Tuesday, September 9, 2014

album review: 'goddess' by banks

So over a month ago when I reviewed the debut album from UK girl group Neon Jungle, there was one song in particular that stood out in terms of its production and placement on this album: an eerie, reverb-punctuated song called 'Waiting Game' that had well-framed lyrics and context that could back up the heady drama of the track. It was an interesting shift for Neon Jungle, and I liked the song's inclusion... but it wasn't long before everyone informed me that I couldn't really give full credit to that band.

No, more credit belonged to Jillian Banks, often going by her surname as her stagename and who was the American R&B singer-songwriter who originally wrote and performed that song. So I checked out that version and honestly it might be even better, concentrating the emotion on one performer and heightening that sense of intimacy across the track. So you can bet I was curious to check out that debut album when it dropped, a composite record composed of tracks from her first two EPs and new material. Which... okay, not exactly a good sign in terms of album cohesion, but surely the album would come together somewhat, right?

Honestly, not as well as I was hoping for, because Goddess by Banks, while by no means bad, isn't exactly gripping, at least not as gripping as I was hoping. It's a bit of a shame, too, given some of the hype behind Banks as a potential American counterpart to FKA Twigs and her incredibly solid debut LP1, but the more I listened through Goddess, the more I realized that there really isn't a lot here to sustain a record that comes across too underwritten for its length and too overproduced to really flatter its singer. And when you realize that most of the album falls into very conventional indie R&B territory for subject matter and sound, you get an album that's unfortunately a lot less interesting than initially expected.

So let's start with Banks herself... and honestly, I'm a little conflicted about her. She's not the most breath-taking R&B singer to step up to the microphone in terms of range or vocal ability, but I can't deny that there are plenty of points on this album where she does nail the quieter, more vulnerable emotional beats pretty damn well. Her voice comes across as less directly soulful and more the huskier delivery of a singer-songwriter that might come from indie folk, which mostly means that Banks tends to stay a lot more in her mid-range. Which is both good and bad: good because she never sounds uncomfortable singing on this record, but she also never creates any real dramatic crescendos through her vocals either to enhance the drama. But that's a real peculiarity about Banks' delivery: considering the dramatic situations she sings about, her delivery doesn't exactly show a lot of dramatic investment because she can sound detached or separate from the situation. It doesn't help matters that she can occasionally drop towards baby-voiced cooing and having her words mush together, which just is not flattering.

Granted, the production doesn't exactly help her here. Banks brought together a selection of up-and-coming indie R&B producers to help with this record, but its compilation nature from the EPs do render it a hodgepodge instrumentally, lacking a lot of cohesion. And this inconsistency leads to an album with hits and misses: the gospel-inspired pseudo-gothic and gorgeous swell of 'Waiting Game' balanced against the inert, flat synth backdrop of 'Alibi', the interweaving keyboard melodies and distant echoing drums of 'Brains' against the messy mix of 'Fuck Em Only We Know' that reminds me more than it should of that gutless Keane song from 2009 that was trying to be the Goo Goo Dolls and failing. And like most indie R&B, it relies too much on percussion and hazy ambient mood over melodies - a real problem when Banks doesn't show as much investment as she should - and the mix frequently feels overstuffed with synth effects, pitch shifting and electronic pieces that only add distraction to the atmosphere. It's telling that when Banks steps towards a stripped back presentation like on the piano ballad 'You Should Know Where I'm Coming From' or the lonely acoustic love song 'Someone New', they feel a little more authentic. Although part of the issue might be the tempo of this record - it's already almost an hour long at 14 tracks, but the glacial pace of some tracks makes it feel even longer, especially when they can't back up that pace, and it makes tracks with a more definitive energy like 'Beggin For Thread' or 'Brain' stand out all the more.

But of course, we need to talk about lyrics... and look, it's an R&B album - I've come to not expect much lyrically. And unsurprisingly, I didn't get much lyrically, in terms of wordplay or content. On a technical basis, Banks' form of songwriting is somewhat unique, composed of sentences that run together ignoring most rhyming meters entirely, but there are points when it can work. But the larger issue is that her poetry is nothing all that special in terms of setting her scenes, especially on her ballads where she can step towards maudlin high school territory, especially on 'You Should Know Where I'm Coming From', a song warning away guys because she's so damaged. And from there, most of her songs fall into archetypal R&B relationship songs: the hookup and 'love' tracks on 'Stick', 'Fuck Em Only We Know', 'Warm Water', and 'Under The Table', and the troubled relationship tracks of 'Alibi', 'Waiting Game', 'This Is What It Feels Like', 'Drowning', 'Beggin For Thread', and 'Change'. 

Now to be fair, where Banks' songwriting tends to work is in some of the framing: on 'Change' and 'Drowning', she creates very stark, detailed pictures of the douchebags in the relationships and the righteous smackdown they get feels very earned, while both 'Waiting Game' and 'Beggin For Thread' frame their vulnerability and flaws. And her songs not directly tied to relationships can be just as good: 'Brain' is a challenge to a guy to stop overthinking his actions and yet not to be afraid of coming across as intelligent, which really is more of a strength than he might realize. And then there's 'Someone New', a slower love song to a man she had to leave behind when she went on tour and assurances that she is coming back. On the reverse of those songs, however, is 'Alibi', the opener and by far the worst track on the album because it tries to go for an apology and for her boyfriend to convince her she's not a monster, and then it includes the line, 'You turned me into this'. Bit of a mixed message there, and it really looks like Banks is deflecting for no good reason. But really, the lyrics aren't so much bad as they can feel interchangeable at points, lacking real highlights, even though there is variety in the framing and situations described.

And that's honestly where I fall on Goddess. It's not so much a bad album as one overloaded with unnecessary elements that aren't needed. And while I'm definitely not sold on Banks as a frontwoman, I think it could have helped a bit more if the production had more energy and melody or the lyrics had more creativity or at the album at least tried to stand out more from the crowd. Even though it is playing for more of a radio-friendly template, it pales in comparison to LP1 from FKA Twigs, a glitchier, tighter record with a much more potent singer whose humanity was underscored with every bit of texture. Goddess is much like its titular figure: pretty, untouchable, ethereal, and much more difficult to connect with on any level. For me, a light 6/10 and a very cautious recommendation seems fair, and if you're into this brand of R&B, give it a listen. Otherwise, there's no shortage of other R&B, and Banks doesn't exactly stand out.

No comments:

Post a Comment