Monday, September 23, 2013

album review: 'alive' by jessie j

It really sucks to be branded a wannabe, particularly when it's not fair.

That's always been the thought that's played in my head whenever I think about Jessie J, who many critics very early on branded as a Katy Perry wannabe, and which I've always considered patently unfair. To this day, I still have a hard time understanding why Katy Perry got incredibly popular and Jessie J has not, and in the end have been forced to concede that it's thanks to Dr. Luke's gift for writing catchy hooks and good melodies for Miss Perry - because, let me tell you, it sure as hell wasn't for her live vocals or superb lyrics or strikingly original personality!

Jessie J, on the other hand, while she has worked with Max Martin and Dr. Luke, also takes a major hand in writing her own material and, unlike Katy Perry, has a personality and great voice away from the Autotune. Coupled with her real feistiness and her desire to connect with her fanbase, I've got a ton of respect for Jessie J and I genuinely like her music. Hell, I nearly put 'Domino', her big hit from early last year, on my year-end list of the Top Ten Best Hit Songs of 2012! I want her to be more in the modern pop landscape than the UK's version of Katy Perry, and I seriously think she's capable of getting there.

So, the question that I've always pondered is why doesn't Jessie J stick out more than she does already? Working the middle ground between Katy Perry and Pink, I've liked Jessie J's songwriting for the most part, but I suspect if I were to get a little closer on my issues with her, some of them might come down to the fact that she doesn't quite do enough to stand out from the pack on either a songwriting or instrumental basis. Sure, she's got some odd lines in her songs, but this is 2013, you can almost expect the weird, off-kilter lines in music these days. No, to me I think if Jessie J wants to distinguish herself, it'll have to come from the instrumentation, perhaps following along the line of Ke$ha and Natalia Kills going towards a rock style, or perhaps returning to the classier R&B of her roots. 

So, what do we see from Jessie J's sophomore effort, Alive?

Well, it turned out that my initial predictions were both right, because Jessie J apparently took both of my suggestions and went to both rock and R&B on her new album Alive, and the results were certainly interesting, if more than a little messy. And while I'm fairly certain at the end of this review I'm going to recommend Jessie J's sophomore album, I'm also aware of the fact there are some issues with it that make it not as strong as I was expecting. And once again, the frustrating problem is that I don't think these issues are entirely Jessie J's fault. 

Let's start with the obvious positives here, and I think the best place to begin is with the songwriting. For a pop R&B act, I think Jessie J is a pretty damn solid songwriter in her own right, and she's got some serious technical songwriting chops. While I wouldn't quite say all of her lines are perfect - on some tracks, the lyrics can come across a bit too harsh or grating, probably more than she was presuming they would - but overall, the lyrics are a great fit for pop music. One thing I've always found fun with Jessie J is that more often than not, the metaphors she uses can be surprisingly sexual, and there's plenty of that on Alive, but for the most part, Jessie J is writing a potent empowerment album in the vein of an act like Pink or Beyonce, and like Janelle Monae ahead of her, Jessie J has absolutely problems putting her bisexuality in full view to inform her material. In fact, I'd argue 'I Miss Her' is the best song on the album, because it's both unique (in describing a troubled female same-sex relationship) and delivered with blunt, heartfelt honesty - you can buy into the fact that the events in this song might have actually happened.

That blunt force that informs Jessie J's songwriting has been a common criticism of her work - it's been branded as 'too raw' or 'too open' or 'too honest'. And yes, it's all of these things, but I'd argue it matches the tone of her songs well, particularly in her vocal delivery. Jessie J has always been a solid singer and belter in the R&B vein, and dear Christ, she goes for it here and throws anything and everything into her material. There really isn't a lot of subtlety here, I say that, but Jessie J has a lot of raw passion and charisma in her delivery, and she has enough emotional range in her voice to sell it well while still coming across as likable. It's very reminiscent of early Pink for me, except Jessie J tends to have more of a foot in R&B and while some of Mizzunderstood and Try This can occasionally come across as a bit sexless, Jessie J has no issues whatsoever about allowing her sexuality to inform her work, and I do like that - to me, it makes her songs feel more organic and real.

