Monday, August 11, 2014

album review: 'lp1' by fka twigs

So let's talk about sex.

More specifically, let's talk about sex with regards to music. It's long been held that sex sells in some capacity, and you can point to dozens, if not hundreds of artists who have used sexuality in some way to sell their records. Tellingly, the number gets smaller when said sexuality is placed within the music and not just the image, and it gets smaller still when you discount the many acts who have simply made music about sex in order to titillate and nothing else. And if you want to shrink the number even further, discount all of the artists who use their music to talk around sex, using metaphors and symbolism to describe sex to get around censors or to make their songs have some additional class and poetry.

No, today we're going to be talking about a very small group of artists: those who use music that is written about sex and can even sound like sex, but in reality sex is the metaphor being used for other emotions driving the material. This is a much trickier balance to pull off, because sex is one of the most intimate, powerful, passionate experiences one can have in their lives, and using it to represent other things in art can be tricky indeed, mostly because the majority of audiences will simply focus on the sexual imagery and take things literally. You want a prime example of this dichotomy playing out in modern music? 'Do What U Want' by Lady Gaga featuring R. Kelly - easily one of the best songs off of ARTPOP, and yet it suffers the frustrating lack of lyrical cohesion where Gaga is using sex as a metaphor to describe her tempestuous relationship with her audience and the press and how they judge her work, and then R.Kelly gets on the song and makes it, quite literally, about sex. And the startling thing is that R.Kelly is such a force of personality on the song that he can make even critics like myself think the song is really about sex all along.

So how do you get around problems like this? Enter FKA Twigs, with the 'FKA' standing for 'formerly known as' in order to get around a naming controversy with another artist. She started building serious buzz in the independent scene last year with her second EP through the Young Turks indie record label and a series of music videos that didn't shy away from thought-provoking imagery. And with a simply stunning voice, some fairly potent lyrics and instrumentation that blended spacious PBR&B and indie-electronica that recalled acts like James Blake, it was music that sounded like sex and yet seemed to be saying a lot more. So of course I picked up her debut album LP1, especially after the tidal wave of critical acclaim started pouring in...

And surprise surprise, the album deserves a lot of it. Make no mistake, LP1 by FKA Twigs is a very good, possibly even great record that introduces a potent indie pop R&B act beyond her EPs that shows tremendous promise in making her brand of music be sexy as hell and have some real substance behind it. And while it's definitely not perfect - there are enough niggling issues that do hold it back from that point - FKA Twigs managed to do what many of her contemporaries in this genre didn't or can't this year: she made me care.

So let's start with the biggest highlight of this record that will grip you right out of the gate: FKA Twigs herself. Holy shit, I have not heard an R&B singer with this much control, poise, and sheer talent on a record in a while, and for once the production doesn't feel the need to drown her in reverb or oversell her presence - the mix is expansive, and FKA Twigs makes use of all of it to create an intimate, potent atmosphere. I think what impressed me most about her voice was her versatility as a performer: you'd expect with her breathless Mariah Carey and Aaliyah-inspired coos, she'd play more of the fragile vulnerable songstress, but there's a quiet strength, sexual maturity and presence to her material that impresses me so much more than Beyonce's straightforward dominance. And whenever the mix and production stays out of the way, FKA Twigs delivers some jawdropping vocal performances, flitting from intimate R&B to gentle hymn-like gospel swell, like on the opening track 'Preface', the reverb-heavy 'Closer' or when sings over a fragment of an old Air Supply melody on 'Two Weeks'.

It definitely helps matters that FKA Twigs is actually a pretty solid songwriter too, which takes us to lyrics and themes. While you can definitely tell she doesn't quite have a firm grasp on some technical lyricism yet - there are a few too many lyrics that strike me as clumsy even when delivered well - the ideas behind the majority of these tunes do a fair bit to make them stand out. And as I mentioned earlier, many of them feature sex in some capacity as an extended metaphor for deeper subjects. So while 'Lights On' recalls one of Kanye West's most legendary lines from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, here FKA Twigs uses it as a challenge to men to handle their egos and be willing to display that sort of affection and consequent vulnerability in public. That challenge to men to be worthy of mindblowing sex - which FKA Twigs makes work because, well, the music backs up her assertions credibly - comes up again on 'Two Weeks', which is more straightforward dominance by inverting sexual imagery of penetration, and the determination to fix a relationship through sexual satisfaction on 'Give Up'. Hell, that dominant attitude continues onto the final track 'Kicks', a song that shows she's just as capable of satisfying herself when he's not around just like he does. And yet she doesn't hesitate to invert the dynamic, showing the real internal drama on the troubled song 'Pendulum', the angry and yet desperate pleas of 'Numbers', and the gentle pleas of 'Closer'. Now this might seem to present a contradiction, but it's the songs that aren't explicitly about sex that do the most to highlight FKA Twigs outside of her relationships, the best one being 'Video Girl', a song commenting on her time working as a back-up dancer and becoming extremely successful and now wanting to break away from that image for her art. And yet it's a part of herself she can't escape even as she tries, even trying to believe the lie she's told herself. It speaks to themes of seeking control, and yet like the pendulum shifting back and forth in her relationships, it's not something she can always attain. And in the end, the only thing she has solid control of is her own pleasure - and honestly, that might just be enough.

So if I have this much positive to say about her lyrics and themes, where does this album slip for me? Honestly, a lot of it comes in the instrumentation, which I'd describe as somewhere between the glitchy yet expansive sound of that last Hundred Waters record, and the soulful, more understated sounds of Rhye. And you know, I can't help but feel this record would have been a lot better if they stuck to the latter than the former. Many of the songs on this record would have simply been better if they had stuck with the vocals, the scratchy, jagged percussion and beats, and the occasional synth melody - but too often, the tracks feel overloaded with elements that do not compliment the overall song. The flat guitar tone on the cropping up through 'Lights On', that ear-piercing synth that opens 'Video Girl' that's absolutely intolerable, and the clunky tinging bells that punctuate 'Numbers', they feel like elements that could have worked in the right mix, but they really don't compliment FKA Twigs' voice, even if it's chopped and sampled as much as they can. And really, that's the other problem: when you have a singer as good as FKA Twigs and a mix this expansive and electronic, you're inevitably going to run into awkward vocal effects or pitch-shifting and it rarely sounds good. The best possible example is the heavy reverb on 'Closer', but that song features that ever-so-delightful chipmunk voice effect that is just audio poison on the song for me. It crops up on 'Kicks' too, knocking back two songs I otherwise really like for some impressive and memorable synth lines and melodies. And that's the thing: there are great instrumental moments on this album: I liked the dark swell of 'Two Weeks', one of the few examples of that brand of pitch-shifting actually working, I loved the rich harmonies and clattering percussion on 'Pendulum', and I liked the ghostly keys and almost trap-inspired R&B vibe of 'Give Up'. But it frequently feels that the production is getting in the way of the songs' natural sound, especially in the vocals - they work fine on their own, they don't need that additional glitchy sound, especially when it occasionally sounds forced or tacked on.

But in the end, those complaints are pretty minor, because the more I've listened to LP1 by FKA Twigs, the more it has stuck with me as a damn strong record. Let me put it like this: when I'm trying as hard as I can to ignore the annoying effects to focus on the moments that are just gorgeous and thought-provoking, you've got something special here. And yet I can't really ignore those moments, or the songwriting that could use just a little more lyrical detail or weighty moments, which means for me, this record is a strong 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. Folks, this year we've seen all manner of R&B and soul-inspired acts rise to the forefront, especially in the mainstream, but FKA Twigs is one of the best. Check her out.

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