Wednesday, September 25, 2013

album review: 'this is... icona pop' by icona pop

So, approximately six months ago, back before I was regularly doing these reviews for every album that came underneath my nose and browsing Pitchfork for the ones that slipped the net, I heard a song on the radio that had apparently been connected with Snooki and JWOW's spin-off show and had yet received critical approval from a certain majority of critics. And considering those two facts are rather disingenuously paired together, I took a deeper look at the song and discovered that it was called 'I Love It' by Icona Pop, featuring Charli XCX. To be completely honest, at that time I wasn't a big fan of the song, mostly because it sounded like fuzz-saturated house music with ephemeral lyrics and maybe one clever line, but I discovered that the song had been a big enough hit to help propel Charli XCX's debut album True Romance out of development hell and I figured that I might as well give it a look. And I actually did review that album and found it rather lacking, a expansive and well-produced darkwave-inspired album that threw out the hooks, the interesting lyrics, or absolutely anything compelling courtesy of Charli XCX. It was thoroughly below average, and outside of rave reviews that made no sense to me (seriously, for the most part the lyrics were completely worthless and Charli XCX either sounded vapid or too disconnected to care), I've spent the larger part of this year forgetting it existed.

Now 'I Love It', on the other hand, stuck around a little longer in my mind, mostly because the pop charts for this year have absolutely sucked. Compare this year to 2012, which had songs that at least seemed to have some staying power in the popular consciousness ('Gangnam Style', 'Call Me Maybe', 'Some Nights', I could go on), and you'll see charts that have no idea what style or genre is popular and thus a whole lot of junk (often really boring junk) rose to the top. So perhaps it was the benefit of lower standards that caused me to warm to 'I Love It', but then again, I can't deny it does have certain merits: the dual voices give it some real populist appeal, it has a lot of energy to match the crackling instrumentation, and the sheer wild abandon of the song, particularly in the bridge, is definitely infectious.

So on those qualities, I figured what the hell and I picked up the international debut album from Icona Pop. How did it turn out?

Ugh... well, it's not as bad as Charli XCX's album, but I don't have many kind things to say about This Is... Icona Pop. At the same time, though, this is going to be another frustrating album to review because this album's intentions and goals that it set for itself are a low, low bar from which to gauge any sort of measurement.

Okay, I need to explain this, and I feel like the best place to start would be in the instrumentation and production. This album starts with 'I Love It', and really, it's the best song on the album. It's sets the album on a great path, and starts it off with a lot of energy and personality... and then you realize that the rest of the album are basically ten more attempts to recreate the magic of that one song, with similar themes, instrumentation, and production.

Okay, that's not fair, but it becomes pretty easy to distill the formula that Icona Pop uses to create their pop songs pretty quickly: repeated verse with slower build-up, crescendo, and then fuzz-saturated dance breakdown where the electronica manages to swallow up or distort the chorus as the beat pounds. And while I'll give the production credit for the ability to build these crescendos well, it doesn't quite obscure the fact that the synths have a lot of rough edges and grating moments that Icona Pop seem to want to counter in their vocal delivery with sheer volume rather than emotional texture. And any sort of organic instrumentation quickly gets swallowed up into the roiling mass of beats and synths, with nary a melody line or coherent harmony in sight. When there are melodies, they are bare-bones at best, and they seldom evolve or show any signs of forming into a solid, memorable hook. Sure, they're catchy for the moment and for the most part they're agreeable, but they aren't distinctive or have a lot of unique character on their own, particularly when in comparison with the rest of the album. I wasn't particularly kind to Avicii's album True, but at least songs like 'Wake Me Up' had a well-composed melody line that stuck in the memory. Here, Icona Pop seem to want to rely on the sheer scope and heaviness of their instrumentation to stick with me, and I'm sorry, that's not enough, particularly when I find their instrumentation overproduced and cluttered with extraneous elements that detract from the vocals and lyrics,

Okay, so what about those vocals? For starters, I'm not a fan of the vocal production - for as much energy as Icona Pop are bringing here (and I will say they're passable singer), the production here seems rather flat, not allowing their voices develop or grow beyond a certain point. And while I think both women are passable singers (although the Autotune isn't fooling anyone), neither of them do much in the modulation or show much texture or real individual flavour in their delivery. On top of that, while I appreciate the energy, I'm a little baffled that they didn't even appear to try to harmonize or create any sort of vocal arrangement beyond both singing the exact same melody at full volume. So of course I'm not able to tell either of them apart and they lose a lot of personality with me. The opening of 'Ready For The Weekend' seemed to be going in that direction with something of a gothic harmony that got me interested... and then their voices fade away in favour of a goddamn chipmunk voice effect, and I nearly turned off the album then and there.

And really, if it wasn't the vocals that stripped away the personality, the lyrics certainly did the trick. Again, maybe it was a bad idea that I reviewed Avicii's True, which actually seemed to be trying on a lyrical level to be interesting or explore concepts beyond shallow party music, but Icona Pop have no such ambitions, and there's not a single phrase, lyric, or concept in these songs (besides 'I Love It') that haven't been done to death a dozen times already. And sure, you always get repetition of ideas in pop music, but the lack of lyrical flavour or texture and the fact that Icona Pop come across as very anonymous pop stars really set me on edge. I'll give Icona Pop this, there are moments when they choose to slow things down and try for a more intimate atmosphere, but here I have the same complaint many people tend to level against boy bands - it's kind of hard to build intimacy and closeness when there's two of you that I can't tell apart. Say what you will about the Backstreet Boys, but at least they had differing voices and appealed to different audiences!

But okay, I understand that Icona Pop aren't trying to blow me away with lyrics or interest me through their unique personalities - they just want to make me dance. That's their bar, that's the goal they're trying to achieve, and on that goal, I can argue they'd succeed. If I was at a club, I would probably dance to this album - but when placed in comparison with other modern pop stars, like Natalia Kills or Colette Carr or Ke$ha or Jessie J or even Katy Perry, I have no idea why I would be drawn to Icona Pop outside of their instrumentation - and really, I find their instrumentation overproduced, lacking in good melodies or harmonies, and over the course of a full album, really quite repetitive. I stand by the fact that this album is better than Charli XCX's True Romance, for that album did fail at the larger ambitions it had, but I wanted to like this album a lot more than I did. I'm going to give this one a 6/10 - and really, I feel like I'm being generous here.

Look, 'I Love It' is a good song, and I guess if you want more of the same, you'll probably find no issues with This Is... Icona Pop, but frankly, even by the low standards I have for dance music, it didn't do it for me. Sorry.

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