Tuesday, February 9, 2016

album review: 'all i need' by foxes

So, do you ever have those records where you hear them, you like them a fair bit, you might have even done a review of them... but when you really think back about them, you don't remember them all that much?

Well, back in 2014 I covered Foxes' debut album Glorious, and while I definitely remember liking it for its bombast and balance of quirky indie pop with EDM bombast and for Foxes' excellent and expressive vocals, it wasn't really an album that had a lot of staying power with me. There were a few songs I liked and occasionally revisited, but in the ever expanding list of indie-leaning pop artists, Foxes didn't really stand out for me as much as I'd like - good with real glimmers of promise but nothing hugely distinctive. I think a lot of it was the songwriting - it was arguably the biggest weakness on Glorious, feeling a little amateurish and broadly sketched to really click for me - but it was also that any push behind her solo work kind of evaporated, and she wasn't getting the same feature work as she did before. And I do think that's a shame - kind of like Carly Rae Jepsen she's got a knack for infectious pop music, only where Carly Rae looks backwards to retro-80s synthpop, Foxes was aiming for something a little more modern.

Now one thing that I remembered in the aftermath of that review is that I was told much the album was intended as more abstract, not quite as focused on the bad relationships the lyrics seemed to indicate - and honestly, I'm willing to concede the point... if only because Foxes has gone on the record by saying that this new album All I Need was inspired by them, reportedly stripping things back to a more emotional core. On the one hand, going smaller and more intimate might not be a bad change of pace if you're looking to stand out, but I wasn't sure Foxes had the emotive subtlety in her delivery or writing to really pull that off. But hey, I've been wrong plenty of times before - and in this case I definitely wanted to be wrong - so how did All I Need turn out?

Well, here's the thing: I definitely think this is a more cohesive, better-written record with stronger individual songs and a more impressive vocal performance... and yet I think it's a shade away from hitting true greatness for me. It's definitely damn close, and shows that Foxes could easily transform into one of the pop artists that critics adore and who never gets the popular acclaim she deserves - Robyn and Carly Rae Jepsen spring to mind as easy comparisons - but I'm not quite certain she's all the way there yet. I definitely think she will get there, but with this record... not quite sure.

So let's start with Foxes herself, and honestly, I've always found her a great performer with the sort of richer, throaty voice that can handle belting with some impressive control, but what was a pleasant surprise was how emotive her delivery is on this record, especially on the slower songs that demand more subtlety. It's an interesting balance she has - she definitely has raw moments, but they're always composed enough to show some real skill. And more importantly, there's no reliance on vocal effects gimmicks or overproduction, and whenever her vocals are sampled, they're actually done in a really tasteful way, with any pitch-shifting lost in the synth wave. I will say it was a bit kitschy to go for the child choir on 'Money', but for the most part, this record is carried on Foxes' emotional moments, and she does a damn good job carrying them - and hell, when she brought in Dan Smith of Bastille for the backing vocals on 'Better Love', I found myself wishing he was on this record a lot more, because their interplay sounded great.

It also helps that her instrumentation has been cleaned up a lot since Glorious, opting for much more strings, pianos, and wiry synth lines over the heavier beats she used to favour, and while the thicker percussion doesn't go away, it's always complimented by a solid underlying melody that's balanced well enough to work. Hell, even her stab at more of a trap rhythm on 'Cruel' was actually pretty slick, with a really crisp hi-hat against the sparse collage of vocal fragments and piano. Now what you'll notice quickly is that if you're not paying attention to the melodies on the tracks with less potent hooks, some of these tracks can start to blur together a bit, mostly because the instrumentation has a certain uniformity to it - piano, strings, drums, the occasional synth, and that's pretty much it - and I get the feeling Foxes could have afforded a little more diversity to really make tracks punch. But I'll give her credit for putting her strongest effort forward, because there are a lot of moments that really do jump out at you, from the tight late-80s bass groove on lead-off single 'Body Talk' to that bright plucky melody that accents the chorus on 'Amazing' to the fantastic piano line that anchors 'Feet Don't Fail Me' or the peppy flutter of 'Wicked Love'. Hell, even when this record gets more subdued like on the closer 'On My Way' I really loved the melodic composition here, or that smoky fragment that opened up 'If You Need Me Now'. If I were to complain about the production at all - and really, there's so many solid melodies here that it's hard to complain - it'd be that the strings production can sound a bit compressed at points, not really getting the room to breathe, like on the more ragged opener 'Rise Up' - not that it's always a disagreeable tone, but it can feel a little tinny at points, not quite having the body that the rest of this album uses.

But look, I've always thought Foxes was a great melodic composer - what about the lyrics? Well, credit must be given, I think she's become a much more nuanced and technically proficient songwriter, and while there can be songs that default to an underwritten or repetitive hook a bit too quickly, there's enough between the lines of your standard pop song that drew my attention and do a fair bit to define Foxes' personality. Because let's face it, while the pop world has no shortage of bad relationship songs, the tone and framing that Foxes takes is a slightly more sophisticated one that I definitely like, often calling out her own weaknesses and bad decisions by staying in or returning to relationships where she should rightly know better. And I like that this record never really gives us or Foxes a straight reason why - sometimes it's infatuation like on 'Cruel' or 'Wicked Love', sometimes it's a chance that probably shouldn't be given on 'Better Love', or sometimes it's just exhausted frustration and a fear of being alone that seems to underscore both 'If You Need Me Now' and 'On My Way' - she was so close to breaking free, but she gets dragged back in again. And while I do find her justifications in the majority of these situations rather hollow, I get the feeling from her delivery and writing that she does too, and it's highlighted best in the little details of when she actually does cut herself loose, like on 'Body Talk' or 'Feet Don't Fail Me Now' or 'Scar'. And I really do like the mood on 'Devil Side', how for as much as she doesn't want to deal with this guy's bad nature, she freely admits she's got it too and she was just hoping they'd both be able to ignore it longer, or on 'Amazing', where she freely admits she falls too fast and too hard but is going to roll with it, if only tonight. Now if there are flaws in the writing, I'd argue that it comes in structuring a more coherent theme and narrative - many of the stories feel disconnected, individual songs that don't always flow into a coherent album, and I think with a slightly defter touch Foxes could have created a slightly more satisfying emotional arc rather than the final track that has her back where she started. 

But again, that's nitpicking on what otherwise is a pretty damn cohesive and solid pop record. Definitely an improvement across the board from Glorious, but is it a great album? Honestly, tricky to say, because individual songs on this record are really good, and I'd argue there isn't a bad song here. But on the other hand it reminds me of that Jess Glynne record I covered last year and I'm not sure how much staying power it'll have. But on the other other hand I can see this certainly having more staying power than other records I've called great thanks to some standout songs, so I'm going to give this a very light 8/10 and most certainly a recommendation. Foxes might not ever get the airplay she had with Zedd on 'Clarity', but she's only making better music - highly recommended.

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