Monday, December 17, 2018

album review: 'singular: act i' by sabrina carpenter

So this is the sort of review I would normally consign to the Trailing Edge, except in this case I made a deal with the patron who requested it to swap this for that bloated Zayn album no music critic wants to touch - it's at least shorter, I'll give it that. And you know what, as much as it would be very easy for me to pass albums in this lane off as just another vanity project for an actress in between movies or TV pilots, but I've been surprised in this lane before - go back to Lucy Hale's Road Between, a pop-country debut that came right the hell out of nowhere and wound up as one of the best in its subgenre this decade!

And then I noticed Sabrina Carpenter's label... and then listened to her two previous albums... and consequently got a distinctive sinking feeling. Yeah folks, you all might know Sabrina Carpenter as once having one of the starring roles in Girl Meets World, but her music which has taken up a surprising amount of her schedule is exactly what you'd expect coming out of Hollywood Records: the sort of sterile, underwritten, badly produced pop pablum you'll hear chasing the trends and barely having any distinctive identity. I'm normally inclined to just call these vanity projects, but Sabrina Carpenter seems to have placed a lot of stock in these albums, along with a lot of her own writing credits... probably not a good thing, because the production is mediocre and trend-chasing at best and I wasn't impressed by her vocals or her songwriting. That said... look, it's twenty five minutes, it's eight songs, it can't be that bad, right?

Honestly, I'm at a bit of a loss for words, because what the hell can you even say about this? It's a short slice of songs that once again proves how little Sabrina Carpenter has differentiated herself from her peers and finds her jogging a few steps behind those driving success in the mainstream. And no, that doesn't precisely make it bad - in fact, I'd argue it might be one of her better projects to date at least in terms of raw production quality - but will anyone besides those enamored of her cult of personality come back to it? Honestly, probably not.

And for me, a significant part of this is how nakedly Sabrina Carpenter shows her influences, especially in production - when I can pinpoint not just the artists but the exact songs and albums that inspired certain tracks, it gets actively distracting and prompts comparisons that Sabrina Carpenter probably doesn't want. The most immediate and blatant is how much 'Bad Time' wants to be a cut from Taylor Swift's reputation, from the muted autotuned opening to the blocky, pitch-shifted stutter of the hook, but then you can go to 'Diamonds Are Forever' and see just how much was cribbed from Ariana Grande's 'Dangerous Woman' in a similar trap-infused cadence and groove with the guitars and hints of opulence in the strings, or 'Sue Me' which with its overweight bass beat on the hook and overlayered backing vocals is way too reminiscent of Demi Lovato's 'Sorry Not Sorry'. But really, the closest comparison that I can make with this album as a whole is Camila Cabello's debut or maybe that last Fifth Harmony album, except swapping out the sparse, ramshackle Latin tinges or any R&B chops with more attitude and a bit more elegance - similar overmixed trap percussion and gratuitous effects, drippy synth lines, and a frustrating amount of compression and autotune that fails to disguise how Sabrina Carpenter can sound really nasal and pitchy when she tries to belt. I will give the producers some credit in trying to disguise it, as they shove her belting to the back of the mix along with most of the melodies and try to keep things dense enough so you won't immediately notice, but with repeated listens or whenever the groove gets more stiff - the ugly blockiness of 'Hold Tight' definitely springs to mind, with UHMEER's overwritten, clumsy, and oddly formless verse not helping - you're quickly reminded of it.

But fine, being derivative isn't necessarily bad - the groove on 'Diamonds Are Forever' is one of the stronger ones here, and when she can cultivate a more sultry groove like on 'Paris' and 'prfct', she gets into her stride. But then you have to consider the songwriting and that's where my patience ran out. I'm sorry, there's just so little here that stands out as good poetry or that doesn't raise more questions than it answers. Take 'Sue Me', which apparently is a kiss-off to a real lawsuit from former management, but instead of adding any details it feels like another self-love kiss-off. Or take 'Paris' - I get being enamored of whatever slick Parisian guy is in the picture and her own inability to take the risk to go after him, but if she already has love in L.A., what makes her all that sympathetic in her cheating, especially when she clearly is putting in some effort somewhere! Then we have 'Mona Lisa', where she wants this guy to make a move so she's not left hanging like the titular painting - that's the extent of the metaphor, it's just a famous painting she can reference! Granted, that entire song feels basically unfinished and lacking any bridge or final hook, but it's emblematic of the shallowness that pervades this album, coming through most in 'Diamonds Are Forever', where she piles on comparisons of money and opulence to her, almost quite literally framing her as a trophy!

So fine, it's shallow and materialistic and flighty, there's room for that sort of melodrama in pop - but normally if you want to sell that, you need some original personality or flair that Sabrina Carpenter just doesn't bring with this. For an album called Singular, it's alarmingly easy to point to how many acts she imitates, and I fail to see how additional acts will add to it. That said, it's not precisely bad - again, for as disposable as it is there is polish this time around and a few grooves stick the landing, so I'm giving this an extremely light 5/10 and only a recommendation to the diehard fans. Everyone else, you've already forgotten this came out, I'd move on.

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