Saturday, August 22, 2015

album review: 'i cry when i laugh' by jess glynne

So I think I was one of the few critics who cover pop music who didn't love 'Rather Be' last year, the breakthrough single from electronic music group Clean Bandit. Yeah, it was very elegant and very pretty and had a vibrant clarity to the sound that reminded me of Imogen Heap in a good way, but it was one of those tracks that just fell completely flat for me. Maybe it wasn't weird enough or that it never reached those transcendent moments it kept gunning for, or maybe because it felt bizarrely overmixed and the songwriting wasn't all that great, but it didn't do much for me.

One person I won't blame here, though, is Jess Glynne, the guest singer on that track who was actually pretty solid and who was steadily building herself a respectable career in the UK while everyone on this side of the Atlantic had no idea who she was. And let's make this clear, she's big over there right now, with multiple songs cracking the top ten and even one taking the #1 slot for three weeks - and considering the turnover of the UK Official Charts, that's saying something.

So who is Jess Glynne? Born in the UK, she grew up working music management and record labels before a few chance collaborations, the biggest being with Clean Bandit that netted her a Grammy before she had a full debut album. Reportedly drawing on soul, R&B, and house music, it promised to be interesting at least, so I made a note to check out I Cry When I Laugh when it finally dropped - how does it turn out?

Well, it turned out pretty damn well - but in a way that gives me surprisingly little to say about it. The funny thing is that after a few listens, Jess Glynne's formula for her songs becomes pretty easy to understand that allows her to make immediately catchy, breezy pop music doesn't exactly reach for great heights, but doesn't hit a lot of lows either. To her credit, it's a remarkably cohesive and enjoyable formula, but I will say it does hold back this album a bit from being a truly great pop record instead of just being a good one.

So what is this formula? Well, the first major ingredient is Jess Glynne herself. Her vocal timbre immediately struck me as familiar, almost like Rihanna's lower range without the accent or Pink without the rough-edged fire - there's more elegance and poise to Glynne's delivery that's still got the power to bring real organic soul to her singing, even if I'd argue she doesn't always have the most personality. And to her credit there's very little obvious pitch correction here, instead relying on a surprisingly textured and layered backing choir of male and female vocals that calls back to soul and gospel to add power to her choruses. It does mean there are moments that probably could have used a little more intimacy and restraint, but really, the energy works to her advantage.

And that's mostly because of her instrumentation and production. Now if you're familiar with Clean Bandit, several of their production hallmarks appear here, a few even with their name attached to the production credits: the fluttery futuristic synths, the waves of elegant strings, the slightly more aggressive tempo of their crisp beats, and the feeling that it's a little overmixed and overstuffed for its own good. And while Glynne never quite steps into more stately baroque pop, she compliments the more classical instrumentation with plenty of pianos to flesh out the melody in the lower end of the mix and even some horns, some of which suspiciously sound like a preset. And make no mistake, the pianos make this album: the dense playing on the verses of 'Gave Me Something', the staccato layers that subtly build on 'Hold My Hand', the sharp melodic grooves of 'Ain't Got Far To Go' and 'Don't Be So Hard On Yourself' to the stately restraint of 'Take Me Home' - a song that reminds me way too much of Beyonce's Halo, by the way - all of this provides this album such a solid melodic foundation that it's almost a little exasperating how the other instrumentation can't build on it more. Sure, the beats are often solid, if a bit lacking in texture in the low-end, but when you throw on horns of varying quality, strings, a varied backing chorus, and some shockingly chintzy synthesizers on songs like 'You Can Find Me' and 'No Rights No Wrongs', things start to feel a bit overdone. And that's when you have the pianos - when this album tries to go for more bass-heavy, minimalist production, the beats are often good but the melodies don't tend to rise to much, like on the creak of 'Why Me' or the odd muffled feeling of the blend of instrumentation on 'It Ain't Right'. But then again, this is an album that works best when it's riding a wave of melodic momentum, enraptured by Jess Glynne's vocals, and as long as you can ride that wave, it's enjoyable.

Of course, until you start looking into the lyrics themselves. The odd thing is that despite the title, I Cry When I Laugh isn't really a melancholy record, even despite the occasionally sombre underlying strings, because when there is darkness and pain, Glynne is smart enough to know that pain should be explored and dealt with before moving on, like on 'Take Me Home' as she looks for a friend who doesn't just provide solace but also is willing to dig deeper and ask the tough questions. And 'Ain't Got Far To Go' takes a similar path, where she's rising above a breakup on her own and yet admits she'd do it again because the experience has made her stronger - small detail, but I liked it. And that's mostly what I liked about the songwriting - it's still very much lodged in pop love songs, breakup songs, and complicated relationships, but it's got enough nuance around the edges to be mature and likeable... for the most part. I get the sentiment behind 'Saddest Vanilla' and both Glynne and guest vocalist Emeli Sande sell the hell out of it, but it's still about crying into a bowl of ice cream after a breakup and it was so schmaltzy rom-com that it kind of fell flat with me. But at least there were details there: if I were to highlight my biggest issue with this album, it'd be that the lyrics are oddly lacking in a lot of distinctive detail. Sure, we get fragments, like the berry picking on the intro, but it leaves many of these songs feeling vague, even despite solid lyrical sentiments. 

So in the end, what does I Cry When I Laugh deliver? Well, mostly exactly what it was designed to deliver: solid as hell pop songs that can remain consistently energetic and enjoyable without faltering, even if it means they can occasionally lack a distinctive artistic force behind them. All of which makes me wonder if Jess Glynne might be a better fit for fronting the EDM and folktronica that won her that Grammy instead of her own material, but then again, this is a debut. For me, it's a very light 7/10 and definitely a recommendation if you're looking for some well-composed and energetic piano-driven pop. Otherwise... eh, most of you will be checking out the slightly more enjoyable new Carly Rae Jepsen album that finally got wide release, but if you're already tired of that, give this a listen.

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