Tuesday, March 17, 2015

album review: 'froot' by marina and the diamonds

This might be my most requested record ever. Not the new Kendrick Lamar, not the new Modest Mouse or Of Montreal or AWOLNATION, this album. And I want to make this clear: I've been getting requests to cover Marina and the Diamonds since 2013 back when I started this channel. This has been a pop act I have been so inundated with requests that I talk about that it's been a struggle for me not to immediately drop into backlash mode. Because let's be blunt: when I get this many requests for an album, it's either massively popular - in this case it's not - it's incredibly good - that needed to be seen - or it's massively overrated with a diehard fanbase that won't stop even when I've said I'll cover it multiple times.

So now that time has come: Marina and the Diamonds, not a band but the solo project of Marina Diamandis, English pop singer-songwriter who made her big debut in 2010 with The Family Jewels. And as a debut in an era where UK pop was finally starting to make a splash stateside, it was a wildly varied, genuinely interesting pop album that crossed a lot of styles, featured Marina's unique vocal range, and had some genuinely intelligent lyrics. A lot of critics made comparisons of her as a cross between Lady Gaga and Kesha, but I'd argue there's a much easier comparison point in sound and style: Natalia Kills, but while Kills was more driven by icy hip-hop styles, Marina was more inspired by the garish, more theatrical indie baroque pop scene of the late-2000s from acts like mid-period Sia and Lily Allen. But the Natalia Kills comparison works - they're both playing a similar blend of rough-edged glam, they both have a theatrical presence in lyrics and delivery, and they both were better writers than your average pop starlet.

But here's the thing: Natalia Kills stuck to her guns, and even though her sophomore album Trouble sold terribly it was still an improvement across the board and probably an album I underrated when I first reviewed it. Marina and the Diamonds, on the other hand, got on board with Dr. Luke, Cirkut, Diplo, and Greg Kurstin and suddenly all of the personality and lyrical flavor I liked about her seemed to evaporate. Sure, the femme fatale persona could have worked, she's got the voice for it, but the self-awareness in the songwriting and the painfully generic electropop production did nothing for it. Yeah, there were moments that clawed back some of that personality, but not enough to save Electra Heart from being painfully generic for me.

So I'll admit to being a little interested when I heard that her newest album FROOT was going to be pitching all of the big name producers for something much more self-controlled with only a single producer besides Marina working on it. Would this mean more of her unique personality and songwriting skill returning to the forefront?

Well, I’ve got good news and bad news on this front. The good news is that, yes, this album definitely feels a lot more like a Marina and the Diamonds album in terms of its writing and it doesn’t nearly feel as homogenous and forgettable as Electra Heart. But the bad news is that even despite regaining some of the spark, the shift in focus on this album instrumentally and thematically means that it’s not connecting nearly as strongly as I’d like. In other words, it’s a solid enough pop album, but it doesn’t quite have the same energy or originality of The Family Jewels and while it might have been the album Marina needed to make, it’s not one that really sticks with me as much as I’d like.

So why is that? Well, let’s start with Marina’s performance. I’ve found her evolution as a performer kind of fascinating, because it seems with every album after her theatrical debut she’s opted for more and more restraint in her delivery, aiming to be more subtle. And while the sloppy autotune and vocal production masked those moments on Electra Heart, we get a fair bit more of it here. And while you definitely need it to pull off some of these songs, some of the more basic pop songs could have used a little more of that bombast. Sure, we get the occasional vocal run, but the swap of autotune with thicker reverb only mutes that spark of wild energy even further.

And frustratingly, some of that runs into the instrumentation and production too. Now let me stress that the slicker, nu-disco grooves and reverb-saturated beats that Marina chooses to work with on this album are a preferable choice to the rougher, electropop that Dr. Luke gave her – the smoother textures match her voice a lot better, especially when she’s playing more of the elegant, femme fatale role. But what surprises me is that more of the baroque and chamber pop elements don’t come back on this record, which leads a lot of the instrumentation not exactly having a lot of unique character in comparison with most percussion-over-melody modern pop. Coupled with the slower tempos on the majority of these tracks, it doesn’t exactly lead to as many memorable moments or grooves on this album instrumentally. Now granted, Marina can still write a catchy as hell pop song, and there are some stand-out moments here, usually when she adds a little more texture courtesy of a guitar: the mid-tempo pop rock of ‘Weeds’ with the washed-out guitar solo, the more aggressive and melodic grooves of ‘Better Than That’ and ‘Forget’, or the darker, more symphonic synthpop of ‘Savages’.

But the songwriting has always been one of the elements that’s drawn me to Marina and the Diamonds, so what do we get here? Well, the first thing to note is that there is something of two underlying themes to this record, and a change in focus to a more inward-looking picture. The first thematic element is a break-up, but unlike most records in this vein, it becomes very clear Marina had to do the dumping, which does present a different picture and to her credit she does a fair enough job capturing the complicated emotions that come in letting someone go that you still have some vestigial feelings for but know that it has to end. And the best thing possible to make this work is the return of Marina’s self-aware writing and good framing – songs like ‘I’m A Ruin’ walk a fine line in the line of ‘dumping tracks’, and while I don’t like the implication she was doing things ‘she shouldn’t do’ in the meantime, it mostly works. Granted, it’s the definition of mixed signals when you follow that track with ‘Blue’ which is a hook-up track with said ex for all the wrong reasons – which at least she recognizes, but still. In any case, eventually the arc of the album allows her to put her feelings to bed, get comfortable with being on her own, and yet still feel frustration when he makes bad hook-up decisions on songs like ‘Better Than That’ – she knows it’s not her place, but it’s hard to watch regardless, especially if feelings are resurfacing on tracks like ‘Weeds’.

So if that dramatic arc mostly works, where’s the problem? Well, that’s only about half the album, the other half being a lot more scattershot. The album opens with the slow burn ‘Happy’ where she seems to have found inner contentment – strong implications it’s a divine figure in the song too, and that’s fine enough – but the following tracks don’t really follow in that vein and present a complimentary picture. Hell, at this point I’m having a hard time getting a firm picture of Marina at all off of FROOT – which might have been part of the point of ‘Can’t Pin Me Down’, her feminist anthem coyly trying to pretend otherwise, implying that women are complicated and have more layers. The problem here is that the various elements and layers of her persona don’t all mesh together – the cooing sex kitten of the title track, the austere recluse of ‘Solitaire’, the outright nihilist of ‘Savages’, the vulnerable romantic of ‘Immortal’ hoping to preserve her love forever. And when you compare all of those songs to the defined maturity in the break-up arc, the pieces don’t add up, and when you add the layer of theatricality, I don’t get that same visceral connection. At least with The Family Jewels there was a layer of campy energy and Marina had a ton of exuberance – by turning that back, I’m not getting that same connection and the overall result feels a lot less cohesive.

Look, in the end I do like this album, but not as much as I wanted to, mostly because for every step towards innovation and returning to the elements that made her unique in her songwriting, the actual sound of this album doesn’t have the same flair and colour. And even with that, I can’t help but feel that only half of the songs feel thematically relevant. Thankfully, Marina is still a solid singer with real personality and she can definitely write good hooks, which is enough to elevate this album to a light 7/10 and a recommendation, but a qualified one. If you’re a diehard fan… well, you don’t need me to tell you about this album, you’ve probably been asking me to cover it for months now, but for everyone else, give The Family Jewels a listen first and then check out FROOT. I’m still not sure Marina and the Diamonds is quite living up to her potential yet, but it seems like she’s finally back on the right track.

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