Wednesday, February 4, 2015

album review: 'reflection' by fifth harmony

Let's talk a little bit about competition in music.

In some cases, it's been there since certain genres' inception - hip-hop wouldn't be the same without various MCs fighting for the crown. And since the beginning of rock, there have been beefs and fights, sometimes more driven by the fans of their respective bands more than the bands themselves. Or you'll get cases like the incredibly ridiculous 'beef' between Sun Kil Moon and The War On Drugs last year, two indie acts where it seemed like the music media hyped up the feud more than Mark Kozelek actually did, who treated the whole thing with the grumpy tongue-in-cheek style for which he's famous.

But if you want to look for the definition of contrived competition, you need to look no further than pop music. It's been around in some form or another for decades, but you need to look no further than the 'fight' between the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync to see the insane marketing genius at work. Both had similar management, both worked with similar songwriters, both had songs that could be mistaken for the other if you didn't have a keen ear for the subtleties, and in both cases, the management milked the competition to drive up sales in the late 90s for all it was worth.

And ever since then, various record labels have tried to recreate this lucrative strategy... and yet it rarely clicks, mostly because getting that dual balance and timing is incredibly difficult. It seemed like there'd be another one starting with The Wanted and One Direction in 2012, but The Wanted couldn't stick the landing stateside - a shame, because I liked their style and sound a lot more - and One Direction won out under the direction of Simon Cowell's Syco Records. And yet you can tell Simon Cowell wanted to replicate the money-printing boy band war, and for a second in 2013 it started to look like he had set the pieces in place for a girl group duality, both signed to his label. One was British, one was American, both came from X Factor... and yet the timing misfired. Not only did Little Mix hit market first, they dropped two albums - the second of which, Salute, I actually liked a fair bit. But I had significantly bigger misgivings about their American competition, because while Fifth Harmony managed to drop and make more of an impact in the States, they barely could penetrate beyond it and their debut album had been delayed time and time again - mostly because their singles were a lot less interesting or good. Undaunted, I figured I might as well give Fifth Harmony a chance to impress me in the same way Little Mix did - did they come through?

Well, no, not at all. And unlike previous Syco Records problems, I can't just point at the production and say that's the problem and walk away. Nope, Fifth Harmony have much bigger issues across the board, and this leads to a debut that's both underwhelming and yet surprisingly easy to make really bad jokes about. I'm going to try to restrain my snarkier tendency and be fair, but fair warning, some of these lyrics... well, we'll get to it.

So let's start with our five ladies - and I wish I could say they all have roughly equivalent talent and pipes... but yeah, while I might be able to tell all of them apart, the weak links are also pretty apparent. Lauren and Normani are the consistent standouts for me, and Dinah's not far behind. Hell, even Ally's got a pretty solid lower range that had some soul and if the producers knew what the hell they were doing she'd likely sound pretty good. But the one whom shows the most glaring weaknesses is Camilla - she's got energy, but she badly needs more classical conditioning and training, because her moments of going sharp are pretty blatant. Granted, eighty percent of this band are still teenagers and probably deserve to be cut a little slack against Little Mix, who are all older and sound a lot more conditioned and professional, but I'm not denying that Fifth Harmony do have potential - hell, the final track 'We Know', a more a capella-inspired breakup song we know allows them to harmonize more and it's easily the standout song on the album. 

But a lot of it is handicapped by problems in production and instrumentation, the most glaring being on the vocals. I was going to repeat what I usually say, how R&B-flavoured pop girl groups should never need obvious autotune, especially if they're calling back to groups like TLC and Destiny's Child, but there are moments where the pitch correction is turned back and the inexperience is glaring through, so I get why it's there. What I don't get is the approach to the instrumentation, mostly because it doesn't compliment anything on these tracks. Like most modern pop, the percussion is cranked up, but then instead of synths they threw in blaring horns, which makes the tracks clatter and rattle with little smooth momentum or potent groove, to say nothing of melody. And sure, 'Competition' was the best track from Little Mix's Salute, but the piano drove the melody on that song more than the horns, and trying to rip it off in the most inelegant ways possible doesn't do your album any favours. And speaking of rip-offs, I could speak on how 'Everlasting Love' is trying desperately to be 'Right There' by Ariana Grande, but the real problem is 'Like Mariah', written and produced by JR Rotem and of course featuring a blatantly obvious sample. The problem is that the sample is of Mariah Carey's 'Always Be My Baby' - and let me all state this definitively: if you're going to be moronic enough to sample Mariah Carey, don't ever sample a snippet of her vocals in the background, because I'm immediately going to tune out and focus more on how I'd much rather listen to Mariah than any of these girls, none of which are on her level. Now to be fair, there are instrumental moments I don't mind - the drum progression on the chorus of 'Sledgehammer' is the highlight of the song, 'This Is How We Roll' had a pretty damn good chorus before a Black-Eyed Peas 'Dirty Bit' inspired change-up for the chorus that knocks this below Florida Georgia Line's song with the same title, I liked the bouncy Jamaican-flavour of 'Them Girls Be Like' - but outside of that most of this album is attempting to jump on the minimalist flavour analogous to DJ Mustard, except none of the synth tone choices are anywhere close to being as good.

