Friday, September 8, 2017

album review: 'bravado' by kirin j. callinan

Okay, one thing that I've enjoyed a great deal in the Internet era is that it's started to break down the first boundaries of what pop 'should' be, at least outside of what's defined by the mainstream. And while of course I'll have an appetite for that sort of thing, I like hearing voices or tones that might use the pop framework but would fly in the face of what's traditionally acceptable in the genre, even though that definition has evolved with time.

But no matter what era of pop it is, I don't think an act like Kirin J. Callinan would have had an obvious place, especially if there was going to be any radio crossover. And sure, a big factor is how he fused ramshackle guitar and piano together or the lyrics that leaned explicitly political and more nakedly sexual that pushed more into punk or freak folk, but the bigger factor was his voice. The most obvious comparison, both given his Australian lineage and his low, guttural howls is Birthday Party-era Nick Cave, but instead of gothic trappings Callinan pushed towards a brawny, wild eyed but sharply incisive brand of synth and guitar driven pop that wouldn't be far removed from textures you'd find in the mid-80s, at least on his first record. That was three years ago, and this time for Bravado he brought in an even bigger cast of players, recruiting from the underground for acts like Weyes Blood in order to flesh out his sound. So, what spectacle did we get this time?

Here's the thing: this is one case where I actually feel quite glad I'm not part of any critical establishment that's inclined to pass broad judgments on what's considered good taste - and I only bring that up because the most common headline from critics talking about Kirin J. Callinan's Bravado is that it 'defies good taste', in that the instrumental aesthetic of this record is composed mostly of early-90s pop archetypes: big beat electronic music with a modern synth palette, and the glossy melodrama of easy listening. It's the sort of music that most critics wouldn't dare catch themselves enjoying twenty-five years ago, much less today, so you can see the marked hesitation for so many of them to admit they like this. I don't need to have that hesitation, because I completely understand what Callinan is doing and I like the central gimmick - and I say gimmick because it doesn't quite work all the way through, not quite taking its central idea to transcendence the same way an artist like his conceptual peer Ariel Pink can at his best.

And I think the Ariel Pink comparison is valid here: both are pulling their tones and aesthetic from what many would consider the cheesy junk of pop culture, refining the often rock-solid pop core, and then giving it a distinctly weird feel with the writing. Now Callinan doesn't go as far as Pink in the instrumentation and production - we'll come back to this - but it's not hard to see that with his vocals alone he'd replicate a similar feel. He's not quite as bellicose or raw as he was on his debut, but that does make a certain amount of sense, especially given how many guest stars he's singing opposite on this project. Now the one that I immediately recognized was Weyes Blood on 'Friend of Lindy Morrison', but I was most impressed by the artists who stepped up to actively duet with Callinan instead of playing backing vocals, like STAR on 'This Whole Town' or especially Alex Cameron on 'Big Enough', mostly because it showcases a lot of great chemistry - although I will say I was amused that longtime Ariel Pink collaborator Jorge Elbrecht showed up for 'Tellin' Me This'. But one of the unfortunate factors of bringing on so many guest stars outside of duets on an equal footing is that they do serve to soften some of Callinan's edge, so we don't quite get as many standouts like 'S.A.D.', which is pretty much a case study of Callinan at his weirdest and strongest.

