Tuesday, August 5, 2014

album review: 'welcome to the jungle' by neon jungle

It's been a while since I've talked about pop girl groups, so let's revisit those again.

As I've said in the past, most girl groups don't tend to be my thing - I'm not saying I don't have a certain amount of appreciation for the roles acts like TLC or the Spice Girls played in modern pop, but they aren't usually my thing. Hell, the reason I like Girls Aloud as much as I do is more for pretty solid songwriting and great production courtesy of Xenomania more than their actual performances themselves. 

But one thing I've noticed over the past fifteen or so years is that girls groups don't so much define the pop landscape as they adapt to what is popular, especially if we're looking at groups originating in the UK. The Spice Girls rode the high-energy plastic dance pop trend throughout the 90s, Destiny's Child coasted on the path TLC already created and throughout the R&B boom of the early 2000s, and the Pussycat Dolls were the concoction of a marketing team that focused on image above all else, looked at the sleazier music of the mid-to-late 2000s and thought, "Hey, how can we make it that much worse?"

And it looks like similar trends are continuing with our current crop of British girl groups. Little Mix moved more towards R&B with their album Salute and while they haven't really gotten the chart success they deserve in the US, it's only a matter of time before the current neo-soul shift snags some of their material. Fifth Harmony, on the other hand, seems to be going for the percussion-heavy hip-hop-inspired pop with their recent single 'Bo$$', a song that I'll deal with whenever they drop that next album, because there's definitely a lot to talk about there.

The third group is Neon Jungle, the newest and arguably the girl group with the least buzz on this side of the Atlantic, one that I discovered by accident on iTunes when buying that self-titled Jungle record that I covered last week. And unlike their competition, Neon Jungle seemed to be going more along the lines of the Spice Girls by appropriating modern EDM trends for their debut album, Welcome To The Jungle. So out of curiosity, I bought the album and gave it a couple of listens: how is it?

Eh, it's okay. I wouldn't quite say it's stellar or an essential listen, but as a pop record, I've definitely heard worse. At the same time, though, there aren't many things that make Welcome To The Jungle by Neon Jungle really stand out for me, both good and bad, and I'm not sure the things that do stand out do enough to elevate this record.

So let's start with the girls themselves, all who have distinctive voices and a unique sound and who are mostly passable singers with the help of the occasional bit of pitch correction. For me, the most interesting singers are Asami with her richer, almost folk-inspired lower range and Amira's more sultry delivery, but all four of them are solid enough singers - and thus it baffles me why they don't harmonize together more or opt for more complicated vocal arrangements. Hell, there are only a few songs where they sing as a unified group, as they seem more concerned with oddly placed bragging rap breakdowns that I wouldn't say are badly written or delivered poorly, but aren't exactly memorable beyond typical luxury rap. And honestly, that's the same thing I'd say about all of the singers here - they aren't bad, but I'm not seeing a lot from bringing the four of them together that I couldn't hear from any one pop starlet.

Granted, the instrumentation and production don't exactly help here. Most of the production is handled by Europop producers of whom don't exactly bring a hugely unique sound to the table beyond admittedly solid technical skills in creating an expansive, slightly percussion-heavy mix. And to Neon Jungle's credit, they can hold their own in pop songs like this, and there are few moments when overproduction really gets in the way. And that's not saying there aren't some moments on this record that are solid: I liked the heavier, sharper synth on 'Braveheart', the Lady Gaga-esque synths and vocal lines on the verses of the title track, the propulsive, punchy energy of 'Trouble', the ghostly pianos on 'Waiting Game', and the dramatic strings on 'Fool Me'. What becomes decidedly odd about the instrumentation on this record is the production between reverb saturated, downkey ballads like 'Louder', 'Sleepless In London', and 'Waiting Game' and the rest of the upbeat dancepop - because if you dig into the electronic elements, many of the synth and percussion tones are pretty similar and surprisingly cohesive with the exception of the oddly layered 'Sleepless In London'. Now granted, I can't say the melodic progressions really gripped me beyond typical electro-pop - the usual problem with percussion-heavy pop music in this vein - or that there weren't synth tones that annoyed me like on 'So Alive', but I'm not going to deny the instrumentation works if you're just looking to dance.

But where this record struggles most would probably come in the lyrics, in that they're less bad but more overwritten and not all that interesting. Now don't get me wrong, there are moments of nuance that make a couple tracks worthwhile in a shallow, pop vein, like the reckless, nightlife-inspired 'Trouble'. Hell, 'Louder' works as a pretty solid if completely hyperbolic 'party-the-pain-away' song and 'Waiting Game' guns for the complicated dynamic when there's physical satisfaction in a relationship but little else. But for the most part, the songs are typical 'love on the dance floor' jams that use their references a little too clumsily to be ignored. Maybe it's just me, but discovering the opening track 'Braveheart' had nothing to do with the Mel Gibson movie was a little exasperating, and 'Welcome To The Jungle' steals a title from a classic Guns N' Roses song and outside of tropical imagery doesn't exactly do much with it. Hell, 'Bad Man' tries to play to the empowerment anthem and then anchors it by saying they walk like a 'bad man' - I get the assertion of arrogance and power, but it's really an odd term to be stated outright - do most girl want to walk like bad men? 'Fool Me' gets even worse asserting that they 'don't want to learn their lesson / so they keep making the same mistakes', which would be fine if the framing of the song wasn't plainly trying to glorify a crazy relationship or show it as such a reckless adventure. And then there's 'Can't Stop The Love'... and, look, I get the sentiment behind the song, trying to craft a 'love will fix all' anthem in the vein of 'Where Is The Love' by The Black Eyed Peas - and honestly, it's got the same problems as that song has, because it's so shallow and broad that it becomes hard to take seriously, especially considering the rest of the album. And yeah, Snob Scrilla isn't bad on his verse about racial profiling, but it feels like it's from an entirely different song and can't help but feel out-of-place on this record.

Because look, there's a limit to how much I can really criticize about an album that's plainly more intended for dancing at clubs or house parties, where lyrics don't nearly matter as much even by the standards of pop - and you have to judge it on that standard. And sure, there's enough solid crescendos and beats to make this album passable and actually pretty well produced. But outside of some interesting vocals and the occasional lyric that shows a little more nuance, I don't get a lot out of this record and it really does not stand out even against modern dance-pop. And without many standout vocal performances or harmonies or interesting melodic progressions or gripping lyrics, this album doesn't do much for me. In the end, I do think it is passable and has no real duds, so I'm giving it a very cautious 6/10 and a tentative recommendation, but in a pop climate where we already have multiple girl groups coming out of the UK, I'm not sure Neon Jungle brings enough new to the table to really stand out.

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