Monday, May 30, 2016

album review: '7/27' by fifth harmony

And here we go again.

I think there are a few misconceptions that linger from the last time I covered Fifth Harmony and their debut album Reflection, which many people angered that I didn't like the record. And while I'm not surprised at the anger, I am a little perturbed by the intensity, mostly because we've heard all of this before. One of the foundation points of the review was that Fifth Harmony was plainly set up along with Little Mix by Syco Records in order to engineer competition and pull in piles of money, and given my positive reception to Little Mix, my review was quickly dismissed as by some who assumed I had a stake in this. The truth, unfortunately, is a lot less interesting: Fifth Harmony's debut Reflection just wasn't very strong on its own merits, with by-the-numbers production that made some egregiously awful miscalculations, a vocal ensemble that had talent but was also unevenly balanced, and lyrics that ranged from forgettable to hysterical. And I didn't blame the girls for that - Camilla remains the weakest singer who got the lead far too many times, but it's not like she or the rest of the group wrote any of these songs - because, again, I've heard this all before... when they were called the Pussycat Dolls. 

it's actually uncanny how many parallels they have: forgettable guest verses, weak production, a 'leader' who is nowhere close to the strongest singer in the group, and even a British counterpart miles ahead of them in every way that would never get the stateside attention they deserve. Maybe it's because I actually remember the mid-2000s that I can speak to this, having seen pop group competition be engineered so many times before, but at the end of the day, I just want good music, whether it be from Fifth Harmony or Little Mix - I have no stake here either way. And yet while Little Mix has pivoted back towards pop to diminishing returns off their 2015 album Get Weird, Fifth Harmony looks to be in a much weirder state themselves, even despite their lead-off single 'Work From Home' being their biggest song to date. For one, it actually looks like Simon Cowell gave this record a budget and hired on some bigger names for production and guest verses... and yet the music wasn't getting better. Of course they had no writing credits again on this record - yeah, keep calling this a more personal record, ladies, I'm not buying it - but 'Work From Home' was the step towards R&B that had no personality outside of unsettling lyrical implications. And if that was the direction 7/27 was going, I had a really bad feeling about this album - was I proven wrong?

Actually... a little bit. Now I don't want to oversell this - this record did not turn me into a diehard Harmonizer or convince me that Fifth Harmony is anything more than a professionally groomed corporate calculation that hits bum notes far more often than they should, but this is an improvement on Reflection. It's not a great album - hell, I'd hesitate to even call it a good album - but despite its problems I'm starting to see some of Fifth Harmony's appeal, even if I don't quite share it.. because, again, they're very much not for me.

So let's start with the area that's improved and surprised me the most: production. One thing I've ranted about in the past is that Syco Music and Simon Cowell rarely will shell out the money to get top-of-the-line producers for their pop acts. And while I will not say we're getting A-listers here - rumors of Max Martin's involvement appear to have been greatly exaggerated - nearly half of this record has a Stargate production credit, and for the most part they're some of the better songs. More interestingly is the involvement of tropical house producer Kygo, whose debut album Cloud Nine I covered last week and who easily gives Fifth Harmony some of their best ever production without ever overshadowing the girls. The liquid acoustics against the gentle bassy pop, faded synth and sleigh bells of 'Write On Me' or the sandy snapping bounce with the great piano line of 'Squeeze' are the sort of pretty and accessible pop ballads that show Fifth Harmony's potential, and combined with the blurry guitar line that blends into the bass and rattling percussion of 'Scared Of Happy' or the choppy reggae sample against the wiry low synth that breaks into gleaming textures on 'All In My Head (Flex)', these actually work. Of course, in the last case it's also because Fetty Wap shows up and just runs away with the whole song - mostly because he seems like he's having more fun than any of the girls do on this record, and because he's playing into a sense that everyone can have fun too! It's a much better fit than when Missy Elliott shows up on 'Not That Kinda Girl', which is a kiss-off song that treads frequently into obnoxiousness, and not just because the beat sounds imported from a bad Janet Jackson reject from the late 80s with the garish and blocky synth tone and bargain barrel vocal production. And that's the first frustrating thing about this album, how inconsistent the production is - 'That's My Girl' might have initially got on my nerves with the chunky percussion with tiny horn accents, but the big brazen hook is easily one of the most melodic and poppy on the entire record... whereas stripped back R&B minimalism frequently highlights problems, especially in the vocals. I've already talked about 'Work From Home' on Billboard BREAKDOWN, but then we have the noisy percussion, muted chiptune, and pileup of chipmunk vocals that is 'The Life', or the reverb-swamped out 'I Lied' that picks up hints of keyboards before a shrill, DJ Snake-esque breakdown and the vocal production only serves to hem the girls in. 

