Monday, December 9, 2013

album review: 'wish bone' by oh land (RETRO REVIEW)

Several months back, in my review of Tegan & Sara's album Heartthrob, I made mention of my distaste for the 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl' trope, one that has grown increasingly popular with the rise of 'indie/hipster' culture in recent years. For those unfamiliar, those defined by the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character and image are off-beat, quirky, and decidedly lodged in girlish adolescence. What's key is that these character traits must lack an inherent root cause: these characters are quirky and eccentric just for its own sake, a shallow idealized fantasy and not, you know, an actual human being. And I'll be blunt: it's alarmingly sexist, considering female characters who fall into this trope are often treated as 'precious' or 'cute' by the male characters and any potential nuggets of real insight are solely marginalized to observational quirk - treated as girls instead of as women. And it really says a lot about guys who are drawn to this, because they aren't looking for a relationship of equals or for a partner who might be able to match their own eccentricities  - they want a girl with just enough randomness and quirk so they can delude themselves into thinking they're deep.

Now let me make this clear: it's not the aesthetic of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that's the issue, which is ultimately why I came down mostly positive on Tegan & Sara's pop-flavoured appropriation of the image which paid big dividends for them. After all, Heartthrob was only trying to be a shallow pop album, and the aesthetic worked. But there are a lot of indie acts who have realized this image and style sells very well to the hipster set... which can be unfortunate for acts with occasional insight, like Regina Spektor. And as a music critic, it can be frustrating to peel away the artifice and see if there's anything real underneath when so many indie acts are leaping aboard this trope. 

And all of this comes back to Oh Land, a Danish artist who released her new album Wish Bone three months ago and who seemed to be playing close to this trope. I didn't cover the record because the critical buzz had been lukewarm and September was incredibly busy for me, but enough of you recommended I check it out, so I gave it a look and hoped for the best. What did I find?

Well, I didn't quite find the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - or at least not in the way I was expecting. That subversion of expectations is easily the best and most interesting part of Wish Bone by Oh Land, and on that idea alone, I'm inclined to recommend this album, which is smarter than most will give it credit. Unfortunately, the reason most won't pick up on that intellect and insight is the presentation, which makes an admirable attempt but doesn't quite stick the landing.

I should explain, so let's start with the biggest net positive of this album: the songwriting and theme. Technically, the songwriting is average - there are a couple good metaphors and running imagery that are serviceable enough - but it's the target and tone of the songwriting that really got to me in a good way. See, Oh Land is entirely aware of the shallow superficiality associated with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl image - so she embraces some of the vacant-eyed quirkiness and uses that image to viciously satirize it and especially the guys that fall for it. She attacks the empowerment delusion of the trope in 'Renaissance Girls', she rips into the brooding loners that said Manic Pixie Dream Girls are 'drawn to' in 'Love A Man Dead', 'Next Summer' emphasizes the flighty and emotionally draining nature of such relationships,  and in 'Pyromaniac' (the best song of the album thanks to a solid guitar lick and good hook), she shows the nastier underside of falling for superficiality when there's something more damaged and dangerous underneath. The album is titled Wish Bone, but a more apt choice would be Be Careful What You Wish For, and the real hidden strength is that Oh Land still frames said songs as idealized fantasies for the guys in question, thus allowing the songs to work on two levels. What Ke$ha was for club girls, Oh Land is for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and it was definitely a welcome surprise...

But it doesn't quite work all the way, and this is where we have to talk about the instrumentation and production. The songs are driven by a lot of electronic percussion, most of which seems to have been pulled from the trap hip-hop recording studio next door - and very little of it feels organic, even the moments when acoustic guitar is dominant in the mix. The problem is the production - it's overstuffed with a lot of clattering effects that really don't add a lot to the mix as a whole, and some of the beats come across as unnecessarily rough to balance well against the piano or guitars. There's also a tonal mishmash - at points the electronica comes across as too dark or forbidding to match well with the organic melodies, and while I get that might be the point and it's supported by the lyrics, it doesn't lend itself well to cohesive tracks. On top of that, the hooks aren't particularly strong, and while the album is varied, a tighter focus would have done this record a lot of good.

And the problem is only compounded by Oh Land's vocals, which are a mixed bag to say the least. Sometimes, she delivers her lyrics with a fair amount of pathos and emotional resonance, but at other points, what might have come across as knowing acknowledgement of shallowness instead sounds disinterested, and the multi-tracking doesn't really help matters. She reminds a lot of indie pop singer Kimbra (from Gotye's smash hit 'Somebody I Used To Know'), both in her delivery and subject matter in satirizing tropes about women. But in that comparison, Oh Land can't help but fall short of Kimbra's smoldering, noir style and richer delivery, and while I get she was trying to sound flighty and girlish, the portrayal is inconsistent and frequently is replaced by the same shallowness she was trying to satirize ('My Boxer', 'Kill My Darling', and 'First To Say Goodnight' spring to mind).

In the end, this album has a really great idea that's only half-realized, and while I definitely dug the intent behind the lyrics to subvert and satirize the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, it didn't quite materialize as an album that was all that enjoyable or memorable. It's an album that's let down by inconsistencies across the board and thus it loses a lot of its impact. That being said, there are songs that do execute their intent well, and the songwriting is frequently stronger than everything else behind it, so the album is getting a 6/10 from me. Folks, if you're looking for an album about Manic Pixie Dream Girls, this album will deliver - just be careful or you'll end up getting burned in the end.

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