Tuesday, March 4, 2014

album review: 'louder' by lea michele

Ugh, I might as well admit it: I used to be a huge fan of Glee.

And I'm not really apologetic for that, either. Glee burst into pop culture in 2009 and turned itself into a cultural force capable of propelling songs and artists into the popular consciousness. And as much as it's incredibly easy to rip on the show's sloppy continuity and characterization, haphazard writing, and ham-fisted treatment of some special issues and criminally fumbled treatment of others, there are moments where Glee actually earned some of the critical praise it got, thanks to good actors, emotionally satisfying arcs, and shockingly good covers (well, at least for most of the first two seasons - things really went off the rails in Season 3 where they started burning through plots like kindling and anything close to sanity went out the window in the writer's room). 

Now, I stopped watching at the end of Season 3, mostly because Glee pulled off a genuinely season ending and I didn't need to see more, and since then, I've been reading the episode reviews on The AV Club and Autostraddle, which have proven to be often more entertaining than the episodes themselves. But there was a time back early in Glee's run that I was really into the show, almost going so far as to making an audition tape for The Glee Project (that none of you will ever find). But back when I watched the show, there was one character who drove me off the wall - and that character was Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele. That wasn't saying that she was a bad singer - she had stepped off of Spring Awakening and had a ton of natural stage presence and charisma - but that her character could be so mind-bogglingly annoying and self-obsessed. And in retrospect, my annoyance was likely linked to the fact I shared those particular traits and refused to admit it to myself.

But putting that aside, Lea Michele has finally done like many of her fellow cast have done and have started to move towards a solo direction. Now, Glee hasn't exactly had a good reputation turning its cast into stars away from the show. Matthew Morrison's solo career really hasn't taken off, Darren Criss has done some Broadway, and Heather Morris will likely just go back to dancing with Beyonce (so no worse, but no better either). The one who has probably done the most is Chris Colfer, who wrote a best-selling children's book and wrote/directed/starred-in a pretty decent indie film Struck By Lightning. And while I suspect Lea Michele will end up going back to Broadway eventually, she's trying her hand at pop stardom with her debut album Louder. How did it turn out?

This album should be better than it is, and I don't blame Lea Michele for all the things I'm about to say about her debut album, because it's not her fault. No, Louder by Lea Michele smacks of the corporate marketing that is selling it, and so many elements of the songwriting, instrumentation, and especially the production reflect the dismissive non-effort of a team looking for a guaranteed windfall. And once you realize the cynical, twisted thinking behind that, you stop feeling bored with this record and start actively getting angry.

So let's start with Lea Michele herself - and I have no complaints. She's a gorgeous singer, she has a great emotional range, and she works her ass on this album. She's working with material that would not be easy for any singer-songwriter ever, and she sells it and it's heartbreakingly beautiful. And yet, she doesn't make the album all about that incident and goes for broke on love songs, break-up songs, and even a dance number with the title track. 

But as a songwriter... well, you can tell she's a novice, and I can't help but think her collaborators aren't really the best influences. Sia is a songwriter from the indie scene who broke through working with Flo Rida and David Guetta, but those who remember her early work know her songs tends to develop impact more based on emotion than lyrical flair. And combined with Christina Perri's own brand of awkward songwriting, it leads to a lot of clumsiness and hyperbole on this album. Take 'On My Way', a song about defying everyone, including your own brain, to listen to your heart and chase after love - but when you have the lyric 'my heart's too drunk to drive' representing that heady feeling of affection, it starts to get worrying - you don't listen to words of wisdom from people who are wasted. Or take 'Burn With You', which plays with the girl=angel, guy=demon paradigm with Lea Michele saying she'll reject heaven and 'burn with you'. Uh, might be speaking from the peanut gallery here, but I don't think risking eternal damnation is the best option here.

What becomes apparent is that the lyrics are very broadly sketched - which can work in pop music if you have the right instrumentation. And in this case, the effort wasn't there. Forget good hooks, instead we have an over-reliance on clunky percussion and shoving any trace of real melody to the back of the mix. Where we do get synth lines, they're the furthest thing from catchy or gripping, and there are points where they feel actively off-key. There are points where the strings come in and try to add some baroque flavour, or they slow things down a bit for hints of piano, but none of it is given much of a chance to swell or build emotional resonance. The one point where things start approaching real drama is on 'If You Say So', and I almost got pulled in...

Almost. Because now we have the biggest issue with this album: the production values are non-existent and the production is terrible, even for a pop album. Not only are none of the sounds in the mix given any depth in which to swell or build emotion, but it's all clustered near the front and top of the mix, leaving the percussion feeling top-heavy and actively warring with Lea Michele's voice, leaving the melody to get lost in the background. What's worse is that for some ungodly reason the sloppy multi-tracking and backup singers are supplemented with vocal effects that completely suck out any organic feeling this album might build. Lea Michele might have had occasional bits of electronic assistance on Glee, when they had a week to record and produce a song, but on a full-length album, there's no excuse for a professional singer from Broadway to need autotune! And that's to say nothing of the compression on this record, which takes an already overloaded mix and sharpens and crushes it down, which sucks the rich texture in Lea Michele's vocals or any instrumental power and neuters any sense of real musical dynamics.

And now we have to talk about the elephant in the room: in July of 2013, Lea Michele's fiance Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose, and I wouldn't wish that on anyone, especially a young woman who's only a few years older than me. And there are songs on this album - the lead single 'Cannonball' and especially 'If You Say So', a song Lea Michele wrote with Sia's help - where you can excuse the clumsiness in the lyrics because the grief is there in that song and it feels raw and real. And yet, when the production is this bad, with multitracking that does know how to properly balance multiple vocal tracks, I stop hearing a woman grieving for the man she loved. Instead, I see a record executive leaning back in his chair and saying, "Well, she's a young starlet with a built-in audience from a hit TV show who will inevitably draw interest from people curious to see how she handles that sort of major trauma and that's just a license to print money, so why bother with, you know, production values or making her sound at her best or being anything close to competent on a record even though we've been churning out singer-songwriter material for former Broadway stars since at least the 70s and we should have the formula down by now!"

If you want to support Lea Michele, as I'm sure some of you do, I don't recommend you buy this record. Look up the tracks on streaming sites or YouTube, or go see her live, but every cent you spend on albums in this vein encourages this sort of exploitative behaviour from record labels, and that's fucking inexcusable. But even with that, this album isn't good. The instrumentation is uninspired, the production is uniformly lousy, and the songwriting is nothing special. If you want to hear her sing, go buy the Glee covers. And Lea, if by some crazy chance you see this... you don't need to be a pop star. You can go back to Broadway any time, or look what Jonathan Groff did on HBO with Looking, in a serious acting role. Hell, I'm sure you've met Lena Dunham and there's an arc on Girls right now about Adam Driver's character being on Broadway. It'd be perfect for you. 

But you don't need people taking advantage of you - that's not fair to you, or him.

No comments:

Post a Comment