Wednesday, September 28, 2016

album review: 'i remember' by alunageorge

Let's talk about female vocals in pop music.

Now I recently heard a comment from one of my close friends that she's exasperated with so much of modern pop because nearly every female singer is trying to imitate Rihanna, or at least a similar sort of mid-range nasal, husky tone. And really, I can't fault her on that, but I did start thinking where that trend came from. After all, Rihanna's been around for over a decade now on the radio, and yet this trend has been much closer to the forefront over the past few years, so what's changed?

Well, the argument could be that with the advent of autotune, less refined voices have been allowed to proliferate in the mainstream, but I think that's only a small part of this story. What's much more likely is that refinement in vocals goes in and out of style in pop, just like any other trend. Right now, it's more common to hear vocals that have a bit more of a rasp or bite to them - give it five years and I predict we'll have another subset of angel voices dominating the radio, mark my words.

So why bring this up? Well, in preparation for AlunaGeorge's sophomore album, I was struck by the odd contradiction of their sound: vocals that were clean and cooing, perhaps only a shade rougher than the pop princesses around the turn of the millennium, but production that was straight out of UK garage and modern, offkilter electronica. It's not a new phenomenon - two years before AlunaGeorge dropped Body Music Purity Ring dropped their debut, which was considerably stronger, but thanks to a fortuitous remix, AlunaGeorge actually got popular in the mainstream and was one of the acts responsible for elevating DJ Snake. As such, I was definitely curious to check out their sophomore album - they had delivered a pretty slick collection of R&B tinged electronic pop in 2014, what was their plan for 2016?

Well, that's tough to say, but that's more because I Remember by AlunaGeorge is kind of all over the place as an album, and the more I listened through it, the more I'm absolutely convinced that they're not playing to their strengths as a duo. That, along with not having that immediate single to match 'You Know You Like It' might account for their shockingly low sales worldwide - although I will say AlunaGeorge do deserve a bit more credit as a more creative and interesting act than you'd normally expect, especially as songwriters. And hell, people keep giving Shawn Mendes money and pushing his records to #1, why can't we give AlunaGeorge more of a shot?

Because on the surface, the basic ideas behind AlunaGeorge aren't bad. I do wish Aluna's vocals were a little more distinct in comparison with everyone else on the radio - that light, slightly raspy coo is everywhere on the radio these days, and you can tell she's playing to that sound - but she does bring a little more forceful personality when she needs to, not nearly as fragile as some of her competition. Unfortunately, she's then often paired with pitch-shifted vocals that go both down and up into the chipmunk range, and considering how ubiquitous they are on modern radio, it doesn't exactly lend to a distinctive presence. And then when you consider that twice on this record - the title track and especially 'Wanderlust' - the vocals are chopped into the YTP-esque collage of sound that irritated me so much from Kiiara's 'Gold' earlier this year, and I'm stuck wondering how much AlunaGeorge is going to chase current trends when it comes to the sound.

And then you hear the rest of the instrumentation and production. Now let me give a little credit where it's due and say that George Reid anchors enough of the production in real melody and doesn't really swamp the tracks in reverb... but about midway through the third or fourth glassy synth-and-bass driven tune with chilly, warping atmospheric effects and trap snares, I knew exactly what I was getting. It doesn't help that there are a fair few points on this record where the hook is less immediately memorable than the prechorus or post-chorus of the songs, like the bubbly groove on 'I'm In Control', or how the synths intensify throughout the back half of 'In My Head' and really save the song. And that's not counting the points where instead of the deep house touches that characterized their first record, we get the tropical percussion and grooves of 'Hold Your Head High' or 'Jealous' or especially 'I'm In Control' - none of it is outright bad, but considering how much that sound has monopolized the radio, it's a bit alarming how little of this sticks to my ear. But here's the problem: we also get a selection of tracks like the hollow melodic rollick on 'Not Above Love' with some spikier synths, or the pretty guitar-accented gloss of 'Mediator', or the jazz-touched grooves on 'Heartbreak Horizon' that sound imported from a turn-of-the-millennium pop/R&B tune - and surprise surprise, the hooks are a lot stronger and more interesting, even if they can feel a tad overmixed with the horns. Hell, even through it's a little more warped and at a slightly slower tempo with the melodic roil, you could easily see the Missy Elliott influences coming through in the team-up with female rappers Dreezy and Leikeli47 on 'Mean What I Mean' - and again, it's a solid song! It's almost as if chasing fleeting trends doesn't highlight the unique melodic interplay and sharper edges and penchant for eclectic instrumentation that makes AlunaGeorge a natural fit for imitating the pop and R&B of the late 90s and very early 2000s, instead of, say, jumping into an overcrowded scene where they rarely rise above average.

And nowhere is that more apparent than the writing of this album, and where it's all the more evident that the more producer-driven side of electronica does AlunaGeorge no favours. They're a more precise duo when it comes to the lyrics, and that's not a comfortable fit for the increasingly broad strokes of tropical house or electronica. Whereas late-90s pop/R&B... well, some of the tracks might be lacking that additional layer of complexity, but it's a more natural fit. The biggest stab towards depth is the more political musings of 'My Blood', where she's observing that young people tend to be the muscle in social movements but are often scapegoated and receive none of the rewards down the line, so if she is to engage there needs to be something real. And that sort of assertion of control really runs through the rest of the record, be it from smothering or disingenuous relationships on 'Not Above Love' or 'Jealous' or simple running free as single, be it from the breakup of 'Heartbreak Horizon' to the consent situation on 'Mean What I Mean'. Frustratingly, nobody quite informed Popcaan of that on 'I'm In Control', because all throughout a song where she's accepting her own sexual limits and putting them into action, he's braying that he's the 'real boss' - way to miss the point, man. Granted, for as 'in control' as she is there are points where she can still be affected by emotion or old memories - the title track, 'In My Head', and 'Not Above Love' are solid enough examples of that, with the latter case just wanting some air - and on songs like 'Mediator' she is sympathetic as the friend watching the relationship devolve from the sidelines. Overall, the writing is pretty decent... but again, outside of 'My Blood' it's still playing with an easily digestible formula, particularly songs like 'Hold Your Head High' which is your standard self-esteem anthem just in a slightly different package.

So as a whole... eh, I get why people wanted me to cover this record, but I also understand why it hasn't caught fire on a bigger level, especially given the single choice emphasized songs that could easily fill and not challenge the mainstream. And I really do think that focus is a misstep for AlunaGeorge, mostly because on a compositional level when they ventured away from it the experiments got more rough-edged and interesting, albeit a little too cluttered for their own good. As a whole... I can't say I'm going to remember much of this album, but there are a few songs I liked and no obvious weak points, even if pitch-shifting still grates on my nerves. As such... I'm thinking a very light 6/10 and a recommendation if you're a fan, but you could turn on the radio and find songs very much like the majority of this record - it is competent, but doesn't stand out that much, and with that... well, we'll see what happens.

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