Sunday, November 8, 2015

album review: 'get weird' by little mix

Let's return to the subject of competition.

Now those of you who've been watching since earlier this year know that I opened up my review of Fifth Harmony with the same topic - and that's not a coincidence, because if we're looking for a classic example of Simon Cowell playing labelmates against each other in order to spark up lucrative controversy, it's here. After all, it's a proven formula: the younger, more American-accessible group going against the older, more refined group that's achieved worldwide success. It's N'Sync vs. The Backstreet Boys all over again... and as such, it shouldn't be a surprise which one I'd consider as the better one.

And this shouldn't be that much of a surprise: when I covered Little Mix's Salute early last year, I was startled how much I ended up liking it, with the girls having solid chemistry, pretty decent vocal arrangements and real talent and working with good writers while having a solid writing presence themselves. Hell, their song 'Competition' was exceptionally close to landing on my year-end list for my favourite songs of 2014 - why it wasn't a single, I have absolutely no idea, especially considering that it would have wiped the floor with Fifth Harmony's 'Worth It', a song that for some ungodly reason became a hit playing in a more derivative template. Now I don't want to oversell Salute, because it had its fair share of problems, most notably in production and instrumentation, which tried to retrace 90s pop R&B with mixed results. It really could have benefited from a real budget or a cohesive production team like Girls Aloud had with Xenomania - which might as well be the tagline reviewing any album from Syco Music, so thanks for that, Simon Cowell.

As such, I had slightly mixed emotions going into Get Weird, Little Mix's third album. On the one hand, giving them a guest appearance from Jason Derulo smacked of desperation for a US crossover, and I had no faith whatsoever Simon Cowell was going to give them production to be really stand out; as much as the album title promised that they'd Get Weird, I didn't buy it for a second. On the other hand, I found some writers when digging through the liner notes that were promising, and there still was a core of real talent behind this group. So I gave Get Weird a chance - how does it hold up?

Well, it is more peculiar than I'd expect. Back when I reviewed Salute I made the prediction that Little Mix would probably pivot towards R&B - which would make sense, given the current climate in modern pop and given their vocal tone. But while Get Weird flirts a bit with the idea, this album falls much closer to straightforward girl group pop music, reaching back even past the obvious Spice Girls comparison to girl groups of the 50s and 60s. So does it hit the sweet spot for me like Girls Aloud did? Well, not quite, but in refining and expanding their pop formula, Little Mix pulled together something better than I expected, and for the most part, this works for me.

So let's start with the girls themselves - and let's make this clear, there isn't a weak link among them, and they show off different sides that allows each member to have unique facets. Perrie is probably the standout with the biggest range and most visceral presence - again, she could probably do pop rock if she wanted to - with Jesy playing softer, more girlish tones and Jade with more of a higher melodic presence. Initially I was least impressed with Leigh-Anne, if only because her huskier delivery didn't always feel as vibrant, but then on 'A.D.I.D.A.S.' she actually dropped to a pretty decent NIcki Minaj-esque flow that wasn't bad at all. Hell, if she wants to play more to that hip-hop role for crossover... well, I wouldn't be against it. What's most important is that all of Little Mix have good voices, can handle layered harmonies, and can deliver with a lot of convincing passion - there are moments on this album that can feel plastic, but not because of them. That was one of the reasons I had hoped they'd go for R&B more - they have the voices for it - but the layered pop harmonies really do them a lot of credit here. And in a nice change of pace, the arrangements are very democratic, allowing all the girls a chance in the spotlight and not favouring one over the other.

And you know, a fair amount of the lyrics work for me too, primarily because they nail the boundary between being clean enough for mainstream radio while still having that sexual undertone if you listen closer - sexy without being explicit, which is one of the reasons why 'Black Magic' remains a ton of fun, taking the traditional metaphor of female sexuality as black magic and playing it so broad and colourful that I don't see any menace to it! Apparently the girls wanted to make this album even more explicit, but I'm actually okay with the choice not to go in that direction - mostly because tracks like 'Love Me Like You', 'A.D.I.D.A.S.' - which means 'all day I dream about sex' - and the more abstract 'Lightning' do play more in that vein. What did throw me a bit was how much of this record focuses on break-ups or failing attempts at relationships - 'Hair', 'Grown', 'I Love You', 'OMG', 'Love Me Or Leave Me', 'The End', a full half of this album... and while they're convincing on these songs, they don't have the same momentum as the brighter, more energetic tracks that open the album. Granted, there's not a song on Get Weird that's better than 'Competition', and there are lyrical flubs in technical rhyming that are hard to ignore. And that's before we get to tracks that just don't stick as well - I get the wish-fulfillment of 'OMG' and 'Hair' playing in the 'makeover makes things better' template, but they do feel a little shallow to me. As does 'Grown', where you can tell that Jess Glynn's lyrical cadence came into the writing but referring to being 'grown' just is an awkward way to describe adulthood. Then there's the duet with Jason Derulo 'Secret Love Song', which did feel heartfelt and sweet but I never got a sense for why the relationship had to be a secret - I get the drama, but the stakes felt a little shaky, especially considering the girl was cheating to be with Derulo.

But now we have to get to the biggest issue of this record and the one that crops up every damn time we have to talk about a Syco Music album: the production. And you know, to their credit, it's not universally bad as it is inconsistent. The opening tracks, from the rollick of 'Black Magic' to the soulful touches of bells on 'Love Me Like You' to the B-52s-esque flash of the synths and guitars on 'Weird People' against that talkbox, they had the sort of colourful pop vibe that reminded me a lot of S Club 7's more infectious melodies in a good way. But then we hit 'Secret Love Song' and I'm sorry, there's no excuse for why the autotune had to be spread onto the girls' voices as well as Derulo's - they don't need it! But that's only a signal of how large chunks of this record will fall into very modern pop/R&B templates - stripped back snaps and claps for percussion with heavier bass, weedy melodies pushed towards the back, and most of the instrumentation and production feeling way too underweight to match the vocal harmonies. I don't like the fake horns on songs like 'Hair' or 'Grown', but at least they're trying to balance a little even if it does feel awkward - same with the latin chorus and strings on 'Lightning', even if it doesn't it at all with that pitched-up vocal snippet and oily synth hook. Hell, if this album wanted to go for more of that vintage pop feel like on 'A.D.I.D.A.S.' with the bass and dancing piano line, I actually think Little Mix would be a fine fit for it. After all, unlike someone in that vein like Meghan Trainor, Little Mix don't sound like they need sex explained to them! But unfortunately the weaknesses in the slightly compressed vocals and chintzy production of 'Hair' and 'OMG' - especially in the weedy synths or the very DJ Mustard/Charli XCX style of the latter - do show the unfortunate hallmarks of a group chasing another sound when they should be defining their own lane. And at this point it's more clear than ever that Little Mix should be fighting for artistic control, because not only are they more talented than their production shows, the choice to go towards pop doesn't really play to their strengths and especially not the mainstream right now, especially if you're not going to give them a budget for better producers. 

So in the end, I did like this album, but outside of their vocals this record doesn't really show Little Mix progressing. And I can't really blame them for that - they didn't produce this record, and if Simon Cowell refuses to give them a budget, there's not much they can do beyond write more songs and further hone their technique until their contracts expire. But again, there's a lot of potential and talent here that does shine through on some great pop songs, so for me it's a 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. If you're a fan of pop girl groups, this is definitely the one you want to be following, because even if they haven't had that major push stateside yet, they're still better.

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