Wednesday, November 21, 2018

album review: 'lm5' by little mix

So this is the fourth Little Mix album I've covered on this channel, and by now I think you all know the beats I've hit. Yes, the girls can harmonize their asses off and the writing is often punching above their weight class, but the group's pivots towards pop in recent years have been handicapped by slapdash production that doesn't always flatter them as much as they could, most likely because of budget constraints because they're a reality show girl group assembled by SYCO and Simon Cowell. Like their peers in Fifth Harmony, they were a group assembled for disposability, and I'll admit that I was waiting for the moment when they self-destructed just like Fifth Harmony did...

And that hasn't happened, and for the life of me, I'm a little stunned they've lasted with as much quality as they have. Hell, not just lasted but prospered! They get their most flamboyant pop push on Get Weird... and nab their first #1 in the UK with 'Black Magic'. They're saddled with the most slapdash collection of ideas and cowriters on Glory Days, and not only did that album get better with every single listen, they snagged a second #1 and a respectable number of solid hits even before UK radio began remixing them with everyone under the sun. Oh, and despite its terrible video, Little Mix made 'Touch', which is one of the best pop songs of the decade and also wound up becoming a top 5 hit in the UK! Let's make this clear, while Little Mix hasn't quite won the critical acclaim of Girls Aloud, their sheer amount of success and consistent quality despite everything deserves to have them put in the conversation of the great girl groups, and the surprise is that they haven't had the US crossover yet - hell, if they had released the fantastic new jack swing of 'Private Show' to US radio, they'd have beaten Bruno Mars to the punch by a solid year!

So now we're in 2018, Fifth Harmony has been knocked off the board, and Syco is even out of the picture now - unfortunately they were involved in production of this album but now Little Mix is on RCA UK and Columbia. The marketing was priming the band for the US market, and while I had high hopes for the girl group - especially given how many genres they've managed to leap across over the past five years - pop and R&B are in a very different position in 2018 and I had genuine concerns whether this would be what they need, especially with even more producers and cowriters joining them. There's no excuse for this to not be good and I had high hopes - so what did we get with LM5?

Well, I'll say this now: if Little Mix and their management were looking to get as far away from Syco as possible, LM5 might be the prime evidence as to why... because if we're looking for a project damn near crippled by awful production direction, it's this one. And look, folks, I'm trying to shoot Little Mix as much bail as I can: I've been a fan for multiple albums, the tones of mainstream pop in 2018 don't flatter them but they work with what they have, they're only growing as songwriters, and the core strength of these women as singers and performers is still here - but it's hard not to look at the production and songs they're working with the sinking feeling this might be an outright sabotaged release, and I can only judge the end product as being probably one of their weakest to date.

And to explain why this is... okay, let's go back to Glory Days, an album that was just as much of a mainstream pivot in picking up trap and tropical elements. Yeah, the album flies off in a bunch of directions and the melodies could feel watery or desaturated, but it was a project that understood the greatest strength of Little Mix were the vocal harmonies and four distinctive voices given room to breathe and belt. And keep in mind 2016 was not a great year for mainstream pop production either, but one of the reasons the album worked was that it never compromised their strengths. Fast forward to 2018, where if we get pop at all it's oily, slapdash and overlayered in the percussion but restrained in the melody, and catering to voices that rely more on texture than tone, and not only is Little Mix not given much to work with, they're also stuck trying to sell songs where the vocal pickups are too close, badly mixed, and coated in a thin film of autotune, none of which is flattering or needed! On my first half dozen listens I could draw parallels to early 2000s pop production, where the divas struggled to make the R&B transition, but Little Mix can handle R&B - what it's more reminiscent of are the increasingly ratchet and tossed off songs that Beyonce put out between her self-titled album and Lemonade, or maybe a few of the cuts on EVERYTHING IS LOVE. And make no mistake, I didn't like the vast majority of those songs, but Beyonce's mezzo-soprano has enough in her lower register to sound imposing and control the vibe - you need a specific vocal timbre to pull that off, and Little Mix's often higher, clearer tones rarely work in that range, even before the mic pickup causes them to peak at awkward volumes away from each other and the autotune keeps trying to tug them into warbling offkey!

