Monday, January 4, 2016

album review: 'wildfire' by rachel platten

There are very few times worse to be an album critic than right at the beginning of the year, and the sad fact is that there's a lot of reasonably good reasons for it. It's right after Christmas and heading into the doldrums of the winter months, nobody's buying music right now, and thus if labels are releasing material, it's the stuff that was considered not strong enough to be rushed towards a holiday release. In other words, I can only imagine that's why Sremmlife was dropped at the beginning of January last year - it was clearly never designed to be a hit.

Now thankfully we've got a new album from David Bowie dropping in a few days - mostly because it's Bowie and he'll drop music when he damn well pleases - so this drought won't last for long, but until then, the most interesting thing I could dig up was Rachel Platten's major label debut Wildfire. Now already I had a lot of bad feelings about this, because not only was 'Fight Song' one of the most limp and forgettable hits of 2015, it was also a very poor man's Kelly Clarkson and not a good sign for what was to come. Sure, 'Stand By You' was better, but it's very telling that it's taken this long for Rachel Platten to gain any traction in the music industry, mostly because her music doesn't reflect personality. What you probably don't know is that Rachel Platten has been making music since 2003, with her last album Be Here dropping in 2011 basically providing a lot of TV soundtrack fodder and operating as a poorly produced cross between Sara Bareilles and Hilary Duff. Maybe she could have had more luck if she had dropped it in the mid-2000s, but 2011 was the middle of the club boom, and she definitely was never weird or mature enough to get either the adult contemporary or indie crossover.

And yet in 2015 she got her big break... but did she really? As I said, it's not a good sign when labels drop albums in early January, and the buzz I had caught was mixed at best. I did not remotely expect this to be good, but there was an Andy Grammer feature, so I might as well get the whitest pop album until Charlie Puth's debut later this year out of the way, so how is Wildfire?

Honestly, this is the sort of album that I wouldn't otherwise cover the majority of the year or if there was anything else worth talking about right now, because Wildfire by Rachel Platten is anything but fiery. What it reminds me most of is a loose amalgamation of the vaguely colourless, percussion-overloaded pop sound that hurt Hilary Duff's comeback release last year, or maybe even Lea Michele's solo debut in 2014 - but worse because of the failure to get top tier talent across the board. I'm not going to say it's outright awful, but it's not something you're going to remember or care about in a week's time, and for a major label debut, that's not a good sign.

So what went wrong here? Well, in order to keep this marginally constructive, let's start with Rachel Platten herself... and it's not a good sign that I've been underwhelmed by her since 'Fight Song' broke. I'm a bit of a loss of how to describe her voice - it's not as fiery as Kelly Clarkson or as bubbly as Carly Rae Jepsen... the closest comparison is Hilary Duff but less tight and trying for soulful swell that she really can't pull off. And unfortunately, some of this might be ability - she doesn't have good tonal control, her attempts at sounding raw are incredibly unconvincing, and then there are the tracks like 'Beating Me Up' where it sounds like she's singing through a bad head cold. Even when the multi-tracking and autotune is piled on, Platten's voice is often too frail and lacking in body to really anchor these songs with the sort of soaring heavenly presence she needs to back up her instrumentation - there's a reason for the most part Hilary Duff made sleek dance-pop or stripped back acoustic songs, it actually could balance her out. Here...

Well, a big part of the problem is the instrumentation itself, which might as well have been copy-pasted from any other modern pop record in recent memory: percussion-overloaded, reverb-heavy, colourless synths, gutless guitars, and even trap hi-hats to complete accentuate the formless and generic nature of it all that sounds astoundingly thin and cheap. And I would challenge you to find any instrumental melody on this record that's remotely unique or interesting - the closest we get is on 'Lone Ranger', and that's ripped off wholesale from Train's 'Angel In Blue Jeans'! What caught me off guard is how clumsy so much of it feels - if I were to guess, I'd say that tonally Rachel Platten was trying for heavenly soaring power, and at her best moments - the huge hook comes through on the Jack Antonoff-cowritten 'Stand By You', the simpler love ballad of 'Better Place', the spacey synths and halfway decent groove on 'Astronauts' that feel borrowed from Owl City in 2010 - it gets close. But it all feels incredibly insubstantial thanks to production that thinks clatter and heavy percussion is a suitable replacement for any basslines or groove or foundation - for crescendos to build, you need something beneath them for propulsion. It's why the loud-soft dynamic on 'Fight Song' feels so jarring, or the awkward twinkle against the synth walls on 'You Don't Know My Heart' that break into this pileup of fake horns, or how the sourness of 'Congratulations' doesn't fit anywhere on this record. And speaking of fake horns, I'd be remiss not to mention 'Hey Hey Hallelujah' with Andy Grammer, where Rachel Platten tries and fails to play a capricious alpha female, and it's not helped by Andy Grammer over-emoting and completely warping the vocal balance of the track.

Granted, none of this is helped by the songwriting - and no, I'm not talking about content, I'm talking about the writing itself. It's a bad sign when you're in your early thirties and you have lyrics like 'who turned the lights down/who took my flashlight' when talking about heartache, or 'fill me up with fireworks and tell me I'm skinny', or 'I'm a caged bird/I'm on fire'. This is some painfully high school poetry here, not helped by awkward syllable elongation or stuttering to fill up space - and of course we must not forget 'Fight Song', which anchors its chorus in a rhyme with itself and still crams in the line 'starting right now I'll be strong' - as opposed to yesterday? The writing feels amateurish, and it doesn't help the drippy, painfully naive emotional sentiments and themes. Now naivete can be an asset with the right tone - effervescent dance pop pretty much runs on it - but the sort of 'guardian-angel codependency' thing Rachel Platten attempts is a lot less successful. Take 'You Don't Know My Heart', where Platten spends the entire song wishing her partner could 'cut her open' to reveal her true feelings, because whenever she tries to describe them in words, 'it sucks'. Hell, she seems to have a poor opinion of speech in general, because 'Speechless' basically operates on the 'shut up and kiss me' template, but this is a problem because it shows an underlying lack of maturity that makes it impossible for me to take these tracks seriously, especially when she's trying to play a more confident figure or a 'lone ranger'. And what gets bizarre is how often she undercuts it - I'll give 'Lone Ranger' the slightest hint of credit for having her be distant to protect her heart, but 'Congratulations' is much worse, where she basically curls up and surrenders to this guy behaving like an emotionally abusive asshole, where 'she'll take the fall this time' and there's zero indication she'll dump him! There needs to be a core of strength to push back and I'm not seeing it on this record behind the drippy insecurities - which is probably why tracks like 'Astronauts' and 'Better Place' work as simpler love songs. Of course, when she goes too broad we get 'Angels In Chelsea', where a few random acts of kindness have inspired her to think things are getting better in our world, but then on the chorus she includes to support her point the line 'Wall Street, chic life'. Again, it's more naive than outright awful, but describing that group as angels - and I'm assuming she's not using the venture capital term - is pretty disingenuous, at best.

But look, it'd be a serious stretch to say Wildfire is anything close to good. The writing is painfully clumsy and adolescent, the vocals are underwhelming, and the best instrumental ideas are cribbed from different acts and not executed all that well. I will say it's less bad than forgettable and mediocre, which means it's getting a 4/10 from me and no recommendation, but when Julia Holter sets the high standard for heavenly music, Rachel Platten sits at the kiddie's table. Hell, she might even be more comfortable there.

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