingly tinny and lacking in depth. At best, you get the reverb-saturated Lorde-wannabe track 'Young Blood', but at worst, you get songs like 'I Dare You' and 'This Is Not An Apology', both which crush their guitar into a buzzy, tuneless slurry and in the latter case throws a tinny filter onto Miller's voice which sounds awful. It honestly makes me wish that 'Dracula' was a better song, because at least the atonal drone of the synth, guitar sizzle, and abuse of vocal filters at least gives it unique personality, if a painfully grating one. 

In short, the impression I get from this record is an album that wants to rock a lot harder, even a pop vein like Avril Lavigne or Pink, but is forced through a collection of pop producers who would prefer to crank up drum machines and reverb than pay attention to a guitar. And I can't blame Bea Miller for this - she's easily the best part of this project or at least the part that gives it any unique personality - but this project rings more as Simon Cowell dredging anyone left from The X Factor now that One Direction aren't as much of a stable investment anymore. As for Not An Apology... sorry folk, it's a 5/10 and only recommended if you're a fan. And Bea, since you're on YouTube and might see this, a word of advice: I believe you can make more interesting and potent music than this, and you don't need to wind up as another casualty of X-Factor or Simon Cowell - because make no mistake, he needs you more than you need him.

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