Wednesday, July 11, 2018

album review: 'i'm all ears' by let's eat grandma

So this is going to be a strange one - and this time, I don't have any excuses, I put this on my schedule myself when I started seeing the critical acclaim rolling in. And I'll freely admit that when I discovered this was an indie pop duo from the UK who met as children and starting writing reportedly these strange, off-kilter songs, I thought I had a firm idea what I was getting into.

And after listening to their debut... well, I still think I do, but that's more because the weird kaleidoscope of sounds that Let's Eat Grandma incorporates does make a strange sort of sense. Yes, the obvious comparisons can be made to the dream pop scene with the spacey textures and extended song structures that all go on way too long, but the more obvious comparison was a subgenre I haven't touched on in a long time: anti-folk. You know the types, the ones that take the more earnest songwriting tropes of folk music and bend them until they snap, and considering how much of the debut read like an extended, slightly twisted subversion of fairy tales - and how much pop has disappeared up its own ass in the 2010s, even in the mainstream - Let's Eat Grandma was intriguing but not particularly gripping, at least for me.

But that debut, mostly comprised of songs the girls had written in their younger years, got a lot of attention, including from experimental pop producer SOPHIE who keeps showing up in my reviews this past month. And given that she was stepping in alongside David Wrench on production made me think I'm All Ears might be a sonic departure, heading towards more glittery synthpop than the anti-folk that gave Let's Eat Grandma such a distinctive presence in the scene. But hey, considering all of the critical acclaim I was certainly curious, so what did we find on I'm All Ears?

Honestly, I think I might fall on the cooler side with regards to this project as I did with their debut. And believe me, I went in really wanting to get on-board with Let's Eat Grandma, but the more listens I gave I'm All Ears the more I'm convinced their pivot towards synthpop not only sapped out of some the band's unique energy off their debut, but also hasn't taken a step towards resolving the frustrations I had with that record. And yet I hesitate to call this a sophomore slump because, like with Charli XCX and Pop 2, I can see many of the artistic choices here reflect a direction that'll likely satisfy their fanbase and just didn't click for me, and even then, I'd still call this a pretty enjoyable listen, if not a great one.

And the weird thing about that is that somehow I think the things I like and appreciate about this record most will run contrary to what others like, and the lyrics are a good place to start. Because on a purely superficial level, the poetry is not as elegant or nakedly subversive or off-kilter as I, Gemini, and while we do get passages with richer detail, more of the content would not far removed from your average synthpop act like Carly Rae Jepsen. And while the part of me that really liked the anti-folk subversion of their debut, the poetry this time around feels, if not as clever, more heartfelt and personal. And while there was always a slightly childlike sense of framing to their work, it's more acutely adolescent for I'm All Ears - and I intend that as a compliment, believe it or not, especially in the emotional nuances that comes with those high school years. And that's not to be dismissed as it too often is - truly great teen pop knows how to bury into those frustrating emotional contradictions on the cusp of maturity whereas the lesser material simply echoes it, and if Let's Eat Grandma has a skill, it's getting into the headspace of unanswered yearning, stifling emotions to try to appear cool, and the slow realization that sometimes no matter how straightforward the solution might seem, the consequences rarely are. It's one reason I found the self-conscious anxiety on the cusp of love on 'Falling Into You' and 'I Will Be Waiting' to be surprisingly charming, and as much as I have issues with 'Cool & Collected', I appreciate the curdled tension within the track. And hell, when you consider how much thematically this record is about bucking the conventional norms to stifle emotionality, the choice to end things with 'Donnie Darko' in showing both a hyper-detailed stagnation and the fear that opportunities to try express something may have been missed is potent, especially following after 'Ava', an easy highpoint in how for as much as our protagonist wants to be a support for that broader expression of emotive truth, the older titular character pushes back because when you're an adult with responsibilities and real consequences it's so much harder to just lay everything out there. And I like how Let's Eat Grandma doesn't dance around these consequences, especially on my favourite cut 'Snakes & Ladders', which takes a relationship where the protagonist feels neglected and unneeded and drives it straight into the curdled nightmare of toxic co-dependence it could well become, and the framing doesn't shy away from it.

So okay, the writing and themes are remarkably on point and show a great deal of nuance and balance, so why isn't this project great? Well, this is where we have to get into execution, and unfortunately this comes in two parts. The first major issue is unfortunately a carryover from their debut, and that is structure - out of eleven tracks, three are instrumental introductions or interludes, and while I appreciated the juxtaposition of the thicker, ragged strings against the twinkling keys and warping electronics on 'Whitewater', the oddly jaunty synth of 'Missed Call (1)' utterly deflates the tension coming from 'Snakes & Ladders' and the super-close purring and mouth noises of 'Cat's Pajamas' was entirely too close for comfort, and doesn't really fit after the glittery outro of 'I Will Be Waiting'. And that's not counting on how by the time we get to the final three tracks, two of which clock over nine minutes by doubling down on looped synth progressions with added layers of smoldering guitar and while 'Donnie Darko' comes close to earning its length thanks to the coursing 80s-synthpop groove that's followed by a potent climax near the eight minute mark, 'Cool & Collected' just feels overlong and kind of stilted. Hell, that's a case I'd make for a fair few tracks here, with extended passages crying out for any sense of momentum or groove or even writing to really add more meat to these tunes, but lacking the progressive melodic shifts or layering to really get there. 

And yes, some of this is trying to cultivate that dream pop vibe, but that also takes us the second major issue, and that's instrumental focus for Let's Eat Grandma as a whole. While I can respect how much they try for cohesion, it's hard to ignore that the two songs produced and cowritten by SOPHIE, 'Hot Pink' and 'It's Not Just Me' can feel overwhelmed by the blown out, glassy edges and grainy trap touches, and with the absence of the folk elements it can feel like the duo is struggling for a more distinctive identity. A comparison I found apt, given the girlish vocals and odd juxtaposition of genres was Elvya Dulcimer, who I reviewed way back in 2015 and also had a similar pop/folk/electronic fusion, but Let's Eat Grandma seems to have stripped the pop down to synth tones ranging from 90s R&B to 80s rock, with more than a few sidelong glances at the most recent The War On Drugs album and a grungier but accessible set of 90s guitar tones. And while to the duo's credit they give their disparate influences enough space to avoid dramatic clashes, but when you realize most of the programmed percussion work is generally thin and many of the songs are lacking that coursing bass foundation, it further detracts from the momentum the longer songs desperately need. And more to the point, you have to wonder whether a more conventional melodic climax would make songs like 'It's Not Just Me' or 'Falling Into You' strike harder, as the duo seems very much aware how to ramp up that tension and texture but not the moment to really cut the melody loose. And if some of this reads like me just crying out for a striking instrumental solo to loosen things up and match the rougher exuberance of the vocals... well, it is, but tell me I'm wrong here!

So as a whole... look, there are parts of me that want to simultaneously be easier and harder on this record, because Let's Eat Grandma has a ton of promise and their willingness to experiment across the board is really encouraging. But there are niggling tendencies in their song construction that could be better executed and the last thing I want to see is the duo get their unique tones co-opted by other producers with a more defined sound before they can iron out their own kinks. And all of that means I'm giving I'm All Ears an extremely light 7/10 and a recommendation, but a cautious one. Again, this is a duo whose hype is blowing up very quickly, and I want to hear them ride the wave and not get subsumed - but hearing them mature really is interesting, so yeah, check this out, cool stuff.

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