Tuesday, June 23, 2015

album review: 'my love is cool' by wolf alice

So I've mentioned a number of times, mostly on Billboard BREAKDOWN, that rock radio is basically irrelevant to the mainstream pop charts, at least in terms of defining larger trends. Yes, there are rock songs that are big that might even do well on the charts, but rock music doesn't tend to go viral in the same way a hip-hop track or pop song can, or mutate at the same rate that country currently is. And part of that is because rock doesn't grip the popular consciousness in the same way it has throughout other decades, to the point where the rock songs that take the charts are so wildly different that it's hard to pin down a distinctive sound. When I look at the top ten 'rock' songs on the charts right now, three are folk with the barest hint of rock, three are outright pop rock, one is closer to soul or blues than actual rock music - doesn't make Hozier any less awesome, but it's true - and 'Shut Up And Dance' would have been called new wave synthpop thirty years ago. Of the two remaining, one is Muse's 'Dead Inside' and I'd be stretching to say its sour brand of electronic rock with emo lyrics is quality, and the other is 'Believe' by Mumford & Sons and is just terrible. And that's it - no metal, no punk, nothing close to grunge or hardcore, and god help you if you're looking for one of the subgenres.

What I see when I look at the rock charts is no clear direction and nothing resembling hierarchies or leaders except maybe The Foo Fighters out of sheer longevity - mostly because 'rock' is becoming a catch-all for whatever has a guitar and is too rough-edged for pop or too heavy for country. And I'm not saying I want rock to be monochromatic or dominated by one sound - I lived through post-grunge and I don't want that again - but I get no sense of defined identity when I look at rock radio, and this has been an issue for a good few years now. It looks a lot less like diversity and more like throwing whatever they've got at the wall until something sticks - and this is an American issue. Us Canadians never really marginalized rock radio in the same way, and the indie folk rock boom is solidly entrenched up here. 

And honestly, it doesn't seem like a bad direction for the US to go either - at least indie rock is more colourful and interesting, and there's plenty of upstart acts looking to break in. Case in point: Wolf Alice, a UK-based band that started off in the poppier side of indie folk before drifting towards heavier, grunge-inspired instrumentation and signing to the same label as The 1975. Like Misterwives, they spent last year building buzz and now have dropped a debut album that has come highly recommended from a few other critics, so I took a look at My Love Is Cool - do we have our new indie rock leaders?

Honestly, I doubt it. And throughout the first four or five listens to this album, I got so little from this Wolf Alice debut that gripped me. It reminded me in a bizarre way of that last album from Walk The Moon in that the obvious influences overshadowed any unique and distinctive elements. But whereas that record at least had some killer singles, My Love Is Cool fell completely flat, and it hadn't been for a few more relistens, I would have torn this record to shreds. As it is, it's a record with interesting intentions, but nowhere close to the execution to pull it off. 

So where to even start? Well, for one it's the big question of what this album is trying to do instrumentally, and the best way I can describe it is if someone tried to fuse modern indie pop tropes, especially calling back to minimalist, percussion-driven reverb-saturation like The xx, and mid-90s grunge and alternative music, recalling a bit of Smashing Pumpkins, Alanis Morrissette, Garbage, and especially Hole. Now in principle, I can see the intent: it could work with a loud/soft dynamic or striking contrast, heavier percussion could intensify the groove, and Lord knows modern rock getting heavier isn't a bad thing. The problem pretty much across the board is execution, especially in the production, in this case handled by early Arctic Monkey producer Mike Crossey. Yeah, there are good moments in capturing that grunge feel - the guitar had some sizzle of 'Bros', 'Your Love's Whore', 'Fluffy', and especially that killer crunch at the back half of 'Giant Peach' that was one of the few times this album kicked anything close to ass. And hell, the percussion is aggressive and prominent enough to back it up as well - the problem comes in the bass, which with rare exception feels so inert and lacking in edge that all that sizzle doesn't have a real foundation. Still good, like on the very ending of 'Swallowtail' that reminded me a lot of 90s Jimmy Eat World, but it could have been so much better. Granted, you can say that about all the guitar production on this album, because there are so many effects that warp and hollow out the guitars that there's rarely any real organic groove. And maybe that was for the best - the song 'Silk' runs on a pretty rubbery synth and bass, and the pop minimalism is a good fit - similar case with 'Soapy Hands' if it wasn't for the weedy gurgling all throughout the background. And that's not even touching on tracks like 'Freazy' that feel like they could have been pulled from a bad mid-to-late 90s teen movie soundtrack with the formulaic strings and guitars setup. And over all of it is the reverb - it sounds okay over the vocals, but it doesn't work with these guitar tones, it feels way too slick.

And sure, some of you are saying, they're trying to imitate Hole, who had a similar sort of sound. Want to know the difference? Courtney Love actually had vocal presence and raw explosive personality. So did Billy Corgan and Shirley Manson - they might have used effects as well to construct their vocal personality, but their raw charisma shone through regardless, there was an edge. Whereas frontwoman Ellie Rowsell can't seem to decide if she's trying to imitate a depressed Charli XCX, Karen O, or any squealing riot grrl singer - and in the last case, the added layers prove she's out of her depth here. And while her lower tones are probably the best, the fact that there is so much reverb distancing her from the audience does nothing to enhance any visceral punch. Joff Oddy's male vocals are passable and he actually has a good falsetto... but again, the reason grunge and post-grunge worked as well as it did is that the singers could sound more raw and explosive. Piling on cleaner reverb doesn't help that, and it doesn't feel remotely cohesive.

So fine, can the lyrics save this record? Honestly, they're probably the element that works the most, in that the directionless teenage angst of these tracks does fit the instrumentation. Sure, they don't have enough raw detail to stand out much in terms of storytelling, and it's nothing that 90s punk and grunge didn't do to death, and even with that disaffection only works with me to a point, but there is nuance here. I liked the frustrated lack of action on 'Giant Peach' and 'Fluffy' that screams of not having easy answers, and I liked the concept behind 'Soapy Hands' as a girl who sleeps around a lot is on the verge of dead-eyed breakdown as she realizes she won't have the relationship or security she wants. Hell, if we're looking for an underlying theme of this record, it'd be the ream of questions that drive teenage angst that remain unanswered, and that insecurity about future drives songs like 'Silk', where our narrator seeks a companion who might not be the best for her, but what else is she supposed to do? Granted, it doesn't all work - the anthem of cool on 'Freazy' is just obnoxious in its Reality Bites-esque disaffection, and 'You're A Germ' is too lyrically incoherent to work, a song calling out a dude exploiting a girl's naivete but never clarifies who the pronoun 'you' is supposed to reference - if its him, why call him out as guilty 'as well', or mention his parents - why would that change his behavior? Whereas if the 'you' is referring to the hapless girl... well, why is she guilty when she's more of the victim and it's awfully presumptuous for Wolf Alice to slam her given their behavior across the majority of this record. But outside of that, most of the writing is actually good enough to make me wish we had singers who could deliver it with some real presence... which we don't really have on this album.

Look, I don't hate this record - Wolf Alice had a cool idea and they clearly love 90s music, but somewhere in either the production or composition things went off the rails, and it makes this album feel like a real chore to listen through. It's a shame because there are seeds of a workable idea here, especially lyrically - but I'm not exactly a fan of either singer, neither of whom have the presence or power or charisma to match their influences, and with the production not helping their personalities, you run into problems. For me, this is a 5/10 and only recommended if you're curious to see a fascinating experiment go awry. Otherwise, our search for the next leaders in rock might have to continue elsewhere.

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