Sunday, July 10, 2016

album review: 'fma' by grace

Oh, I've been looking forward to this review.

See, a few months back I covered a song as a World Hit for Billboard BREAKDOWN called 'You Don't Own Me', which was a remake of a classic Lesley Gore song from the mid-60s and was actually updated well for the modern era. And ever since then, with the song crossing over into the States, I've been trying to keep an eye on Grace Sewell, known mononymously as Grace. If you recognize that last name, it might be because her brother Conrad has also had some major world success as the vocalist on Kygo's 'Firestone' or his breakout solo hit 'Start Again', thus being the first pair of siblings to hit #1 on the Australian charts with different songs. 

And I'll have to admit I was intrigued - with 'You Don't Own Me' it looked like Grace was able to tap into the smoky side of vintage soul that leans more towards Amy Winehouse than Meghan Trainor, and the fact she brought on Quincy Jones himself to update the production is all the more evidence that she might be a formidable artist in her own right. And while some of that would come from being part of a family of musicians going back to her grandparents who toured with the Bee Gees, there did seem to be formidable talent here, so I checked out her debut FMA, which stands for Forgive My Attitude - what did we get?

Man, I wanted to like this album a lot more than I did. Because, again, I feel I have to keep on restating that I do like when retro-pop is done well and Grace is making a fine effort with FMA... but it doesn't entirely stick the landing, mostly because it can painfully obvious which lane she's trying to follow and when it doesn't work. It's a decent debut album, for sure, and I think she definitely has promise, but you can tell there's a lot of work that needs to be done in order to refine and focus this sound.

And nowhere is that more apparent than with Grace herself, so let's start there and clear out the elephant in the room: it's painfully obvious that if Grace isn't consciously trying to imitate Amy Winehouse, she's definitely an inspiration in terms of vocal technique, image, and delivery. And honestly, I don't mind that: I was never the biggest fan of Amy Winehouse while she was alive, but she was a gifted writer and performer who very much embodied the film noir femme fatale who had actually seen and done everything that was said about her, which gave her rasp a lot of subtle power. Grace, unfortunately, isn't nearly as subtle as she needs to be to pull this off, and it's clear she's trying a lot harder than she should to embody this image. And that sort of weathered persona, balancing fragility with deeply buried but powerful emotions, that's not something just mimicking the vocal affections will capture, no matter how much your production wants to mimick it.

Granted, you also need to keep in mind that Amy Winehouse was working with producers who knew how to perfectly balance that vintage retro sound with modern touches, and the list of producers who can pull this off is slim indeed... which comes to be a problem on this record. It's very telling that when Quincy Jones shows up for the cover of 'You Don't Own Me', a veteran who has worked with Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, it has more depth and balance than any track on this record. And I'll give them credit for trying, but the vocal fidelity always feels way too clean to blend in with the rest of the mix, which submerges itself in retro-soul textures with crackling lo-fi production around the guitar, bass, organ and piano. And that's a big problem because it feels so much more like an affectation, especially when you get guest stars like Parker who drop autotuned vocals on 'Crazy Over Here' and it doesn't fit at all. Take songs like the opener 'Church On Sunday' with the very stilted organ line or the lo-fi crackles all around the piano on 'How To Love Me', don't only take it halfway - and yeah, I get not every producer is Dave Cobb and can pull off that sort of balance, but they could have at least tried more. I actually some of the more contemporary R&B tunes that crop up here: the borderline g-funk touches on 'Say', the sweep of the horns on 'Hell Of A Girl' and 'Feel Your Love', the instrumental textures at least matched Grace's singing a little better. On the other hand, sometimes the lo-fi approach goes entirely too far, like the liquid blur of guitar on 'New Orleans' or the closer 'Song Cries and Amens', which tries to match her voice with a composition that feels half-formed and ends after ninety seconds, barely a full song and not a strong closer.

Granted, now we have to talk about the writing... and I will give Grace points for trying for more morally ambiguous framing, or at least putting together an interesting character. She's a flirt, she's capricious, she loves hot and fast before leaving a trail of broken hearts, and yet she's just as hurt when guys can't match her passion or when they treat her the same way. And to be fair, there is some self-awareness in how she's more realistic in how her relationships have a shelf-life, and she doesn't have a lot of patience for guys who don't pick up on the message. That said, there is a limit to how far you can push this before the dramatic stakes start getting shaky, and Grace crosses that line more than a few times, and it's an issue in her delivery that's mirrored in the writing: a real lack of subtlety and disaffection. It comes in early on 'Hell of A Girl', which is a kiss-off to a guy who left her and now wants her back, and while I appreciate the raw anger here as she's closer to moving on, the already clunky hook just isn't as smooth as it needs to be to discard this guy. And it doesn't help the framing on this record is wonky as hell: it wants to romanticize the midsection of this record where she wants real love and affection from guys who are distant or who might be cheating, but it's rare this is tempered with the self-awareness to elevate it into deeper drama - 'How To Love Me' gets close with the hook and 'From You' has some of it too, but with the references to playing this guy like a Barbie doll, it feels capricious, and that can hurt the sincerity that shows up on the unfulfilled expectations of 'Say' or the waiting of 'New Orleans' or the frustration of 'Feel Your Love'. It feels like the writing wants its cake and to eat it too, and never take more responsibility for the reckless nature of the hookups, especially when it wants to romanticize the drama in the breakup songs. 'Church On Sunday' unintentionally might be the strongest metaphor for it: this is a girl who pushes away a guy who she leads on after apparently cheating, but now instead of actually dealing with the situation, she says she's got damage, she warns the guy away, and says she needs to go church on Sunday, on the bridge almost blowing off that 'you gotta learn love hurts sometimes' - uh, that's not an excuse! It's also why 'You Don't Own Me' is easily the best song here, because with G-Eazy's added verse there's balance to the feminist subtext and it comes together as a really strong modern update.

But really, I get what this album is, particularly in the writing: it's melodrama, pure and simple, and that can work for the framing that Grace seems to be trying. But it's also a clash in styles in the production and writing that really makes it a lot messier than it should be - sorry Grace, but it's not gonna work when you say 'bool', mostly because you're not a Blood! Coupled with a performance that has potential but not really the subtlety to execute, I really didn't dig this album as much as I wanted, even despite a retro-soul sound that I'd normally really like. For me, it's a strong 6/10 and a recommendation, especially if you like Amy Winehouse, but it's also one that shows a lot of work that would need to be done before I think Grace is ready to dominate stateside. It's pretty good, but if her biggest hit remains a cover, Grace could be in for a tough road ahead.

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