Monday, July 21, 2014

album review: 'trouble in paradise' by la roux

Someday when pop culture historians sit down to write about the rise of EDM in the United States, they'd be wise to keep in mind two very important factors. The first is an admission that despite some of the genres roots coming from the discos and club scenes in Detroit and Chicago, it wasn't the US that was responsible for turning EDM into the worldwide phenomenon it is today. For that, you need to give the majority of the credit to Europe, who had been engaging in fluorescent explosions of pounding bass and gleaming synth lines for decades before rave and festival culture reappeared the Atlantic. For me, the years that always jump out as the 'peak' of said scene was the very late 80s and early 90s, especially in England with the moves to fuse the baroque weirdness of synthpop of all stripes with dance music. 

The other factor, of course, is the club boom, an era from approximately 2009 to 2012 where mainstream culture gravitated towards nightclubs thanks to a resurgence in synthpop and the success of mainstream hip-hop in pushing that lifestyle and sound. What tends to get glossed over in this story is that after several years of mainstream radio generally ignoring European music, several synthpop acts from other markets broke through around this time. These are acts like Robyn, Ellie Goulding, and the artist we're going to be talking about today, La Roux, who smashed onto mainstream radio with 'Bulletproof', a song all hard-edged synths and a fiercely dynamic vocal performances by Elly Jackson. What made the album stand out for me was the razor-edged balance between raw vulnerability and confidence, and much sharper lyrics than you normally see in this brand of synthpop - in other words, La Roux for me was the proto-CHVRCHES.

And yet after 'Bulletproof' and world-wide tours, La Roux dropped off the face of the earth. Elly Jackson admitted she wasn't ready for the insane fame that comes with such a hit and took a step back, eventually parting ways with her longtime producer partner Ben Langmaid, but not before writing a few songs for the new album Trouble In Paradise, an album coming five years after their self-titled debut and into a very different pop and dance music climate. So, how does it hold up?

Well, it's good, but I'm not quite certain it's great or as sharply powerful as the self-titled record. And for once, I can pinpoint the exact issue right out of the gate - which is frustrating for me, because if said issue had been corrected in the studio, I'd probably be right along with the rest of the critics throwing critical acclaim at this record. That said, if you can look past it, you'll find a lot to like on La Roux's Trouble In Paradise across the board, which definitely manages to hold its own in an increasingly crowded synthpop landscape today.

But before we get to that issue, let's talk about everything this record does right, which is a significant bit. For starters, Elly Jackson is a very strong vocalist who is capable of showing a lot of depth and complicated emotions on her material, which is really demanded for the lyrical subject matter on this record. I won't say her vocal production is stellar or always places her best in the mix - I'll come back to this - but for the most part she's able to provide a lot of propulsive momentum to this record. And on that note, the lyrics and themes are pretty damn solid too, solidly sketching several situations where relationships are sabotaged or fracturing, which is a natural fit for her balance between sexually vivacious confidence and real vulnerability. What gets interesting about this record is the juxtaposition in tone: many of the songs are pretty upbeat or at least have a pretty danceable synthpop beat that looks back to the mid-to-late 1980s, but the subject matter tends to have undercurrents of bittersweet melancholy, such as the lonely 'Paradise Is You', the relationship imbalances of 'Cruel Sexuality', and the cheating of 'Sexotheque'. And as much as I might like the melody lines and how relentlessly catchy the songs are, the framing behind the songs does feel a little discordant, as they're songs about infidelity backed with instrumentation that's almost chipper. Take 'Kiss And Not Tell' - a relentlessly upbeat song with gleaming synths and plucky guitar with a vibe of earnest anticipation towards to the hookup, but it's a song about forbidden love that seems to imply that the guy in question is cheating and it gets distracting.

That's not saying La Roux doesn't occasionally get this balance working to some great effect. The sharp-edged metropolitan 'Uptight Downtown', the complicated yearning of 'Let Me Down Gently', and the dark, almost gothic smolder of 'Silent Partner' are solid chunks of 80s-inspired synthpop with a lot of punch and emotional power, with the highlight for me being 'Silent Partner' that reminded me a lot of mid-period Depeche Mode in a great way. And I really dug the antisocial vibe of that song, as she shoves away those who would encroach on her territory and emotions as she just wants to brood, and yet the song never comes across as actively abrasive. That's a tough balance to walk, and it works great here.

Now granted, most of this is a factor of the instrumentation, which like the rest of the album is very reminiscent of the 80s and yet never really feels like a throwback. And like great 80s synthpop, it tends to work best when focusing on killer melody lines and a solid, crisp mix balance, which makes 'Let Me Down Gently' and 'Silent Partner' stand out as the clear highlights of the record. And yet the punchy beats of 'Uptight Down', the clipped disco inspired guitar and bass, the languid sandy feel of 'Paradise Is You', and even the pseudo-reggae vibe of 'Tropical Chancer' with the clattering percussion and tight synths was pretty solid. The one true dud of this record is the closer, the hazy, stuttering track 'The Feeling', which pairs a flat synth with Jackson's falsetto range and some sloppy multi-tracking to just make the song damn near unlistenable.

But I've danced around this issue for too long, so let's talk about what knocks this record out of greatness for me: the production. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's not an issue on every song, but through over half of this record, the mix balance of this record feels both clumsy, watery, and lacking a lot of impact. What made La Roux's debut work so well for me was its immediacy: for a synthpop record, every melody glistened with hard edges and presence, it demanded attention. In contrast, most of Trouble In Paradise feels like those same synth melodies and guitars are being submerged in a puddle that never lets them fully expand throughout the expansive mix without the benefit of reverb. The exposed edges on the multi-tracked vocals doesn't help matters, especially when balanced against the damp fluttery synth on 'Kiss And Not Tell' or the oiliness of the chorus of 'Cruel Sexuality'. And sure, it might mimic some of the production of the past, but it can occasionally make a few tracks come across as smaller, less-impressive, and honestly a little chintzy.

But look, this is a production issue for me, and it might not prove as distracting for you as it did for me, because otherwise, Trouble In Paradise by La Roux is pretty solid. It's not perfect by any stretch, and I can't help but miss her more upfront style of production, but her vocals are strong, the lyrics are solid if not exactly nuanced, and the instrumentation has some tight grooves. I'm thinking a 7/10 and a recommendation are appropriate, so if you're missing some tightly written synthpop or you found the overwhelming bombast of Strange Desire by Bleachers a little too much, check out Trouble In Paradise instead. And La Roux? It's good to have you back.

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