And a big part of this is composition, because let's face it, for this sort of material to work and not just feel like a goofy parody of cheesy early 90s music - or worse, feel like a pastiche of it - it needs to take some chances with the production or composition, and this does happen. 'S.A.D.' is the best example - yes, the constant key shifts can be jarring as hell at first, but it's a compositional choice that fits Callinan's tendency to go for broke in the most direct way possible, and his delivery definitely supports that. Similar case for the squonking guitars and glossy synths that flips up a key for the verse on 'Living Each Day' that supported by synthesized vocal layers that's a shade too tight to go for the guitar solo, but I do wish it had tried, or the subtle gallop anchoring in the guitars that brings in accents of strings and swelling dance melodies at the best possible times on 'Big Enough', especially given its utterly absurd howling finale. Unfortunately, maybe it's an issue of the production not quite having the rich orchestration or drive to go bigger, but it often feels like there are songs that don't quite take off with the same power as they could - 'Friend Of Lindy Morrison' again has the groove but never quite hits the explosive swell, and 'Family Home' takes a gorgeous slow build with rich vocal harmonies and never quite pays off the atmosphere with an underwhelming close. And while I like the tight syncopated grooves of the title track that has a weird whistling squonk that fits the awkward swell of the song, I think slightly better tonal choice could have paid off the drama that much stronger. Hell, where tone becomes the biggest issue is on 'Down 2 Hang', full of wiry, skittering rattles, nervy blasts of noise, and a choppy disco-groove that contorts across the middle of the mix that definitely matches the confrontational tone of his infamous collaboration James Chance, but for as dark as it can get, all that nervy tension never hits a break point. But on the flip side you have 'Tellin' Me This', which might embrace the easy listening keyboard melodies, chimes, and crooning backing vocals a little too straight-faced - and sure, it's pretty, and all the subtle guitar embellishments and horns show more going on in the composition, but if you gave this to Michael Bolton or Richard Marx twenty five years ago, I doubt many could tell the difference.

But of course that's the point, which takes us to the content. And here's the thing: while the Ariel Pink comparison works for the compositions, a better one for the content is Meat Loaf and the writing of Jim Steinman, in that it's a deliberate retro-camp callback but also is willing to take the piss out of itself while trying to make a meaningful statement - Bat Out Of Hell did it for the 50s, Bat Out Of Hell II did it for the 70s, and Callinan is doing it for the 90s... albeit using a lot of contemporary language because that's how you make these themes feel more relevant nowadays. And that's the odd thing: just like on Embracism, Callinan is most interested in exploring masculine roles in the modern world, both the areas where they deserve thorough subversion or where they still might have a very real place. On the one hand you have the exasperation of 'Down 2 Hang', where instead of an implied hookup he's the one getting strung along by her autonomy, or 'S.A.D.' where controlling impulses go out the window and the drug trip becomes less of an empowering escape and more a careening mess... but on the other hand, letting go from violent impulses on 'Living Each Day' has rarely sounded so joyous, and 'Big Enough' skewers cowboy culture by implying that despite all the posturing, the world is big enough for all of us! It's not saying there isn't a place for masculine figures - the father is a constant figure in Callinan's 'Family Home', and it's not saying his role isn't needed, just that it needs to evolve - and there's a similar case for romance made across the connections of 'Tellin' Me This' or the anxious waiting on 'This Whole Town'. It's just that this record is self-aware enough to call out overwrought bravado at its core, while recognizing its place and that when rooted in true vulnerability and honesty, it carries so much more power - there's a reason the recognition of some vestige of fame and success on 'Friend Of Lindy Morrison' comes right before the title track lays it bare. However, this is where musical genre aesthetics and history can kind of clash with Callinan's messaging, because it's not like easy listening or big-beat EDM were genres dominated by masculine archetypes, especially in the early 90s against hard rock or hair metal or the rise of gangsta rap, so while it can emphasize Callinan's tendencies towards being a sensitive romantic, the mode of the messaging could have maybe carried more weight if it better matched the content.

But overall, I've got no problem I like this: thematically it's an advancement and refinement of what Callinan has previously explored, and while I do think he could have utilized some of his guest stars a little better or paid off some of the climaxes with more intensity and power, he does have a solid sense for groove and melodic progression that'll serve him in a big way going forward, and I cannot deny how catchy and potent of some of these melodies are. It's the sort of indie pop that will not be for everyone - hell, that voice with this style of writing will do that on its own, but there's a certain raw sincerity that pulls me in regardless, netting a light 8/10 from me and definitely a recommendation. It's a weird listen - and yes, I did get to this later than I'd have wanted - but it's definitely worth a listen, so check it out!

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