Unfortunately, as much as Jessie J's performance on this album reminds me of early Pink, there are definitely moments here that have reminded me of some of Pink's later work, more specifically The Truth About Love. Now, as a fan of Pink I had very, very few kind things to say about that album, but one of my biggest issues was that Pink was often scream-singing at the top of her range and it didn't sound good - and unfortunately, we get this a bit on Jessie J's new album, starting with 'It's My Party'. As a singer myself, I know how much it hurts to sing in that range, and when it's clear Jessie J is really throwing everything and the kitchen sink into these songs, I can't help but wince. Jessie J sounds best when she stays in her belting range, and trying to go above it just doesn't work for her.

Of course, bringing up The Truth About Love from Pink also gives me room to talk about the one thing from that album Jessie J unfortunately brings over: the instrumentation and production. I'll start with the instrumentation, because it's a mixed bag at best. On the stronger songs of this album, it's acoustic or driven by a potent rock edge with roaring guitars, and here's where Jessie J is at her best - her raw, forceful voice is complimented by uncluttered and straightforward instrumentation, and she gets some very strong pop anthems out of this. And hell, I even dug that 80s synthesizer hook on 'Daydreamin''. But it's clear that Jessie J is making a pop album, and it's one that's wedged between electro-rock and R&B, and the two don't mix very well. And sure, there are moments where the more pop-inspired tracks can build a decent vibe, but too often the mix is cluttered with a swarm of electronic effects and fuzz that just does nothing but obscure the melody line and strip away some of the funkiness or rocking edge that Jessie J is trying to cultivate. 

And the production is even worse - I don't know who mixed this album, but there are so many points where the mix is over-compresssed and overloaded with sound that just doesn't need to be there. This is an album that damaged badly by overproduction, and what's worse, some numskull thought it would be a smart idea to shove Jessie J's voice back in the mix on some of the choruses where her voice is forced to clash with the extraneous electronic nonsense that doesn't need to be there. Sure, Jessie J does her damnedest to overcome that, but she shouldn't have to, and I get the feeling this album would have landed with a lot more impact if the mix was simplified and Jessie J was allowed to stay center stage. For some ungodly reason, this also comes out in the guest star appearances as well (with the exception of Brandy, who compliments Jessie J very well in a classy, late-90s early-2000s R&B vibe). Big Sean delivers another characteristically bad verse with abysmal rhymes (seriously, Big Sean really needs to be barred from guest verses until he figures out how to string coherent sentences together), and while Dizzie Rascal spits with some impressive fluency, he clashes with the beat of the song really quite poorly. The worst song on this album, however, comes courtesy of Becky G, a young British female rapper who seems to be following in the Cher Lloyd tradition of obnoxiousness self-aggrandizement and terrible rapping, and not even Jessie J can do much to salvage this sloppily-written kiss-off track that seems more bitchy than awesome.

So in summary, there's a lot to like on Jessie J's Alive. Most of those elements are courtesy of Jessie J herself, who really does deliver here in a big way - I just wish her guest stars, production, and instrumentation were on a level to match her talent. This is an album that has some great songs on it (personal favourites were 'Sexy Lady' and 'I Miss Her') and shows that Jessie J does have a distinctive identity in the pop star landscape, but her label's terrible choice of singles have ensured that people are going to look at Jessie J like she's a Pink-wannabe instead of a Katy Perry-wannabe (which is wrong, because Alive is much better than Pink's The Truth About Love), which, to repeat, isn't fair. And with that in mind, this album gets a 7/10 from me, and a recommendation. 

Folks, go check out Jessie J's Alive. And since Jessie J is one of the more internet-savvy celebrities and for some reason she might come across the video... well, I'm a fan of what you're doing, so keep it up.

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