But now we get to the lyrics - and look, Fifth Harmony didn't write any of these songs, I'm not blaming the band for bad songwriting. But wow, when I can find this many lyrics that are bad or at least plainly easy to make fun of within one listen of a song, we've got a big problem. The key thing to note here is that the primary theme behind the majority of this material is pretty single-minded - it's broadly sketched, girl-power anthems, all about bragging about being awesome. And let me make it clear that I'm not criticizing the choice of theme here - if you want to make an album full of shallow pump-up material, there's nothing wrong with that - and hell, you can look at albums like the Blind Guardian record I covered yesterday as falling into a similar power fantasy role. My problem is in the execution, and it starts with the technical songwriting. I don't know if the writers just didn't care, but the number of flubbed or forced rhymes, clumsy meter, and lyrics that just went nowhere or made less sense the second you started thinking about them. For instance on 'Bo$$', putting aside how the songwriters thought the best thing they could have Fifth Harmony do with namedropping Michelle Obama and Oprah is brag about spending money, they say they want a Kanye and not a Ray J, and do I even need to go into all the terrible bars that Kanye has had surrounding women? Or the following bar saying she's a 'Maybach not a Volvo' - what, incredibly overpriced and barely functional? Or on 'This Is How We Roll' with writing courtesy of Dr. Luke and Cirkut, where they talk about they're making it clap but they 'don't need hands for that' - lovely, just another song where an incredibly thin party song basically boils down to Fifth Harmony singing about their butts. 

But when the songs attempt to get more complicated that they really run into problems, like on 'Them Girls Be Like', which starts off trying to slam girls who are too vain, and yet then spins around to play the empowerment anthem because they're really just like them. I can see the attempt at satire here, but it's not framed properly because at the end of the day, Fifth Harmony are still bragging about being more popular and getting more likes on Instagram with no self-awareness. Or take the title track, which is all about blowing off some arrogant asshole by paying him lots of compliments and then saying that they're directing them all to their own reflection. Cute premise, but in your second verse where they then start complaining about a tight dress and uncomfortable shoes which they put on all for this guy - and then by spending the chorus basically staring in the mirror glorifying it and trying to make all seem empowering, at the very least you come across just as vain and self-obsessed. Even the more straightforward love songs stumble, like on 'Everlasting Love', which seems like your standard head-over-heels crush until you realize in the bridge that they don't even know the guy's name or know him at all and you're already proposing everlasting love? The one song that did something a little outside of the girl group formula was 'Suga Mama', which is basically telling the guy to get a job already if they're going to be together so she doesn't have to pay for everything all the time - fine enough sentiment, but compared with the plain adolescent sentiment of the rest of the record, it doesn't ring nearly as strongly as it should. And speaking of lack of impact, Tyga and Kid Ink contribute verses to this album, and outside of Tyga calling himself T-Raw and inspiring hysterical laughter from me, nothing they say is worth remembering.

At the end of the day, look, I get that Fifth Harmony is plainly not intended for me - but even by the standards of music intended for teenage girls, it's painfully thin, lacking the pipes and charisma of Ariana Grande, the personality and fire of a Beyonce or Nicki Minaj, the lyricism of Lucy Hale or more recent Taylor Swift, or the broader universality of Meghan Trainor. Coupled with the much sloppier writing, weak production, and vocals that need additional training and work... I'm sorry, it's a 4/10 and I can't recommend this. I'd say that they'd be worth checking out if you're looking for a girl group, but given we already have two records from Little Mix that are both better than this, I'd stick with those.

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