And you know, if all four of them felt comfortable within this style it'd be one thing, but Little Mix has always been four women with similar but distinct deliveries, and forcing them to conform to dense trap percussion, triplet flows, and a very different cadence shows how it just doesn't work for everyone. Perrie has consistently been my favourite in terms of vocal timbre, but giving her the upstroked reggaeton hook of 'American Boy' reveals how if she can't belt, she doesn't quite have the same consciousness of groove as Jade or Jesy, but both of them have limitations too. Jesy has the higher register and flow, but when the grooves get unstable or clunky like on 'Joan Of Arc', she can't lock in and that's before a song like 'Wasabi' drowns her behind filters. And while Jade probably has the most comfort with the groove and pseudo-rap delivery, if she's forced into her lower register, it's not a tone that she can utilize well. It's strange to say this, but for as much as the producers seem to want to smother Leigh-Anne's smolder in autotune, but she's probably the most flexible across these songs and fares the best... and even then, it's not flattering. And what's exasperating is that there's still traces of the pop and even rock elements that gave Glory Days its firepower, but the producer only seems to put them in begrudgingly - that snarled bassline on 'Woman Like Me', the flip of Sisqo's 'Thong Song' on 'Love A Girl Right' that actually gives it more muscle, the bite of guitar on the prechorus of 'Wasabi', the lumbering wallop of the hook of 'More Than Words', and the sultriness of 'Notice', which is probably one of the best songs here. But what I probably appreciated the most was 'Told You So' - not just because of the writing, which we'll get to in a minute, but because it was stripped back, mostly acoustic, and gave the harmonies a little more room to actually breathe! Why anyone thought that tacking on what sounds like a Future adlib to 'Think About Us' which sounds like a 2016 Sia song, or songs like 'Joan Of Arc' and 'Strip' which barely sound finished, or the overmixed, flat disaster of 'Motivate', why anyone thought those were good ideas, I have no clue.

But now we get to the content - and look, it's easy to pick on cheap pop empowerment that takes about the flimsiest trappings of feminist subtext - I've certainly torn into plenty of pop acts for this, and if you're cringing through 'Joan Of Arc' or 'Woman Like Me' - especially in the latter case where the song is filled with insecurity that a guy will actually be attracted to her in this lane - well, I don't blame you. And if you find the overmixed trap oiliness about the last thing from sexy and that compromises songs like 'Wasabi' or 'Motivate'... well, I can't blame you for that either. But I'd be remiss to not call out what Little Mix does right, and there's nuance if you look between the lines. 'Strip' might be blunt as all hell in its body positivity, but I like how the overall message is sexual empowerment in confidence, even if it can feel thuddingly on-the-nose. And when Little Mix focuses on sticking together, from the kissoff of gossipmongers trying to drive them apart on 'Wasabi' to banding together to kick a cheating guy's ass on 'Love A Girl Right' to the night in consoling a friend on 'Told You So' where the group very pointedly avoids condescension, which could have been a very easy exit. And I'll say it, I like the sexual frustration that fuels 'Notice' - they're horny and all the more exasperated that the guy isn't noticing it, there's tension there that's well-executed and a nice middle-finger to those who want Little Mix to play down their sexuality - which basically is another way of telling Piers Morgan to ram his head further into his large intestine, and who can begrudge them that?

But in the end... again, for as much slack as I want to cut Little Mix, this is absolutely a lesser project from them, maybe even one of their worst - but if you're looking for a group that has been set up to fail for the last four albums and somehow has pulled out victory after victory, stumbling in perhaps the least friendly year for pop this decade is not something I'm going to hold against them, especially as you can tell Syco was pushing them hard out the door. So while I'm going to give this a strong 6/10 and a recommendation for fans only here, I will say this is a transitional album and I think Little Mix will be better off on their next album, or when the pop music climate gets a bit better. Until then... LM5 does feel disposable, but it's not bad either, scraping by more on the group's talent than everything else around them. What happens next... that'll be more interesting.

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