Wednesday, January 13, 2016

album review: 'not to disappear' by daughter

So let's talk a bit about expectations. 

Now as a critic, it's ideal not to have any at all when you go into a fresh release, especially out of the indie scene, because what might have been positioned as the single might not be representative of the group as a whole - the label wants something to sell, after all. And my opening expectations of the English indie folk trio Daughter were built around the expectations that they had soundtracked a bunch of TV and were known to run closer to the darker, more atmospheric brand of folk music. In other words, I thought I knew what I was getting checking out their 2013 debut album.

That wasn't exactly what I got, as their atmospheric side was less ambient and more smoky noise and post-rock, guitars that smouldered in feedback and seemed to be precisely on edge to explode against the booming percussion and Elena Tonra's haunted vocals. It was an instrumental shift that gave the group some unique personality - perhaps closer to a more accessible Chelsea Wolfe - until I started digging into the lyrics. Suffice to say the writing didn't really impress me, more suited for the emo side of shoegaze than for the darker atmospherics that Daughter was targeting, and the fact that the album never really exploded gave the sound a certain calculated petulance that I felt I should like more than I do. 

They did have a unique enough sound, though, and I was inclined to check out the follow-up this year, that was reportedly heading a more rock-inspired direction. So what did we get from the sophomore release from Daughter called Not To Disappear?

Well, here's an interesting case, because this record does indeed have more energy and a slightly more eclectic sound, pushing away from their folkier roots towards something rougher and thicker. In other words, even though the band has claimed they weren't listening to anything else while they recorded this album, Not To Disappear feels squarely lodged in the midpoint between Elvya at her darkest and Chelsea Wolfe at her most accessible... and unfortunately, not superior to either, leading to a experience that's pretty good, but can feel like a real slog to experience, and the album themes can only excuse so much of that.

So how to properly describe this? Well, the first place to start are the vocals of Elena Tonra - and I'm a little baffled why they aren't really working for me. I get that the undercurrent of depression and loneliness means that desaturation and lack of more expressive emotion is part of the point, but I'm not quite convinced Tonra can quite convey those little subtleties. She always seems more listless and spaced out than actually investing these songs with the sense of fear or deeper grief... which yes, makes sense in context, but when you get moments like the bridge on 'To Belong' or throughout 'Fossa' where she shows off some beautiful, slightly more symphonic singing, I can't help but feel like an opportunity was missed here.

In other words, it seems like this album is relying more on the content to lend context to the depression - and to Daughter's credit, that happens. The writing has definitely improved from their occasionally overwrought debut, mostly by opting for subtler moments and while there are still those detailed quirks that can feel odd in the atmosphere, they have a more universal scope and show real creativity. If we're looking for themes - well, of course you're getting your fair share of bad relationships full of neglect that should just end, but the loneliness in and of itself seems an entity, which comes most to life on 'Alone/With You' which shows both in stark parallel. And I like how the certain situations of loneliness most would ignore come up on the loss of one's memories and faculties to dementia or Alzheimers on 'Doing The Right Thing', or on the giving without reciprocity to subsequently be ignored on 'Mothers'. And it definitely lends this album a weightier melancholy as our frontwoman finds love to be hollow but can't bear to be on her own, either by getting stood up on 'How' or the numb hookups of 'Numbers' to the sadness of 'Like A Stone'. Many have seen indicators of depression behind the bluntness of the lyricism, and while I'm not inclined to diagnose, it seems like it's aiming broader into the idea of feeling invisible and fighting against that. Hell, the moment on this album that gripped me the most was the wild desperation of 'No Care', where the relationship careens out of control as she wants that deeper connection but doesn't dare speak of it, instead burying the love and deeper issues along the way even deeper. Outside of that song - which for its tempo as well as its content feels like the outlier on this record - you could almost draw a parallel to similar themes on Steven Wilson's excellent Hand. Cannot. Erase.

But do you want to know what that album had and this record definitely doesn't? Production that wasn't a murky, unsatisfying mess, and if we're looking for the big reason that this album doesn't connect in the same way Elvya or Chelsea Wolfe did, it's here. And let me stress that there memorable spots here - the genuine chill that runs through 'Mothers' and 'Doing The Right Thing' thanks the funereal keys, the ghostly guitars against the bass gallop on 'Alone/With You' and that thick chug on the bridge of 'To Belong', and especially that fuzzed out guitar on the outro of 'New Ways'. But that guitar piece is a prime example of how this record should hit so much harder than it does - I hear the feedback-swamped darkness, the spot where things would really explode - and yet the lo-fi filters oddly seem to be tamping down and hemming in every place where the crescendos could actually build pay-off. And what gets exasperating is that this is all across the album - yes, I know that it tonally fits the depressed melancholy, but it also serves to make this record feel like a longer, more turgid listen than it really is, especially when it never really indulges in the more unsettling creepiness that made Chelsea Wolfe's material work so damn well. But if you're not going to pay off your crescendos, why bother to include those heavier drum runs or the faded out, borderline tremolo picked guitars that just seem to stew and seethe in their own feedback and reverb. And it definitely makes moments like the tempo shifts on 'Fossa' feel out of place - I like the idea, and this record can build momentum, but the production seems to be dragging it back at every turn, which leads the genuinely well played instrumental flourishes and solos to feel perfunctory, which strikes me as a waste.

So in the end... look, I want to like this album a lot more than I do - there's thematic cohesion and some genuinely good ideas in the writing, and I do think this is a step-up from their debut. But it's a record straining to be harsher or wilder or more energetic than the production allows, and while that might fit the lyrics or vocal delivery, it makes the record feel like even more of a melancholic slog than intended. I'm imagining it'll probably play a lot better live, but as it is, I'm giving this a strong 6/10 and a recommendation - especially if you've got more patience for this sort of depressing, sludgy indie rock. But for me, you can only feel so much if you're made of stone. 

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