Wednesday, December 16, 2015

album review: 'know-it-all' by alessia cara

Okay, so whenever you have a big act in the mainstream blow up with tons of buzz, critical success and mainstream crossover, you tend to have acts following behind them that want to cash in. Sometimes it feels natural, a trend that was growing that finally burst through, but more often it's a tad more cynical as otherwise popular acts try to jump on the sound. And in some cases, they might not even have a choice, especially if the label is pushing them in that direction.

But when you have a success story like Lorde's Pure Heroine breaking in 2013, major labels encountered an act that wasn't exactly easy to replicate. Sure, the immediate impact is a whole slew of pop acts who washed out their mixes, piled on the reverb and vocal filters, and focused more on percussion over melody, but they were never really able to capture that same vibe. Lorde's formula was more than just instrumentation, it ran in her smart songwriting and populism, and that's hard to pull off - hell, just look at Halsey's disastrous fumble with 'New Americana'.

As such, I wasn't exactly surprised when I heard that Def Jam had placed a major push behind Alessia Cara, a young Canadian singer-songwriter drawing more on old-school R&B for her debut EP - as you'd expect, given its current popularity. But her lead-off single 'Here' was more reminiscent of Lorde, not just in her thin, slightly husky delivery, but in the subversion of a typical party vibe with overwritten lyrics, to the point where people were legitimately angry it didn't net the same Grammy nominations. Now I wasn't wild about 'Here' when I covered it on Billboard BREAKDOWN, and thus I was kind of reticent about covering this album, especially given the rushed production schedule by her label to push it out before Christmas, but I figured I might as well give it a chance, especially considering how many of you kept asking for it. So how did Know-It-All turn out?

Oh boy... this is one of these cases where if I'm going to get angry, it's not going to be at Alessia Cara but at her label, because this is the sort of pop debut that should be way better than it is. And the exasperating thing is, again, this isn't Alessia Cara's fault so much as it is her producers, who you can tell were told to cram together another songs to pad out an album and ship early. All across this album you can see the spots where if they had been given sharper oversight or more of a budget or another three or four months of development, it could have hit with more impact, but as it is, Know-It-All feels rushed and only decent, with the seeds of potential trampled by production that's far beneath her.

So before we get to that, let's talk about Alessia Cara herself - and let me open up the backlash floodgate immediately and state that her voice hasn't completely won me over, mostly because her influences stand pretty tall over her writing and delivery. The biggest, as I mentioned before, is Lorde, but Cara is gunning for something that's less 'wise-beyond-her-years' and more relatable to her teenage audience. As such, she doesn't quite have a huge amount of stage presence - we'll come back to this - and you can definitely tell her vocal control could use some tuning and refinement, even if alternately her antisocial bitterness and painful earnestness does play to her advantage.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in the writing. I'll definitely give her this, she's got a knack for technical rhyming and flow that can feel a little off-kilter at points, but combined with some solid descriptions and self-awareness can lead to some good moments. One thing you notice is that there's a cautious vulnerability about her presentation that reveals a lot of second-guessing and following behind, acutely aware of her age and not particularly comfortable with her breakout success. And really, this sort of attitude can be a mixed blessing, and lead-off single 'Here' is the best example. The writing seems to encapsulate the intense anxiety that comes with a party where you just want to leave and everyone is vapid and obnoxious, but it also runs right to the line of standoffish where you have to ask why anyone would have even bothered to invite her. Where things work better are on 'I'm Yours', where her head is actively exasperated with the idea of falling in love and the massive inconvenience that it can be, but she's cautiously going to try anyway. And then there's 'Scars To Your Beautiful' where there's actually some pretty dark writing surrounding what girls will conceal and hide to be seen as flawless and without pain, concealing it through cutting and anorexia. And yet I can't help but feel that if Cara dug deeper into this material and didn't feel she had to default to the pop chorus or construct, we could have gotten something much more impactful - but then again, I'd say that about the majority of the writing on this record, not so much bad or even bland but not playing to Cara's strengths. Not only does her thinner voice not lend itself to big anthemic choruses, it feels like she's stripping down bigger, more complicated concepts to an easy hook like on the generic 'Wild Things' and 'Overdose', and she doesn't really need to do that. Take 'Stars', for instance - it's loaded with cute space references, but I do like how much of the track focuses on how we have to open up and give of ourselves in relationships to find that brighter spark - hell, if we're looking for a theme of this record it'd be the celebration of vulnerability and honesty over throwing up walls or false pretences.

All of which are potent ideas that the production does nothing to compliment. Once again, we get percussion-overloaded mixes that crush any melody into a faded slurry - especially on the back half of this album - and while you could make the Lorde comparison, at least she had the presence to anchor her tracks in a stronger melodic foundation. I'll give Alessia Cara some credit for trying to wedge more guitar in on 'I'm Yours' and 'Seventeen', but it's often the first thing squashed to the back behind wiry, oily synth lines and thicker beats that are nowhere near organic enough to flatter anything. What we get instead are fragments - good fragments, mind you, the 'Ike's Rap II' sample on 'Here' with the horns is excellent, and I liked when they showed up again on 'Outlaws'; and there are melodies like the piano on 'Stars' or the bubbly guitar lines on 'I'm Yours' - but only fragments and not much of a foundation that I'll remember, with handclaps and whistles thrown on top almost as a perfunctory measure. And when we get to songs like the acoustic ballad 'Stone' or the R&B touched flavour of 'Four Pink Walls' or 'Outlaws' that tries for a bit of Amy Winehouse minus the glamour, it falls flat because the instrumentation feels so recycled and syncopated to drum machines. I could see Alessia Cara working with instrumentation that was a little more lush or organic, but too much of this record ends up feeling stiff, monochromatic and cold.

In other words, it's a classic example of a label not giving Alessia Cara enough time to expand or refine her sound before rushing out a debut to capitalize on her success. I'll give her credit for convincing her label to position 'Here' as a lead-off single to at least define her personality, but this record unfortunately doesn't do much beyond it, a talented songwriter who could use a little fine-tuning to make something truly great. But then again, I know there'll be plenty who can look past the production and I can definitely see the writing resonating with her fans, so for me it's a light 6/10 and a cautious recommendation... but I have to be honest, outside of a few tracks, I doubt I'll remember this, and Alessia Cara deserves a better legacy than that.

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