Wednesday, December 19, 2018

album review: 'shake the spirit' by elle king

So I'm going to say something a little strange here: I'm not sure Elle King was done any favours by 'Ex's And Oh's' becoming a hit.

Now on the surface this might sound crazy - most acts in rock, especially those who can can straddle the scuzzy lane between blues, alternative country and the indie scene, would kill for any crossover success, especially when it cracks the top 10. But that's part of my point: for a moment in 2015, Elle King seized the popular attention with a blend of retro sounds that almost screamed novelty while simultaneously plainly showing her influences, which many critics described as squatting firmly between Amy Winehouse and any slew of modern blues rockers with a fuzzy pickup and a fat groove, especially The Black Keys. But while I might be mostly fond of that blend of sound, it wasn't all that unique in the indie scene - especially if you looked towards country - and going back to her debut Love Stuff, I just wasn't as wowed as I wanted to be. Yeah, there were a few great songs - 'America's Sweetheart' was a pretty great barn-burner with its banjo - and I liked Elle King's vocal texture, but as a whole the album felt too polished and direct and the blown-out groove sections could get tiresome, and could have likely done well on the radio... in an era where there was a space on the airwaves for more than just one song from her, or indeed anything in these genres.

And given that we hadn't heard from Elle King since, I'll admit I was surprised when Patrons threw a ton of support behind her sophomore follow-up Shake The Spirit, which reportedly was trying a broader selection of sounds... which to me smacked of trying to maintain her identity while trying to recapture that retro magic again, which could be risky for maintaining cohesion. But hey, I wouldn't say no to another 'America's Sweetheart' and hopefully one of those styles managed helped her strike gold, so what did we get from Shake The Spirit?

So I have to be very honest here: even coming in with lower expectations, I still was not all that impressed whatsoever with Shake The Spirit. And what's exasperating at this point is that I'm not sure whether it's an issue of Elle King's songwriting not being there in a way that truly cuts or that her producers had no idea what direction to expand her sound - likely a combination of both. What's more, it's not like Elle King is without a template in this lane or didn't have peers to emulate, because when you have a year with better projects coming from Lindi Ortega, Neko Case, the Pistol Annies and Courtney Marie Andrews among others, it's hard to be impressed by the surface texture of Elle King when there's just not much beneath it - especially when if you make the comparison to Love Stuff, the songs just aren't here in the same way.

And this starts from the assertion that I really like Elle King as a performer, at least in terms of vocal timbre, and I do think she's at least trying to add more subtlety and soul this time around to her delivery. And while it sounds absolutely murderous on her throat, that gritty rasp and her attempts to infuse it with more emotive pathos is a tricky task that she mostly sticks - if there's a reason to listen to this album at all, it's that voice. And it's around that voice where the problems with this album unfortunately start, namely surrounding backing vocals and placement within the mix. In the former case, this album goes in one of two directions: female girl-group and soul harmonies, which can feel a shade jarring against her gritty timbre but can still work; and what sounds like an attempt at old Hollywood musical doo wop or crooner vocals, which absolutely don't fit with anything especially given how clean they are and feel distracting whenever they come into the mix, starting early on with 'Talk Of The Town' and reaching their most incoherent yet grating on 'It Girl'. But all of this would assume that Elle King's vocals are front and center within the mix... which oddly doesn't happen nearly as often as it should, and to discuss this we need to talk about the production. For starters, as much as this album wants to embrace blown out, garage-rock and blues timbres with noisy flattened snares, scuzzy lead guitars, and fat basslines, about the last thing Elle King should want is to bury her voice behind lo-fi vocal pickups where she starts peaking in the mix - and yet on otherwise decent songs like 'Shame' and 'Told You So', she's stuck behind filters that feel increasingly ham-fisted to add any sort of edge, or thanks to Greg Kurstin on a song like 'Baby Outlaw' - which is still one of the best songs here - she's stuck amidst a thicker well of reverb. And none of this meshes with any of the backing vocals, which leads to an approach to a more homegrown, organic sound that feels assembled in post.

