Monday, February 3, 2014

album review: 'salute' by little mix

Let me explain a bit how my schedule works. At the beginning of each month, I go through the lists of albums to be released and choose the ones I want to cover. Throughout the month, I make sure to go through the list multiple times to update it, if by some chance I miss an album or someone surprises me (hi, Beyonce!). And when it comes to albums with release dates that are different for international audiences, I tend to be ambivalent on which date I choose - if I the month is busy, I'll typically choose the later one.

That's the main reason why I didn't cover Little Mix's album Salute when it came out late last year. I rationalized that since it had an American release date in February and given my nightmarish schedule in October and November, I figured a delay until 2014 was fine. But even with that in mind, I wasn't really excited to cover this record. I've said in the past that I'm not ashamed of my liking of boy bands or even acts like S Club 7, but I've had mixed luck with girl groups. My favourite is probably still Girls Aloud, but that was more for the phenomenal production work of Xenomania rather than the girls' individual performances. And while I'm mostly ambivalent to positive on The Spice Girls (they've got some great singles, but the albums are the furthest thing from cohesive or all that solid), I really couldn't stand Destiny's Child, who I always thought was the poor man's TLC and never really grew beyond being a jump-off platform for Beyonce (because that's what the band was). 

And maybe that was the reason I was a little reticent against approaching Little Mix's second album, because the band made it clear they were moving away from the 'club-dance' scene towards R&B-flavoured pop, and while I don't dislike the genre, it's not something that always interests me, particularly when it's backed by Simon Cowell's record label. And that's the other problem - Simon Cowell has a bad reputation among music circles over the past decade for making sterile copies of what's popular in pop music rather than innovating, and he proved that last year with the insane overproduction on Little Mix's label mates Fifth Harmony, another girl group that never really resonated with me. In other words, I didn't have a good feeling about Salute; was I wrong?

Actually, yes, I was wrong, because Salute by Little Mix isn't bad at all. In fact, I was a little startled by how much I enjoyed big parts of it. I don't want to oversell this album, because it's not great, but it was certainly better than I expected it would be. If I'm going to make a boy band comparison, I liked most of this album for the same reasons I liked Word of Mouth by The Wanted - it's an album that understands its scope and plays within that range to make a solid pop album.

So let's start with the girls themselves. In the first good step of girl groups, Perrie, Jesy, Leigh-Anne, and Jade actually have distinctive voices and personalities, and they bounce off of each other well. I probably like Perrie and Leigh-Anne's voices the most - they have the most texture and passion and I can see Perrie in particular maturing into a pretty potent vocalist with an edge. What's also impressive is that the girls don't just go for sheer volume and actually do harmonize pretty damn well, even delivering an a capella tune with 'Boy' and proving that there's actual talent behind this pop girl group. And honestly, I don't see them holding onto that 'pop' image much longer, as all of their voices would be a solid fit in R&B.

And the surprises keep coming because the songwriting isn't bad either. Sure, it's conventional girl group material - empowerment, dance tracks, love songs, the slamming of bad boyfriends in the TLC or Destiny's Child model - but it's executed pretty well. All the girls have songwriting credits on the majority of the tracks, and that does lend a certain bit of authenticity, which can make some songs a little clumsy, but relatable. I was a little irked with 'Little Me', a song about going back to the past to reassure the girls' younger selves that they'd be okay, but that's a personal quibble: if you go back to boost said girls' self-esteem, she might not build the inner strength to overcome her obstacles on her own (Pink tried this too with 'Conversations With My 13 Year Old Self' to similarly mixed results). Outside of that, my only other songwriting nitpick is with the title track, but that's because I'm always a little leery of pop songs co-opting military stylings (it comes across a little jingoistic for me). Otherwise, many of the songs avoid going for easy titillation and instead feel more raw and heartfelt and exposed, especially 'Good Enough' and 'These Four Walls', which is a real credit to the girls' performances. And then there's 'Competition', easily the best song on the album by a mile thanks to being way smarter than it has any right to be when talking about gender roles in relationships. 

But it was also the best song because it felt fresh and new in terms of instrumentation and production: blaring horns, a good piano riff, and the sharp drums that characterize a lot of Little Mix's better songs. More importantly, it rises above the big problems of this album: the instrumentation and production. Not counting 'Competition', the instrumentation is at its best when it calls back to the late 90s and early 00s of R&B, and this album borrows heavily from that era whenever it can. This is something I've noticed about R&B in the past few years: that outside of a few select cases, many acts have been content to retrace the ground R&B has already paved decades ago, and when it's as blatant as it is here, Little Mix can come across as a throwback, and that's a disservice to the band. But even that's better than the modern beats the band was given, which are these minimalist lumpy bass lines and clattering, looping effects that don't give the songs the slightest element of tune. If they were going to call back to 90s girl groups, why didn't they grab some of the Spice Girls' obscenely catchy hooks that guaranteed those songs would stick in the memory?

And at this point, I'm not blaming Little Mix for this: these girls are seriously talented, and they frankly deserve better production work than Simon Cowell's record label is willing to give them. And his production methodology is all over this album - finding ideas that worked (or didn't) in the pop sphere of either today or a decade ago and crushing them into something barely interesting. You get the depressing feeling that there wasn't a consistent amount of effort by the producers put into the instrumentation, and even less was put into the production. The saddest example of this is 'Good Enough', a song that has a ton of real raw emotion in it but the reverb is poorly executed that it took away from the song as a whole. But it's not something the average pop fan will hear, and thus you can tell the producer didn't put in that extra bit of effort to make it sound cohesive or natural, which was very disappointing.

But overall, I did like this album. It was certainly a welcome surprise and 'Competition' keeps getting better and better every time I listen to it, but I do wish the album was more consistently strong and had better high points. Little Mix is a group crying out for a Max Martin or a Timbaland or a Pharrell to step up and give these girls some killer hooks and some good production, not the bland slurry with occasional moment of greatness that Simon Cowell's dumping on them instead. That being said, the vocals, the harmonies, and the songwriting was all a fair bit better than I expected - plus there were no tracks I'd call out as objectively 'bad' - so I'm going to give this album a light 7/10 and a cautious recommendation. If you're looking for a fix of pop-R&B that calls back to the late 90s, give Little Mix a listen - you might be surprised.

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