Friday, July 15, 2016

album review: 'nothing's real' by shura

I don't know what the hell is happening with synthpop this year.

See, in 2015 it seemed like every other week I was covering another band drawing from various points in the 80s to update their sound, for better or worse. 2016, though... I don't know if I just haven't covered as much of it, but that quick spurt of tight, synth-driven and accessible music seems to have faded almost as quickly as it arrived, either splitting towards the more immediately danceable electronic scene or towards different eras of retro sound. And that's a bit dispiriting in my books - as much as the 80s has felt like a well-trod ground when it comes to musical nostalgia, I still feel there's more that could be done to balance old and new in the modern age if given the chance.

As such, I was definitely curious to cover Shura, a British producer and singer-songwriter who built some groundswell on YouTube with a string of singles and got signed to Polydor for her first record,  starting her first ever headlining tour this year with Tegan & Sara. To me, a lot of that is a good sign, because even if this record's rollout has seen nearly every song on it become a 'single' - which you would kind of expect, given her YouTube roots - it seemed like there was some serious attention given to her as a songwriter who aimed for a more confessional and detailed side of writing you don't often see in synthpop. So I figured what the hell and I checked out her debut album Nothing's Real - how did that go?

Honestly, a lot better than I expected. This record really came as a pleasant surprise for me in the same way that E.MO.TION from Carly Rae Jepsen did last year - and arguably, it's even better, perhaps not quite as immediately catchy but with tighter writing and grooves and fewer missteps. And while I don't expect critics to fall over themselves praising this - a shame, because it really is great - I do think it'll quietly pick up a lot of attention, because while it might not immediately grab you, it definitely sticks.

And I'm trying to figure out why, so let's start with Shura herself. As a singer, she's said her main influence was Janet Jackson and you can definitely tell in her husky, tightly-multi-tracked delivery - and while you could argue she never really cuts loose, it's also not a record that's aiming for bombast. It's an album that's aiming for subtlety and smaller emotions, relying on Shura to convey enough through her delivery to pull in the audience. And here's the thing: she's not a presence that'll dominate a song so much as ride and compliment the grooves, but she compensates for with tasteful multi-tracking only when she needs it, real production that preserves vocal texture, and most importantly, a commitment to interesting vocal lines that often add to the underlying instrumental, not just mimic them.

And on the topic of the instrumentation and production... this is what 80s revival synthpop should sound like, because the production on this record is fantastic. Again, while there is a part of me that wishes thing could go a little bigger or that this record cut loose a little more in terms of the guitar lines, I'm also very much aware that this record is aiming to be a much more intimate, streamlined affair, with the sort of textured analog synths that have the presence but never the immediate bite. Again, that's not saying that these instrumental can't capture that nervous, uncertain atmosphere that often ran at the emotional core of new wave, but that she's getting there with more tact, with quick tempos, tighter melodic interplay, and letting natural analog crackle and hints of futuristic effects and guitar stings add to the momentum. And none of it obscures the foundational melodies, which means even the slower tracks have remarkably strong hooks that never feel like a retread, with a mix expansive enough to not just sound more expensive than it probably was, but also to intensify those feelings of anxiety and loneliness. And sure, all of these are tricks that the 80s perfected, but what I also appreciated was the amount of liquid guitar tones that filled up the mix to play off the synths, right from the start against the strings on the title track to the hook of 'Kidz 'N Stuff' that ends the chorus with a really bright spike of synth before a harsher guitar hits a few notes to anchor the anger, or take how that little guitar lilt fills up the back half of the hook on 'Indecision' against the rubbery beat, more elegant synth, and piano countermelody. The guitars take more prominence towards the back half of the record, from the misty, borderline War On Drugs atmospherics against that sturdy bassline, or the choppier, chimes-touched 'Tongue Tied' that with a synth tone that feels straight out of a Toto song, or how it takes a thicker prominence against the watery flutters of 'Make It Up', especially on the hook, or the distant tolls over the smoke of 'White Light' that goes straight for early 80s alien sounds with the wiry gurgle of the synth and mostly sticks the landing, especially when the outro reassembles. But even the songs where the guitar takes a lesser role like the bare-bones bass and piano of 'Touch' or the delicate popping beat and spikes of synth on '2Shy', the melodies are so damn good I can't help but be pulled in! Again, that's not saying this album is without its missteps, but instrumentally they're pretty minor, mostly in tracks that can feel a tad long like 'White Light', even with the half-assembled hidden track that really feels peripheral. And the only dud for me is 'The Space Tapes', a nine minute blurred over series of sampled demos and remixes of three songs mashed together, complete with pitch-shifting that I could have done without, but even still it's not terrible and fairly easy to ignore.

But where I really want to talk is about the lyrics and themes, and where Shura takes a step you don't often see in new wave synthpop: straightforward vulnerability. As I said before, most new wave had a mood of nervous anxiety, but it always tried to obscure it with flash and tight grooves. Shura might have the grooves, but she tilts much deeper into the real vulnerability that Janet Jackson showed on her quieter material and doesn't shy away from quieter but no less intense emotions. And while I'll get to the narrative in a second, I really do love how this record is framed, because while everyone around her is telling Shura it's all going to be okay and work out, with even her own mind telling her that, it only serves to turn her emotions inwards and while she's mature enough to understand them, it doesn't make them go away. But now to the narrative and themes... well, on the very surface you could describe it as a breakup record, but of course it goes more complicated, as this woman comes back into their life and they try to sustain a friendship that seems almost seems loaded with too many long buried emotions to work, which leads to a second breakup that seems to cut as deep. And while on 'What It Gonna Be' and 'Tongue Tied' and '2Shy' you see the hesitation and uncertainty that undercuts the confidence of the hookups and emotional connections, they're straightforward enough to cut just as strongly... and that's to say nothing of the songs where the relationship falls apart in slow motion like 'Kidz N' Stuff' and 'What Happened To Us' and 'Make It Up' and especially 'Touch', which features probably my favourite line on the album with 'We start to live the lies we tell ourselves' - one of the most perfect ways to capture trying to remain friends with an ex where the deeper feelings haven't quite cooled. And yet around this record are interludes and snippets where we hear conversation with Shura and her family, including a hidden track on the back of 'White Light' where she shows fear of her parents dying. And believe it or not, this makes sense thematically, because this is a record that values that ephemeral connection: relationships might fall apart, family might split or die, but you want to hold onto something there as long as you can, even if it doesn't always make a lot of sense. 

Now sure, that might seem like a pretty basic emotional truth to express, but this album's greatest strengths come in simplicity and cohesion, holding together fleeting emotional connections when logic would see them fall apart because damn it, there's something there. There's poignancy and humanity and even a type of romance in that subtle desperation, and when balanced against how well this record can hold its melodic structures and grooves together, you have a quietly powerful work that really does grab hold of you. For me, Nothing's Real by Shura is easily one of the best pop records I've heard in 2016, netting a solid 8/10 and certainly a recommendation, especially if you're a fan of 80s synthpop, R&B, and Janet Jackson in particular. This is the sort of self-assured and quietly brilliant record from a writer/producer who is showing volumes of potential - folks, do not miss out this record, it really is something special.

1 comment:

  1. This is meant to be more of a personal record rather than a break up album as she said,but still i am surprised you covered it and you liked it that much.