But really, if I were to go in on the production as a whole, it'd be an utter lack of subtlety in the mixing as a whole. And let me start by saying it's not inherently a bad thing: if this album was overstuffed with huge hooks like 'Ex's and Oh's' or 'America's Sweetheart', that'd be one thing, but on an album where Elle King is trying to split the difference and have more subtle, emotive moments, she's stuck with producers who cram the mix with extraneous horns or arranged elements or effects that add nothing. And sure, part of this added theatricality you could expect from making a slight pivot away from alternative country to soul and retro-pop, but given how it runs at cross-purposes to her lyrical approach, it can feel really overstated, and not conducive to cultivating any sort of tangible atmosphere. Take a song like 'Shame', where it's trying to sound dark but it's not willing to give things more space or build any sense of smoky edge, or go to 'Good Thing Gone', where she probably didn't need the lo-fi elements around her vocal pickup on a breakup song with that kind of horns and organ. And then you have the double header of 'It Girl' and 'Ram Jam', both of which bring cluttered grooves, no coherent melody, blocky horns progressions, and no coherent sense of momentum. And that's not saying that Elle King can't stick the landing occasionally - the piano soul duet 'Chained' with Cameron Neal actually shows some great chemistry, but then the horns are dropped in and they don't serve any real purpose or add to the vibe. And it doesn't help matters when the sequencing of this album feels so shuddering and lopsided, with slow burn ballads dominating the back half of this album in blocks, and running considerably longer than anything else here, especially when the melodies aren't especially unique or work to differentiate themselves from those influences.

And on that topic... might as well get to the lyrics? Because look, I wouldn't have minded the back half of this album being so ballad heavy if the writing had taken a step up to match, but sadly Elle King's writing can feel just as clunky as her production - and no, even if we didn't have artists like Lindi Ortega and the Pistol Annies and Neko Case playing in a similar lane with way more subtlety and maturity, this would still be an issue. For one, if this album was willing to go over-the-top, it doesn't quite have the flair for detail beyond bad girl cliches to really stick with me - 'Baby Outlaw' gets the closest, but I will say it's a bit rich for her to castigate a guy on 'Man's Man' for doing lines and then calling her when he's in trouble when she's out cheating anyway. And yes, the framing is never placing her as a victim in any of these cases, but 'Man's Man' certainly treads into some awkward territory when taking shots at this guy to tell him to 'go and be some other man's man' - that's not clever wordplay, that's the sort of revealing and uncomfortable subtext surrounding what Elle King thinks okay to denigrate. And then it happens again on 'Runaway', with it being revealed on the second verse that the guy she was with was also into guys - which to me doesn't reflect hatred and more a lack of thought surrounding the implications going into her writing. It's the same way for as much as 'Talk Of The Town' tries to denigrate those girls gossiping about the hot new guy by using gossip herself, or how 'Naturally Pretty Girls' can't help but let its jealous streak cut through, or how 'Runaway' plays into its own self-aware melodrama so heavily it's hard to take seriously. And then there's 'It Girl', a song that feels so incoherent in its view towards men, sex, and girls who want sex themselves that it somehow winds up feeling sex-negative, insecure, and really demeaning and unflattering towards everyone involved. The one song I think hits any sort of nuance is 'Chained', which flips the script on a toxic relationship as she realizes despite all their problems love will hold them together, but it's reflective of a consistent lack of realism and maturity across this album that really bugs me. 

And really, that gets close to my issues with this as a whole: it's an album that wants to be self-aware but oversells its self-flagellation without digging deeper into questions of why, or any consideration of the larger scene. A fair amount of instrumental stylism to paint that scene, sure, but dig a bit deeper and it feels thin and inorganic, and the slapdash production approach doesn't help. And that's a shame because when this album slows down to those half-spoken word interludes that are trying to be revealing and honest, we see traces of what could coalesce to more, a revealing bluntness that I wish felt supported by her sound or more lyrical detail. And again, I think if she had blown up more naturally through the indie scene this sort of development could have been cultivated well and her voice could age naturally, but as it is, this is kind of a mess, and weirdly less compelling and memorable than it should be, especially coming off the highlights of her debut. So for me, it's a very strong 5/10 and I guess a recommendation for the fans, but this was a disappointment and I can't see myself throwing much more support here - sorry.

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