So might as well talk about our five singers and here's where I inevitably start the fan war, because from some Harmonizer commentary I've seen, they aren't entirely pleased that Camilla seems to be getting more time in the spotlight in comparison with the others. And here's the thing: the girls mostly get equal time, but Camilla does tend to get more of the hooks, and her voice tends to stand out more... mostly because she's by far and away the weakest link of Fifth Harmony. If anything, it's gotten worse since Reflection, mostly because the producers tried to layer enough pitch correction onto her voice in order to compensate for how shrill and sharp she is, and it only ends up drawing more attention to her! And it's frustrating because the rest of the group seems to be growing up considerably and showing vocal progression. Normani remains my favourite with real soulful presence, with Lauren not far behind with a more mature tone, but I was impressed how much stronger Dinah has gotten, showing off a more strident and borderline raw presence. Hell, it even seems like the producers have figured out to give Ally's huskier, slightly more unique tones the room to breathe. But whenver Camilla's voice cuts in, her more adolescent lack of polish does major damage to the atmosphere, and the lack of harmonic arrangements to blend her in remains a consistent problem with the compositions.

And on that note, let's dig into the writing, one of the most aggressively frustrating issues with Reflection and arguably my biggest concern coming off 'Work From Home', which has the girls playing demure and submissive sex kittens trying to lure their men home with dirty pictures that could get them fired, not helped by Ty Dolla $ign telling them to shake their ass so he can 'pipe it' - yeah, did I mention this song was written by men? But it's one of the songs that illustrates an odd dichotomy about this record: you get songs about female empowerment like 'That's My Girl' and the 'we'll work through this' song 'Gonna Get Better' or even the crass materialism of 'The Life' and 'Not That Kinda Girl', where in the latter case we get the charming lyric, 'Boy, I wanna like you/ But it's better if you just don't speak'. Charming, and kind of contradictory how all that flexing lines up with 'Gonna Get Better', how the girls are trying to reassure the guy they won't leave him for a rich dude, even though all that money is very clearly on their minds. But where it gets bizarre is when you place these tracks up against some very vulnerable songs like 'Squeeze' - which by the way is one of the more awkward words to describe a compassionate embrace - or 'Scared Of Happy', which is also an awkward hook but does convey how one can be hesitant to find love again. And then there's 'Write On Me', where the girls are blank canvasses and they're asking for their love to 'write on them', to literally define them. There are other nitpicks I have - 'I Lied', for instance, surrounding how the girls are so overwhelmed by feeling that they lied when they said they love this guy because love is not strong enough of a word and how does that make any sense - but let's consider the bigger picture. Because while I don't have any problems if the girls want to play submissive of their own free will - again, I wish they were the ones writing the songs, but that's a different issue - I can go with it, but when they're surrendering so much control and then juxtaposing with empowerment anthems, it's a hell of a mixed message! Incidentally, that's another reason I like 'All In My Head (Flex)', because Fetty Wap is ensuring they're flexing together - sure, it's an ego trip, but at least it's a mutual one!

But at the end of the day, is anyone seriously looking at a Fifth Harmony record for thematic cohesion, especially considering they're more of a singles act? Well, yeah - the teenage girls who arguably compose the vast majority of their fanbase. And with that mind, I have a hard time giving my endorsement to this record. Yes, it's an improvement, the writing and production isn't as embarrassing and shows steps to defining a good sound, and minus Camilla the group is showing some real vocal chops. But in good conscience - plus the fact there really are enough problems in production and lyrics to keep me from endorsing this record completely - I can't rate this any higher than a 5/10. If you're a Harmonizer, you've probably already bought the album and disliked this video, but to everyone else... yeah, I'm not sure I can recommend this. If you're a Kygo or Fetty Wap fan, I recommend you check out the tracks they worked on, but otherwise... you're not missing much.

No comments:

Post a Comment