Monday, July 11, 2016

album review: 'dopamine' by BØRNS

I have to admit, I'm surprised this album got the top pick. Sure, it was a narrow three-way race, but I had expected the support behind those two records. After all, Kamasi Washington's The Epic had won a ton of critical acclaim as a behemoth of modern jazz, and Love Stuff by Elle King probably got the request thanks to how many people went back to rediscover her after 'Ex's And Oh's'. This guy, on the other hand...

Okay, from what I can glean, Garrett Borns is a Michigan-based singer-songwriter that's had some success on the rock and alternative charts after getting signed to Interscope. Apparently much of his work was inspired by retro-cool Americana, like the Beach Boys and Playboy magazines from the 60s and 70s. That's got some promise, and his collaborating producers also seemed interesting, most notably Tommy English, a guy who has worked for both 5 Seconds Of Summer and Black Veil Brides... and yet buzz was suggesting BØRNS was more retro-disco and glam rock. At the very least I like glam rock, and even though Kyle Craft set the genre an incredibly high bar this year with Dolls Of Highland, that's no reason why BØRNS couldn't also match six months earlier. And besides, you all recommended I take a look at this and I have to trust you guys have an idea of what I'd otherwise like, so how did Dopamine turn out?

This was an interesting listen - and a pretty good one, I should add, so thanks to you all for giving me a pretty nifty record to listen through, especially for a debut. I can definitely see why people like BØRNS' Dopamine - it's got enough of a rock edge to crossover, it's got grooves and decent hooks for pop appeal, and takes enough interesting instrumental detours and is a cool enough synthesis of genres to be intriguing to the critical set. Now it's not a great record - and I'm sure my explanation for that will piss plenty of you off, so here's your warning - but I wouldn't mind hearing more stuff like Dopamine get popular... or at least certain songs from this record.

Now before I dig deeper into that, let's get the writing and themes out of the way, because BØRNS put together a pretty straightforward set of intoxicated love songs. Seriously, that's pretty much it: BØRNS finds girls of such world-shattering classic beauty that it's a pure spike of the titular chemical straight through his body, and he spends the rest of the record trying to capture his enraptured experience. The funny thing is that he seems completely aware that the intoxicated haze of it all might not be the healthiest, or might go entirely unreciprocated, like on 'Dug My Heart' where the girls always seem to slip away in the morning, or on 'The Emotion' where the rush of emotion is the long-delayed explosion that comes as the relationship drains away through separation. But those are the few places where the writing develops any sort of complexity - more often it's just a heady rush of fleeting experiences, like the stabs at vintage beauty on 'Overnight Sensation' or especially 'American Money' which plays in the same overwrought Americana territory that Lana Del Rey enjoys but plays it with far less complex - and dubious - framing. There are points where the songwriting can feel a little clumsy like on 'Past Lives', which has lines on the hook such as 'Our love is deeper than the oceans of water' - because what else is supposed to fill the oceans - but for the most part the writing is actually fairly well constructed, even if on multiple listens you don't really pick up a lot of depth or complexity.

But really, this sort of music, coasting at the intersection between vapourwave, nu-disco, and glam rock, you don't really need incredible writing if the grooves and instrumentation have enough colour and personality. And BØRNS for the most part gets this, fusing his disparate genres into a gooey, reverb-touched and compressed hodgepodge that really feels more cohesive than it should, spanning glam rock to retro-disco to a more psychedelic stab at modern pop, complete with the trap snares on 'American Money' that remind me of whenever Lana Del Rey tries to shove them into her music. And unsurprisingly, where BØRNS gets the best dividends is when he sticks to sharper grooves, like the fuzzy T-Rex-inspired guitars on 'Electric Love' that's easily the album standout, but I also really dug the closer 'Fool', which is the sort of tight retro-disco that has plenty of watery embellishments on the edges but never to the point where it overruns the song. And really, the best BØRNS tracks get that, like the watery acoustics on the opener '10,000 Emerald Pools' or the blurry coyote howls and guitars that fill up the background on 'The Emotion' or the straightforward lo-fi guitar grooves on 'Clouds' that's actually pretty solid. The problems come when those production gimmicks come to overrun the song, like the overcompression and atonal synths against an otherwise punchy bass groove on 'Holy Ghost', or the overmixed saccharine backing vocals littering the title track. And then you get songs that had real potential which is just squandered by a weaker hook, like on 'Past Lives' where the Beach Boys influence comes through in the vocal harmonies and then is matched by a very sharp synth and percussion line... that just dissolves into an overmixed squealing hook that gets incredibly grating, or the lumbering trap touches on 'American Money' that has a good synth backdrop but just feels clumsy and could have used some tightness.

And nowhere is that more apparent than with our frontman himself, and where I'm sure I'm going make a fair few of you pretty angry. Simply put, I'm not exactly wild about Garrett Borns' singing, mostly because he's got a vocal tone midway between Mike Posner and Lana Del Rey, with all of the thinness of the former and the slurred-over croon of the latter. But that's him at his worst, and it's where I feel his talents are slightly misaligned. For one, he's got a great rich falsetto that has the capacity to get more raw - you see it on 'Electric Love' and 'The Emotion' - and when he throws himself into his music with more passion like on 'Fool', he sounds fantastic. Hell, you could even argue that given the overheated fantasies of love that run through this record that should be his default... but instead we get more aimless crooning that feels even more saccharine when you pile on the backing vocals. Forget glam rock where I would expect an edge - even in psychedelic pop, that can get grating over the course of several listens.

But really, I actually liked this record a fair bit. Sure, it's fairly lightweight when it comes to the content, the production can feel a little overdone and not always have the focus it should, and at the end of the day Kyle Craft has nothing to worry about on the glam rock side - and I can only hope this becomes a trend in modern music - but Dopamine by BØRNS is a damn fine release regardless, getting a 7/10 from me and definitely a recommendation. If you haven't checked it out from last year and are looking for a groove-heavy easy listen, check this out or at the very least 'Fool' and 'Electric Love' - you won't regret it.

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