Friday, January 9, 2015

album review: 'title' by meghan trainor

You know, outside of Billboard BREAKDOWN, I've never really talked at length about Meghan Trainor in any capacity. And considering her very recent pop culture ubiquity - and controversy - that's a little surprising. And part of me wonders why I'm even reviewing this record, mostly because from every single Trainor has released, there's been one message emblazoned across her music: namely, that it's not for me.

And yet, one of my goals this year is to delve more deeply into music outside of my comfort zone, so let's actually talk a bit about the woman behind the music. Believe it or not, even though Title is advertised as Meghan Trainor's debut album, she actually released three acoustic records while she was at Berklee, where she later dropped out to pursue her dreams as a songwriter. She eventually wound up in Nashville where she was writing songs for - and when I discovered this, I wasn't surprised in the slightest - Dan + Shay, Hunter Hayes, and Rascal Flatts. Note that these are all country artists - and more importantly, they're pop country that produce some of the most polished, safe music imaginable. More on this in a bit, but it was in Nashville she met Kevin Kadish, wrote 'All About That Bass', and the rest is history.

And let's make this clear, the success of Meghan Trainor has been meteoric - but again, I'm not surprised. 'All About That Bass' was being pushed to an under-served demographic and sounded like little else on the radio, of course it was going to do well, especially considering how non-threatening it is, but at the same time it wasn't exactly anything that got me interested in hearing more Meghan Trainor. Now that's not saying I don't like retro doo-wop or jazz or even bubblegum pop - you're talking about a guy who owns multiple S Club 7 albums - but for as much as Meghan Trainor's music prompted discussion and controversy for the lyrics, the music itself had never really interested me.

But I figured that I probably wasn't getting the whole picture, so I picked up her major label debut album Title and took a listen - what did we get?

Honestly, it's okay. I wouldn't call this album great, or even good - keeping in mind that I'm clearly not the intended audience - but it's definitely a major label debut that shows some real shortcomings for Meghan Trainor pretty much across the board. It's not a bad record, let me stress this, but it is a very 'safe' record, at in terms of its presentation if not its content. As such, it doesn't really interest me all that much, but I can definitely see its appeal.

So let's start with Meghan Trainor herself - and I'll give her this, she does have talent. You can tell she's had classical training, especially in setting up the harmonies you really don't hear enough of on this album, and she's clearly got charisma and poise, but what I probably appreciated from her is a certain feisty edge. From some of her singles, I originally got the impression that she didn't have much range beyond a brand of sass that could tread into obnoxiousness, and while that's true on a few songs, she does have more emotional range here and I definitely liked that. And yet, the rapping is, well... okay, you know how so many people find Iggy Azalea's southern accent fake and put-on and I was at least willing to give her the benefit of the doubt considering she lived in Miami and was mentored by T.I.? Yeah, Meghan Trainor doesn't even have those non-excuses, and thus the points when she tries to rap is both unconvincing and just as questionable.

Now granted, part of this springs from the overall presentation of the album, and I'll just get straight to the point here: Meghan Trainor's Title is, stereotypically, one of the whitest albums I've ever heard. It's defiantly uncool, aggressively chipper, and completely without any sort of edge, far closer to easy listening than adult alternative, if you catch my drift. It's why when I heard she was writing for Rascal Flatts, Dan + Shay, and Hunter Hayes that I wasn't surprised in the slightest, because they all make the same sort of music. For as much as 'All About That Bass' has been analyzed to death and back - for me, it's a song that had good intentions but seriously stumbles in execution and really could have used more actual 'bass' - the one line that really struck me was 'you know I won't be no stick figure silicone Barbie doll'. It's kind of amusing to me because it's been a while since I've heard an album this plastic, especially considering its major influences. Now don't get me wrong, there are instrumental moments I liked: the doo-wop elements were a nice touch even if they felt a little underdeveloped, the fragments of organ, horns and steel drums added some welcome texture, and while the melodies are pretty simple and could have used more variety, they do fit the style. But the production... well, let's just say you can tell there was a limited budget here, even for pop music, because the moments of obvious pitch correction and pitch-shifted vocals do not fit the atmosphere at all. If the album is trying to go for a retro sound, while the production does have the very polished, clean feel, it can't help but feel a little stiff, particularly thanks to the drum machines. It's part of much of the same problem that most pop has in focusing on percussion over melody, and while Meghan Trainor is a little better in emphasizing groove, I can't help but feel that switching up the melodies a little more could have helped more songs stand out. For me, the best tracks are where she does pull in more melody like the John Legend collaboration 'Like I'm Gonna Lose you' or the strings accents on 'What If I' - both are some good songs, and they have a lot of old-school charm.

But now we need to come to the songwriting - and once again, I get it, this album is not intended for me, and I wholeheartedly expect some of the writing on songs like 'All About That Bass' or 'Close Your Eyes' will likely resonate more strongly with other audiences. And I've already gone on before in Billboard BREAKDOWN about the repetition of themes and words in 'Lips Are Moving' and 'Title', and the obnoxiousness of 'Dear Future Husband', easily the worst track on the album. And I still think there are elements of clumsiness in the songwriting that are hard to overlook - 'Bang Dem Sticks' is apparently a song idolizing drummers, and I'd be hard-pressed to hear organic drumming anywhere on this album. But putting nitpicking aside, there are moments of songwriting I did like. For as much as Meghan Trainor shows off her sassy side - the best examples probably being 'Lips Are Movin', which has grown on me a bit, and 'Walkofshame', the latter being a decent enough shot at ignoring the haters that might not be as good as 'Hangover' by Ke$ha or 'Daylight & Dark' by Jason Eady or 'Shame' by Freddie Gibbs, but it is better than Pink's 'Walk Of Shame' - I liked her more emotive side too. The yearning of 'Like I'm Gonna Lose You' and 'What If I' felt vulnerable and sincere in a way that does a lot to humanize Meghan Trainor, and they didn't feel as clumsy either.

But here's the thing - the moments where the songwriting doesn't work on this album really are distracting, especially considering the rationale behind the majority of this album is to be an inspiration to girls going through similar situations. And while the 'skinny bitches' line in 'All About That Bass' is off-message, the one that really struck me was 'like I'm supposed to do' - maybe it's just me, but isn't the point behind body-positive feminism that it's inclusive and you're doing it to feel better about yourself for yourself, not for dumbass guys like yours truly? And while I can get behind pitching jackasses to the curb on 'Lips Are Movin', the cutesy but smug demands of 'Dear Future Husband' or some of the questionable lyrics on the bridge of 'Title' are a lot harder for me to like. And while there are points on this album that are more humanizing and add nuance to the picture, there are tracks on this album that do feel a little self-serving - and sure, we're all entitled to those moments, but it does feel a little off-message when you wrap it into an empowerment statement, especially one that doesn't exactly take a lot of chances.

So in the end... man, I'm torn on this. On the one hand, I get that this album isn't for me and will probably resonate more strongly with its target audience - but on the other hand, there are problems in terms of the production, songwriting, and presentation that go beyond it just being not for me. There are points that just feel more unrefined than they should, but it is a debut album that was clearly rushed out to capitalize on her viral success - but then again, that's not an excuse, either. So for me, it's a very strong 5/10, but I do recommend it if you're more in her target audience. Otherwise... eh, if you're curious and not tired of 'All About That Bass', give it a listen, but otherwise you won't be missing much.

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