Monday, March 2, 2015

album review: 'our own house' by misterwives

So here's an odd coincidence that I don't recall ever happening before when I've covered an act on this show - I actually saw them live before getting their album.

See, last year I managed to get tickets to go see Bleachers - spoiler alert, it was incredible - and their opening act was an indie pop group called MisterWives. The New York-based band had been getting traction through other tours, most notably with Twenty-One Pilots and American Authors and a hot EP and single release. Heavily inspired by 80s synthpop, they were a natural fit to open for Bleachers, and really, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed their set. Not only bringing a lot of energy, but with an eclectic sound incorporating horns with keyboards and jittery guitars and frontwoman Mandy Lee Duffy's potent vocals, I remembered thinking that I should really take the time to review the band's album if and when they drop it.

Flash forward six or seven months, and MisterWives have finally dropped that debut record and apparently have garnered enough buzz for me to actually get requests for it, even despite some mixed reviews. So I decided to check it out - what did we get?

Well, it's pretty damn good. I'm not saying it's great or mind-blowing or will rewrite the world of indie pop - if you have any familiarity of the better acts gaining traction in the scene, the success of MisterWives will not be surprising in the slightest - but it's a solid, lightweight debut that delivers some good quality pop that could easily gain traction on the radio for a single or two. And like most indie pop, the real highlights are lurking in the details, and while they do show areas they could improve, they also do stand out.

So let's start with instrumentation and production, the latter of which gets immediate credit from me for using reverb properly and not suffocating the entire mix, instead applying it to add necessary atmosphere or deepening the percussion grooves. And really, groove is the key word with MisterWives - between the some of the rollicking, retro-disco bass and guitar lines, sharply defined kickdrums, and heavy usage of horns to drive the melody in the vein Of Monsters and Men, it lends the album a lot of brassy energy that's slick, upbeat, and relentlessly fun. Of course, MisterWives do show off a lot of ideas with this debut, which leads to an instrumental mix that's strikingly reminiscent of the genre bending Lily Allen did on It's Not Me, It's You. And it leads to great moments like the exuberant trumpets and beat switch-up on 'Not Your Way', the shimmering bounce of early single 'Reflections', the meandering washed-out reggae of 'Oceans' that really could have been tighter but did have good steel drums, the muted and yet subtly gorgeous strings arrangement on 'Coffins', the tight rollick of the guitars on 'Box Around The Sun', and the richer chorus that comes in for the final track 'Queens'. If I were to have issues with the instrumentation, they're fairly minor - some of the keyboard lines could have been a little brighter, I wish the sizzling guitar that they use for noisier background texture could have had a little more prominence, the mid-range of a few songs can feel overstuffed, and - oddly - that this album builds momentum almost a little too well. It means some of the tracks can almost feel draining thanks to the constant blaring horns and energetic tempo - which might have been the point lyrically of songs like 'Best I Can Do', but they still can be exhausting to get through.

Part of it might be Mandy Lee Duffy's delivery, too. Don't get me wrong, she's an impressive singer and the moments where she shows off her range and visceral power are some of the best on the album, but having her voice play towards very sugary pop songs is a bit of an odd choice. The easy comparisons for Duffy are Ellie Goulding and Kimbra, with much of the former's vocal timbre with the latter's theatrical energy - which is absolutely killer for more dramatic songs, but adds a bit of a manic tinge to the more upbeat tracks which can make them feel a little overstated.

Now this necessarily takes us to the songwriting - and look, there's a limit to how much I'm expecting here because it is a debut and you can argue the instrumentation does enough to distinguish them and allows them to stick to formula when it comes to lyrics. And really, it's not that the writing is bad so much as it is uneven, with some really great high points and a few areas that just strike me as a little bland. For example, 'Not Your Way' attacks superficial standards of beauty, and levels the finger both at society and the fact that they still do buy into it when the prize is right, and they don't shy away from including themselves in the framing. 'Best I Can Do' is similar, this time on a strained relationship thanks to the guy having unrealistic expectations, and the girl is exhausted and frustrated trying to get to them - sure, not quite as sharp as 'King Of Anything' by Sara Bareilles, but still pretty solid. Lead single 'Reflections' and 'Coffins' are both about break-ups, but the emotions are played with a little more nuance, the former coming from the release of cutting out the last shreds of discomfort, the latter the slow sputter of a relationship failing without really casting blame on any party. The framing on a lot of these songs really is sharp in catching layers of nuance, and it works well with the loose overarching themes and metaphors of the records, many of which surround image and illusions. The general arc seems to imply so much effort is spent maintaining those figments that it's often much more satisfying to just let them go and be honest - and yet there's often reasons people maintain them, either because of pain at their release or their own seductive allure. Granted, songs like the sugar high of 'No Need For Dreaming' and 'Box Around The Sun' do push that euphoria to the limit for me, and 'Hurricane' easily falls into traditional outcast anthem territory that'll inevitably soundtrack a young-adult movie adaptation someday, but I do like how the album ends with 'Queens'. On the surface, it's just another New York anthem about following one's dreams, but with the noisier guitars and more melancholic delivery tears away the illusions to reveal a potent populist spirit beneath the pop coating. It's easily one of the best high points of the album, and while I do wish the melodies were a little stronger, it operates as such a solid endpoint to the record that it redeems its flaws.

So in the end, I really did like Our Own House by MisterWives. As I said, if you're familiar with indie pop it's not charting new territory, but instead it's honing and synthesizing disparate elements into a workable and unique sound. And with a strong performance and good writing, I feel comfortable giving this a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. Yeah, there are points where it's a little too excited to be here, but if you're looking for an accessible, genuinely fun indie pop record, Our Own House by MisterWives is a fine addition to the genre and is definitely worth a look.

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