Sunday, March 6, 2016

album review: '99¢' by santigold

So here's a piece of an argument that I really can't stand: 'well, it's better because he or she did it first', the idea that something is inherently superior because the creator might have been the one to imagine or realize it before anyone else. I get the principle behind this argument - you could argue that building off an established sound requires less work than inventing something brand new - but it can also discount when an artist takes an established foundation in a direction that even the originator never could.

In the case of Santigold, however, it might be one of the rare cases when you can see the ripple effects of her music spanning the past several years of pop music, where she was just ahead of the punch. She started off as the frontwoman of the punk band Stifled, which released two albums in the mid-2000s, but by the time she dropped her solo debut Santogold in 2008, you'd never know, as it blew through synthpop, reggae, and much of the electronic textures that would come to dominate mainstream pop for the next five years. The immediate and most common comparison is M.I.A., but I found Santigold much more likable, partially because she has a great grasp of melody and tightness in her writing, and partially because her writing had a deft touch that might not be as vibrantly scattershot as M.I.A., but ultimately felt more cohesive and considered. Now I found that debut to be pretty uneven at points - and yet when she came back with Master Of My Make-Believe in 2012, I'd argue it's one of the best pop records of that year. The writing and grooves were so well-realized, balancing electronic and organic amazingly well, it was an album that won me over fast, even if I do think the energy fades a bit in the final tracks.

So in other words, after four years of being out of the spotlight, and with the knowledge that Santigold has the sort of forward-thinking production that could take her in a fascinating direction, I was definitely on board here. So what do we get on 99¢?

Well folks, I've been struggling to write this review for over a week - partially because to this day nobody has posted the complete set of lyrics anywhere, and partially because I really wanted to like this album a fair bit more than I do. It's not that this album is bad - I don't think it's better than her sophomore release, but it is stronger than her debut - but the more I've listened through it the more I find pieces that feel underdeveloped, lacking in the sort of tightness and groove that I really dug about her best work, with fewer and fewer excuses for it.

So let's start with Santigold herself, and I'm not going to deny that she's a vivacious and potent presence behind the microphone, even if through the combination of vocal effects and her own delivery she can be a bit hard to understand. I wouldn't say she shows off a huge amount of emotional range on this record - with the big exception of the hook on 'Chasing Shadows' or the soulful and powerful 'Before The Fire', which was pretty damn potent if a bit short - but this is one of the rare cases where it wasn't needed in the same way. Thematically, most of this record is about making shallow pop music and being a pop star, and in walking the line between plastic and showing the organic soul beneath it, Santigold nails this balance.

It also helps come through in a lot of her instrumentation and production, which is varied and colourful but falls into an interesting area for me: simultaneously garish and in-your-face with a muted, unsettling eerieness that creeps around the edges, darkness kept out of sight until it can't be concealed any more. Now to create this feel Santigold brings a collage of elements that mostly work, from the gummy blasts of synth that explode all over 'Can't Get Enough Of Myself' or 'Banshee' or the oddly warping tones on 'Who Be Lovin' Me', most of which get a lot chillier and darker against tracks like the trap beat of 'Walking In A Circle' or the killer early-80s gothic chill of 'Rendezvous Girl' or the bass-heavy patter of 'Outside The Wall' that picks up the frigid synth against a distant repeating guitar lick. These sorts of guitar tones have always felt the most out of place on Santigold songs - I'm guessing a leftover from her punk days - but I'm also not going to lie that they do lead to a pretty sweet ramshackle vibe on songs like the bass-driven 'Who I Thought You Were' that closes out the album. And then there are the piano driven songs like 'Chasing Shadows' - which reminds me way too much of Santigold doing a take on Vampire Weekend's 'Step' - or the colder, bongos-accented hollowness of 'Before The Fire', which somehow gets even icier on the minimalist, bass-heavy patter of 'Run The Races' that might be the closest this record gets to a modern pop song, featuring overdubbed vocals and more percussion over melody. But really, with rare exception, I actually really dug a lot of the production on this record, and with the exception of a few songs running longer or shorter than they should, most of it does exactly what good pop music should: stick in the brain with real personality.

And now all that's left this this record actually saying anything... and where it probably frustrates me the most. The first thing you'll notice is that while there are songs that seem to fall towards self-empowerment anthems to the point of being borderline ego trips, it becomes very quickly apparent that it's all tongue-in-cheek, especially as you get to the much darker mid-section of the album where it highlights the increasingly hollow and ephemeral cycle of modern pop music, artists who squabble to get a crown that'll only last a few years at most. I would say it gets close to satire in terms of the self-awareness, utilizing the pop music form to comment on pop music, but Santigold is taking a slightly more nuanced approach, as she acknowledges how she plays on the outskirts of the system having never quite broken through... and yet she has chosen to remain a part of that system. Furthermore, tracks like 'Chasing Shadows' do highlight how she finds a certain permanence in the creation of music, markers in time that can mean more like any other type of art. If anything, Santigold takes more issue with the infighting and incessant bitchiness that comes from a fight with such hollow stakes... which leads to my biggest issue with this album, because while there are songs that make some great commentary and hold the balance between burying pop and praising it, the worst tracks are when the balance tips entirely one way or the other. I liked some of the ideas behind 'Outside The War', but considering how the instrumentation didn't really evolve, it's a paranoid snapshot that can feel jarringly out of place. But on the other hand, tracks like 'Big Boss Big Time Business' and 'Who Be Lovin Me', the latter with ILOVEMAKONNEN's barely-on-key droning show pop bragging that feels just as vapid as the material Santigold satirizes on other tracks. And in the latter case, the writing itself doesn't hold up all that well, barely even trying to rhyme and feeling really a lot sloppier than it should, especially when other tracks are so tightly written and composed.

But overall, I did like 99¢, even if I get the feeling I should like it more. I like self-aware commentary and Santigold's slightly more complex spin on being inside modern pop, but it didn't really stick with me as deeply as I'd normally like, a lot of flash and colour but not a lot of deeper sticking power, at least for me. And after giving it well over a dozen listens in trying to compose this review, I think I'm confident in giving it a 7/10 and a recommendation, especially if you like the weirder but still accessible side of modern pop music. Because even if this record does speak to the commodification of modern life, it sure as hell is worth more than ninety-nine cents, I can say that. 

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