Monday, March 31, 2014

album review: 'pulses' by karmin

Well, this is awkward.

See, initially I didn't want to cover this album and for good reason. For one, the reviews from other outlets did not look close to good and believe it or not, I don't like giving negative reviews. It's that same sort of logic that normally keeps me from reviewing true genre trainwrecks if I don't have anything new to say about them - except, well, with country, but that's only because I'm still the only country music critic on YouTube and somebody has to cover them.

But with Karmin, it's a little more complicated - because, like me, they got their start on YouTube, as a upstart duo making pop videos and covers. I'll admit I didn't watch the material on their channel, but I knew they had an upbeat sensibility and a certain self-deprecating goofiness about them that did redeem some of their material. On the other hand, the stuff I did hear from them wasn't great, and I wasn't really a fan of either 'Brokenhearted' or 'Hello', the former which struck me as a Katy Perry wannabe pop track and the latter which bungled a chord progression that sounded way too much like 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' to be ignored. 

And thus, when I heard they got a major label deal and were dropping a new album with plenty of new pop collaborators, I felt a little uneasy about covering Karmin with my typical reviewing style, especially when some of the early reviews were less than complimentary. On the one hand, YouTube is a community and the odds that they might see my review are higher than most, and in the spirit of that community, any review I'd drop might hit closer to home. But on the other hand, I've got my integrity as a critic, and just because they started on the same platform doesn't mean they don't deserve the same level of analysis or scrutiny. And so with that in mind, I cautiously picked up Pulses and steeled myself for whatever might come - how's the album?

Okay, here's what I'm going to do: take the middle path. In most situations, I'd step up with a certain brand of blunt honesty, but for a pop act starting out, I think a different sort of review might be more helpful here. So what I'll be doing is revisiting my three points to making a strong pop debut album that I originally coined back in my Kay review that nobody except me seemed to care about. Cool? Okay, let's get this started.

The first step is presentation and brand establishments, defining those unique elements that make the band different and special. Fortunately for us, Karmin already did some of this with their work on YouTube, but this can be a double-edged sword because fans of that original work might not like it if your label is pushing you in a more market-friendly direction. And that definitely happened here, both in the sound and larger direction of this album, which feels like it could easily be slotted onto mainstream radio without a second thought - which isn't a bad thing, sure, but it doesn't exactly lend the band a lot of unique personality. Amy Heidemann is clearly the main face of the band and while she has a lot of presence and she is a good singer, there isn't a lot of staying power or raw potency. Previously I'd branded Karmin's music as trying to replicate Katy Perry's formula, but Heidemann reminds me a lot more of Nicki Minaj's recent pop success, where there's a lot of cartoonish energy but not a lot beneath it. And the instrumentation doesn't really help matters, as a lot of it sounds mashed together from disparate sources, from the heavier, trap percussion to the fuzzier dubstep-inspired backing synths to the handclaps to the retro-disco vibe on 'I Want It All'. And none of it feels cohesive - a hodgepodge of elements that have worked in modern pop and not the pieces that would actively help Karmin stand out.

This takes us to the second step: to ensure your artist is placed in the best possible light. Now this normally just applies to production, which is not great on this album. The synth lines feel overloaded, there are way too many extraneous squeals and sound effects that add nothing other than annoyance to the song, the autotune is vocal production often feels unnecessary, and can we have a moratorium on elements like gang vocals and pitch shifting to sound imposing? The issue here is tone: the instrumentation often feels abrasive and rough, and sure, while it does somewhat compliment Heidemann's Nicki Minaj-esque rapping, it doesn't compliment the singing well and it can come across as really obnoxious. Which would be fine, if it was remotely convincing or lyrically compelling, but it really isn't. What's worse is that there are more sentimental songs on this album like 'Neon Love' and 'Tidal Wave' that I thought worked much better, mostly because they felt very real and came from emotionally compelling sentiments in the wistfulness of a doomed hookup or feeling like you're losing control in the insane whirlwind of rising stardom. 

And now we have the final element, and that's establishing personality, and I'll say this: Karmin have some real personality and charisma, and the lyrics do reflect a more varied approach to songwriting that I appreciated. But this is where we run into an unfortunate problem: I have no idea how seriously I should be taking some of these songs. Amy's harsher delivery and the instrumentation often want us to be taking these songs quite seriously, but the lyrics are often so goofy and exaggerated that I just don't buy it. Take the lead single 'Acapella': the lyrics are focused on marrying a rich guy and dumping some hapless loser, but the lyrical wordplay feels imported from a bad Lonely Island song and I can't take it seriously or humourously. Same goes for 'Drifter', a song that tries to glorify moving from partner to partner and has some ridiculous lyrics, and then Nooner tries to lampshade it with 'I don't really care if you call me corny'. Dude, I review country music, this isn't corny, it's sad - and I get the striking feeling that wasn't your intention. Or take 'What's In It For Me', a song that tries to go for the anti-corporate sentiment and completely fails because its sound and the sound and lyrics of the entire album feel crowd-sourced and written by committee - which, if you look at the writing credits, they were. And normally I don't have a problem with it - that's how pop music is made and it's been like that for decades, I understand that - except it feels so strikingly disingenuous here when Karmin are trying - and failing - to protest that system. 

But do you know what this album reminds me of the most? If you go back about forty years to the 70s, there was a band called Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show. They weren't exactly a band I liked, but they started their career with a lot of silly, irreverent comedy songs - until the mid-70s, where they transformed themselves into a smooth AM soft rock/country group that was so earnestly corny that they didn't sound like the same band. What didn't work was that the band wasn't playing to their strengths - at their best, they were loose and silly and had a bit of earnest charm and didn't take themselves so seriously. And honestly, I see a lot of parallels with Karmin's career progression. Now it's not as bad as Dr. Hook, because you can still see hints of the humor even if its not exactly my thing, and there are elements of that earnestness that can work. I liked the disco vibe of 'I Want It All', 'Neon Love' and 'Tidal Wave' both felt heartfelt and that worked, and as ridiculous as 'Puppet' and 'Try Me On' and 'Hate To Love You' were, I can see their appeal even if I'm not a fan. But the instrumentation feels stripped of a lot of Karmin's unique sound and energy, and this album ends up feeling a little soulless and unfortunately forgettable - except, of course, for the obnoxious bits I wish I could forget. In the end, it's a 5/10; not exactly good, but not worthless either. And while it's a shame that too many debut albums fall into the same trap that Karmin did here, I honestly hope their sophomore album shows a little more of that flavour that brought them from YouTube in the first place. 

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