Friday, September 13, 2013

album review: 'true' by avicii

There are certain acts to which I don't feel qualified in reviewing, often for a number of reasons. I don't touch classical music or jazz mostly because I'm largely unfamiliar with the genres and I don't feel remotely qualified to talk about them. Similarly, there are whole swathes of heavy metal that I would like to review, but I just haven't had the chance to become familiar enough with the best and worst of the genre to speak definitively on the subject. Sure, I'm working my ass off to catch up, but until then, I don't think I'm the best reviewer to speak to, say, the new Motorhead or Carcass albums (Motorhead more because I'm not as familiar with their discography as I'd like to be), or that Deafheaven album that came out earlier this year and has received a ton of critical acclaim. And of course there are genres like metalcore and electrocore of which I've listened to a fair bit and thus cannot be remotely objective when talking about these acts (it's a hatred thing).

And for a long time, one of those genres I hesitated to talk about was EDM, partially because I felt I wasn't familiar enough with the genre, partially because I didn't particularly like most of what I had heard, and partially because, as a critic, I tend to spend a fair amount of time analyzing lyrics - I'm a published author, that's one of my big strengths. And since most trance and house and EDM don't have lyrics, I find myself guessing more than I'd like when I review those albums, because the review is less based on solid content and more based upon mood and emotion. And thus, there'd be a limit to how much analysis I'd be able to provide when reviewing the act.

But as of recently, there's been something of a shift, mostly due to EDM-inspired music moving more towards the mainstream, with the success of acts like Zedd and Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta and Calvin Harris. What I find as a significant relief is that a lot of this music has vocals and lyrics - often not very well written lyrics, but they are there in order to better court the mainstream. 

And thus, when I heard about Swedish DJ Avicii's debut album not only containing vocals and lyrics, but also an exploration of folk and country, I was seriously psyched. Not only would I have some lyrics to examine, I'm also significantly more familiar with folk and especially country music. For once, I felt that there was an EDM album that fit within my area of expertise, and I was really looking forward to reviewing Avicii's TRUE. So, what did I find?

Oh boy, we got ourselves something you don't see enough of on the charts these days: an album that has some serious ambition behind it to overcome a serious challenge and nearly surpasses that challenge... and then fails for a completely different reason that I don't think anybody could have seen coming. On that note along, I'm almost in a mind to recommend Avicii's TRUE, mostly because you don't get albums in this vein very often and it's a perfect example of how huge ambition can blow up in your face if you don't consider all of the little details.

Okay, I need to explain this, and that'll start with a basic explanation of production standards, in folk and in electronica. Characteristically, folk (and to a lesser extent country) is a primarily organic genre of music, with guitars and banjos and fiddles and so forth. The best production in this sort of music emphasizes how each element blends together in order to create the melody, with perhaps the drums keeping the tempo and additional instruments creating the harmony line. And if they're looking for that sound to feel heavy or rich, a good producer will ensure that the texture of the instrumentation isn't lost and that the combined sound of the instrumentation has just the right production to gather that burnished, organic swell that is almost unique to the genre. Folk and country music, at their roots, are concerned more with sincerity and authenticity over polish and shine - which is why so many fans of the genre have turned against the more polished production in modern country or acts like Mumford & Sons, who have co-opted the folk image but not the texture that comes with it.

Electronica, on the other hand, is a more synthetic genre. Now the breadth of sounds you can create here (to say nothing of sampling) is mindboggling, so instead I'm going to try -and focus on the EDM that has gotten popular today. You all know the sound - a pounding beat either at the top or bottom of the mix, a synth-driven melody line, perhaps another few layers to producer a harmony - but I want to talk about the production. Given that most EDM is produced without organic instrumentation, the production tends to be very clean and crisp, the beats precisely layered on top of each other - and since modern EDM is rougher and fuzzier, most of the sounds seem to blend together in a cacophony of loudness. But even with that, the production is still very much hi-fi - it's clean, it's polished, and while the best producers can still make something of an organic sound from this, the modern EDM scene is very much rooted in inorganic instrumentaion that sounds very clean and very polished - which is a sharp contrast from the organic or almost lo-fi instrumentation common in folk and country.

So now you should see the challenge that Avicii set for himself: combining two genres that don't just not go together lyrically (as folk and country are more lyric-driven genres while EDM... isn't), but also on a production and instrumentation standpoint as well. And really, he's toeing a delicate line here: trying to combine the rich organic instrumentation of folk with the pounding dance beats of EDM, and managing to make it sound cohesive. And furthermore, he's not looking just to make high-energy dance jams like which were done in the mid-90s with acts like Rednex (also from Sweden who lodged their big hit with an EDM version of 'Cotton-Eyed Joe'), instead opting to go for the sweeping, serious, emotionally evocative material that has grown popular and is at least a better tonal fit for folk and country, but is much more difficult to pull off. It's hard to synthesize sincerity, and yet that's the task Avicii has given himself.

