Thursday, May 22, 2014

album review: 'sorry i'm late' by cher lloyd

I have a complicated relationship with Simon Cowell. On the one hand, I have a certain amount of respect for him as a businessman, and his critical feedback on shows like American Idol always held the most weight to me because he wasn't about to mince words and not tell it like it is. Sure, he was abrasive and obnoxious, but as a record executive with an eye for what tended to get popular in mainstream music, I completely got his motivation in finding and crafting pop acts into something fit to sell.

On the other hand, he also has a reputation for being responsible for promoting some of the blandest, most interchangeable pop music alive, the sort of power-chord heavy shallow dreck that you can only take so far. The man has made a killing making disposable music and shoving artists through the meat grinder. The acts with personality, like Kelly Clarkson, survive. The rest go the route of myriad Idol and X Factor finalists and even winners and vanish into obscurity.

And much to my surprise, Cher Lloyd seemed to be one of the acts from one of his shows who had a real crack at keeping her career alive, when in reality, it should have been dead on arrival. I'm not denying the girl has charisma and a good voice, but a song like 'Swagger Jagger' should have been the last thing anyone heard from her because that song is awful. And when she crossed over to the States and released 'Want U Back', I was amazed again that her career didn't fade instantly. Because while 'Swagger Jagger' was its own unique brand of bad, 'Want U Back' was one of the worst songs of 2012, a near-unlistenable brand of bitchiness, bad instrumentation, and the fusion of bad Avril Lavigne and Kesha reject demos. 

In other words, Cher Lloyd has had her two strikes, and thus I was inclined to be charitable going into her delayed sophomore album Sorry I'm Late. And I didn't expect this to be good - the only song I've ever liked associated with Cher Lloyd was 'Really Don't Care', the deep-cut duet she had on Demi Lovato's last album. But on the other hand, this was a record that was recorded with conflict between Cher Lloyd and Simon Cowell's label Syco Records, which was at least promising. So did Cher Lloyd prove me wrong?

Honestly, I don't know. While I don't think this Cher Lloyd record is irredeemable or without merit, it's not particularly good either, especially when you consider an already-oversaturated landscape with female pop singers. And while Cher Lloyd is a loud, distinctive voice in the scene, the question of whether or not she brings anything new or different enough to the table to distinguish her has yet to really be answered. In other words, it's a tossup whether or not this record deserves a recommendation, because while it wasn't quite as bad as I was expecting, it's not exactly good either.

Okay, so let's start with Cher Lloyd herself, who as a singer seems to be looking to fill the void between Kesha and Natalia Kills, incorporating some of Kesha's brashness with Natalia Kills' sultry glam. And honestly, there are points where Cher Lloyd makes it work pretty well - there are large chunks of this album where she's trying to convey vulnerability and desperation, and she sells it pretty damn well. It helps that she does have natural vocal talent and a knack for expressive, emotional delivery. That said, there are points when that sort of delivery can backfire, and that definitely crops up on the songs where she attempts to go for a faster, almost rapping cadence, and as before, it's not a good fit for her, partially because her rhymes are completely uninspired and half because her delivery just comes across as obnoxious and snooty when trying to maintain that balance between brash and composed, because she's nowhere near raw enough to be the former and not composed enough for the latter.

Now granted, the lyrics are part of the issue here. I'm not going to say problem, because - much to my surprise - there are some songs that have some pretty solid lyrics that place Cher Lloyd in a place of vulnerability and really push her to show off her more emotional side. Songs like the lonely desperation of 'Sirens', the moment of exposing her flaws in 'Human', the not-over-you ballad 'Sweet Despair', and the heartbreaking track 'Goodnight', a stripped down acoustic number that she sings about her father, they're easily some of the best songs on this album and show Cher Lloyd as a solid contender in the realm of expressive ballads - all of which are much more tolerable than her shallower, more plastic tracks. The one that was mostly tolerable was 'Alone With Me', a dance song where Cher Lloyd isn't dancing but hoping to be noticed by the guy tearing up the dance floor. 

In fact, one of the more interesting themes of this album could be considered desire - because unlike the majority of artists singing about what they have, Cher Lloyd is nearly always placed in a position of want, which can be a little more flattering and humanizing. On her best songs, she can sell that desire with desperation and passion... yet in her worst, it comes across as painfully vapid. 'I Wish' has already gotten some justly deserved scorn from other critics about a song where Cher Lloyd wishes to be taller, faster, have more money a bigger rack and ass so she can win over some guy who honestly comes across as vapid as she is... and then T.I. comes in with a guest verse showering her with compliments and attention, which completely undercuts the entire premise of the song! But it gets much worse when Cher Lloyd is singing about the bad relationships she wants, the first being the subtly toxic back-and-forth of 'Just Be Mine' and the latter being the album's worst track 'Dirty Love'. Aside from terrible instrumentation and stealing the title of one of Kesha's best songs, 'Dirty Love' is a song describing how Cher Lloyd is bored and sick of guys being nice to her and just wants the guy to be like a caveman, complete with grunting. Now to be fair, I think the song knows it's moronic and retrograde and has a terrible message - but at the same time, it's nowhere near written and framed properly to imply Cher Lloyd wants something that isn't unpredictable and possibly dangerous for the wrong reasons, which is the much bigger problem.

And yet even the bad tracks could have been somewhat redeemable if the instrumentation was good... and here's where we run into this album's biggest problem, because to say the production on this album is a mixed bag would be underselling it. To be blunt, the majority of the production on this album feels phoned in, lackluster, and cheap, trading on heavier percussion over melody, overfilling the mix with electronic squeals and tunes that do nothing for the overall presentation, and cranking up the reverb instead of letting the sounds naturally build depth. Take the guitars on 'Bind Your Love' - the tone is fine, but the sound is flattened in order to fit with the scratchy beat and glitchy high synth line and it loses all organic flow. Even the opulence that normally comes through on T.I. tracks is gone through some of the cheapest horn production I've heard in this generation of pop. But even when the instruments have a bit more texture, the sounds are not given the chance to let their sound naturally grow, instead relying on reverb to intensify the sound and make it heavier - and sure, it works for the percussion on 'Human', but you lose emphasis on the melodies outside of Cher Lloyd's voice and thus the songs don't stick with me in the same way. In comparison with Foxes' heavier orchestration and yet tighter focus on the melodies, it's shocking how badly Cher Lloyd's material fares. It's also one of the reasons 'Goodnight' is probably the best song on the album with the guitars and subtle strings arrangement and vocals stripped of unnecessary effects and relying entirely on Cher Lloyd's real talent and emotional delivery. And yeah, the vocal melody is a pretty close lift from Jennifer Rush's 'Power Of Love', but Cher Lloyd makes the minimalist aesthetic work for her in the best possible way.

So in the end... look, it's not as bad as I was expecting, but it's not precisely good here either. Part of this album I'm willing to blame on a compromised production - conflicts with the label probably contributed to the frustrating dichotomy between this record's more subdued and significantly stronger songs and the shallow generic dance pop that Simon Cowell was likely jamming down her throat. And I'm not going to deny that Cher Lloyd is a solid singer with the potential to be a pretty decent pop songwriter. But at the same time, just because I know where to assign the blame doesn't make this album's instrumentation any less messy or the worse songwriting incidents any more excusable. In other words, it's getting a 5/10 from me and only a recommendation if you're a hardcore fan and haven't yet heard Natalia Kills' album Trouble or Foxes' new record Glorious, both of which are a lot stronger than this. Otherwise, in this overcrowded pop landscape, you can find stuff that's a lot better and that doesn't have Simon Cowell's grubby hands all over it.

1 comment:

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