Monday, June 18, 2018

album review: 'oil of every pearl's un-insides' by SOPHIE

So I tend to find it interesting what people's threshold for 'weird' is in electronica, mostly because I'm fairly certain mine is pretty skewed. Most of this I can attribute to when I started getting into electronic music in the first place a couple of years back, which found me delving into the critically acclaimed experimental electronic music that seriously challenged the art form rather than the foundational artists in house, techno, and other associated subgenres, most of which I found later. But what this means is that it set a strange baseline for what I would consider 'challenging' electronica, one that's probably not common with anybody else.

So for an easy example, let's talk about SOPHIE - known to work with Charli XCX and the PC Music group with chipper, burbling synths, lumpy, overblown and distorted progressions, and a sensibility somewhere between late 90s bubblegum pop and k-pop for synthesizing maddeningly catchy music, I had been aware of SOPHIE going back at least as far as her 2015 project Product, but I hadn't been thrown off-guard as so many were. Yeah, the mixes could feel slapdash and unbalanced, and the frequented pitched-up vocals could grate on my nerves, but beyond that... well, she at least had a pop sensibility in comparison to a producer like Arca, but that gave me the impression that this was considered so mindblowing and genre-pushing only with respect to modern electro-pop. And yeah, while it felt undercooked lyrically and I wasn't remotely convinced this was that experimental, I enjoyed it for what it was, and as such I wasn't nearly as surprised when she notched credits on Vince Staples' newest project, or that she'd have a larger release following up on the compilation Product waiting in the wings that's getting the bandwagon critical acclaim. So did SOPHIE manage to live up to all of those expectations with Oil Of Every Pearl's Un-Insides?

So here's the thing: the more listens I gave this project, the more I'm utterly convinced that SOPHIE's choices and timbre have a place in forward-thinking pop and electronic music going forward... but this album is not the best argument for it, not by a long shot. Part of this feels like SOPHIE might be misunderstanding her strengths on a fundamental level, but the problems unfortunately run into execution as well, and while there's enough gleaming moments of promise to keep this above mediocrity or failure, I'm a lot more lukewarm on this than I would like to be.

And we might as well get the most distracting issue out of the way first: production, specifically the mixing and especially around the vocals. Keep in mind that when it comes to the synth tones splitting the different between shrill, wiry howls, jagged gleaming spikes, and waves of semi-rhythmic contortions, I'm generally okay with the off-kilter melodies that are brewed up, just alien enough to be disorienting in their full-force but layered and catchy enough to sidle into your mind, especially when paired with the female vocals from frequent pop collaborator Mozart's Sister. It's not as experimental or warped on a compositional level as what Arca did a few years back, specifically when it comes to rhythm and time signatures, but considering SOPHIE is going for more of an accessible pop framework, I'd be okay with that... if the vocal production was anything close to consistent. And again, this isn't talking about the mutated, crackling distortion wrapped around 'Ponyboy' and 'Whole New World', which I mostly like, but the cleaner vocal pickups sound like they've been selectively fed through a filter where only a certain subset of frequencies in the the mid-to-high filter are boosted in volume to emphasize their mechanical, gummy shrillness. And when you pair it with bass boosted to crackling, blown-out extremes and synth tones in similar frequencies, you get clash, but not in a way that emphasizes any deeper sense of progression or contrast - if you're not paying attention, you probably don't even notice the synth solo on the back half of 'Infatuation', which really strikes me as a misstep. But a song like 'Immaterial' with the most defined pop structure is the best sample case, because it could well serve as a solid, glittery, k-pop-leaning track with its wiry bounce, but SOPHIE draws out that added treble emphasis within the vocals so not only do they peak in the mix, they're also stuck against the more atonal melody, and that's before you get any of the richer, pseudo-90s-R&B vocals that are intended to feel more organic and don't match with anything.

But that is operating on the assumption that this record is even trying for more of that pop structure, where arguably SOPHIE can get the most of dynamic swell like on 'It's Okay To Cry', which I'd probably say is the most traditionally strong tune here, or the Disney callbacks within 'Whole New World', or even the blunt repetition of 'Infatuation' or 'Ponyboy'. Hell, while I'd consider most of the lyrics pretty undercooked as a whole - abstract but focused most on the sublimation of the self into raw, ecstatic waves of emotion - I really liked 'Faceshopping' for how it juxtaposed ideas of warping one's image with consumerism to later become some veneer of representative reality... but even that track feels like more of a offkilter progressive piece with its out-of-nowhere shifts. Then there's 'Not Okay' and 'Is It Cold In The Water', both of which are very reminiscent of Arca circa 2015 with their jittery shifts of watery glass, and then you follow it with 'Pretending', which might as well be a dark ambient piece with muffled layers howling in the distance before the low-end sputters in some revving groove that goes nowhere. And I'm not really against these choices, but it feels like the production is still centered most on the blaring synthpop trebles, which leaves the mid-to-low end connective tissue painfully underserved to build any sort of groove beyond the blocky, crackling bass. And that's a big problem in the overall immersion of the songs: all the synths and squealing vocals have tone and volume but little foundational body, which means the wild shifts don't quite have the impact they could - a lot of overblown texture, but little actual groove. And with so much of SOPHIE's aesthetic trying to emphasize that explosive presence, you wind up with pop songs that are undercut by their own mixing or experimental pieces that feel compromised but lack the structure to elevate their ideas.

And beyond that... honestly, there's not a lot I can really add here, especially when I can point to SOPHIE's contemporaries or earlier body of work and find stronger tunes. And beyond nitpicks like how 'Ponyboy' reminds me more of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders than anything she's intending, or how the thematic juxtaposition of 'Whole New World' and 'Pretending World' kind of undercuts the euphoria of other songs - Perfume Genius approached similar themes with way more nuance and pathos on No Shape last year - I'm just lukewarm on this record as a whole, which means I'm giving it a 6/10 and a recommendation, but only tentatively. If you're curious, I'd recommend checking out the compilation Product first beforehand, but SOPHIE is an acquired taste regardless - I just wish it was mixed together a little better.

No comments:

Post a Comment