And the sad thing is that he almost made it work, and he got there by doing everything right. He recruited great singers with a reputation for rich, powerful vocals with a lot of personality and texture, and he got organic guitars and banjos and strings and even the occasional set of organic drums. And most of the time, he gives them the folk-esque production to make it work, with the appropriate reverb and the chance to let the instrumentation fill the mix and give it some real presence. And sure, the songs are underwritten, but the lyrics occasionally do have a fair amount of weight and impact thanks to great delivery. Avicii knows his production for folk, and it was easily these elements that I enjoyed the most on this album.

And thus it's kind of sadly ironic that the majority of the problems from this EDM DJ's attempt to combine folk with EDM come from the electronica side of the production. I'm serious here, the majority of my issues on this album come from Avicii's side of the production booth, which surprised even me. I'll start with the most minor of gripes - even though Avicii's attempts to transition between folk and electronica are probably better than nearly any other attempt, he still hasn't quite nailed it and there are definitely points where the transitions sound like an audible thud to me. What's even more troublesome are his attempts to place 'folk' vocals opposite 'electronica' vocals (the best example of this is on 'Liar Liar') - and the dichotomy between the production is jarring to say the least. I think some of this could have been resolved by having a mid-point where the vocal production was the same for both singers, but that leads me straight to my next issue: where the production shifts are more notable are in the vocal production, as there are points where the reverb-saturated folk production that's almost lo-fi is abruptly switched to a much-higher quality vocal recording, and it isn't a clean shift.

But those were all problems with transitions, issues that were inevitably going to come up with this blend of genres. What's more worrisome are the problems with Avicii's electronica mixes themselves, and I'll start with the most noticeable one: that of the melody line. Don't get me wrong, at most points he manages to choose a synth that reasonably matches the organic instrumentation for the EDM-inspired segments of the songs, and I will definitely give him praise for the melody shifts between synthesizer and organ, which are a natural fit and work really well (granted, part of this is that I'm a sucker for good organ melodies, but I'd praise them here regardless). But in other cases, we get an electronic sound that is most closely approximated to that of a kazoo. And if you're looking for a way to completely derail the serious and emotionally impacting nature of your songs, the braying of a kazoo would leap to the top of the list.

But even on the songs that did manage to have a solid electronica melody line, I had the niggling feeling that the songs still weren't working for me. So I went back and listened to the one electronica song I knew that managed to blend acoustic guitar with EDM: a dance remix of Bryan Adams' 'Heaven' by DJ Sammy (you aren't allowed to judge). And then it hit me, what worked so well about that song and the biggest problem I have with Avicii's TRUE: balance. The reason 'Heaven' worked so damn well is because the acoustic melody line was a natural fit, and the backbeat supported that melody line while still keeping the song breezy and lightweight.

And the problem I have with Avicii's TRUE is that, in the majority of cases, the backbeat is incredibly weak. It's brittle, it's thin, it does very little to support the mix and it certainly doesn't balance well against the richer, more powerful folk instrumentation and vocals. Worse still is that the beat is often placed at the top of the mix, where it lacks the force to truly drive the electronica, placing all of that weight on the melody line which often doesn't have the force to push the song forward, especially in comparison with the folk instrumentation, which has a ton of rollicking energy that would be sufficient on its own. Now I have an idea why Avicii did this - he didn't want his organic instrumentation to be overwhelmed by the electronica, which is the consistent problem you get with DJs like Calvin Harris, but TRUE flips the balance in the opposite direction and it undercuts that emotional buildup you get from the folk segments, particularly when you lose the lyrics and any potential emotional poignancy they might be building (not much, to be fair, but the vocals from Mac Davis and Aloe Blacc are good enough to build investment on delivery alone).

So, with all of that in mind, can I recommend Avicii's TRUE? Well, yes, I can - in my eyes, it's still something of a failure, but it's a compelling one, and albums that fail due to overambition are far more interesting than albums that fail because they didn't try. And with that in mind, I'm going to give this album a 6/10. It's far, far from perfect, but it's an interesting experiment and it definitely got me curious to see how Avicii might further develop this project. He's definitely heading in the right direction, that's for sure, and I'd be excited to see more.

And do I think we'll ever get that blend of EDM and folk? In all due honesty, probably not, but Avicii got pretty close.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, the 'Break America Heartland' gambit of dance music. Bob Sinclar did something similar half a decade ago on his album Western Dream, when he was the latest Great European Hope (in the times before The Guetta). He was... definitely far more obvious about it: Bob Sinclar's 'Tennessee'