Monday, March 11, 2019

album review: 'GIRL' by maren morris

So here's a fun question: what genre of music does Maren Morris make?

Here's a fun follow-up: does anyone really care? Well, I'd argue it's at least relevant, because a lot of people sure as hell got heated when I made a point of it in reviewing her debut album HERO three years ago, mostly in noting how much her sound and songwriting felt distinctive in country and didn't stand out nearly as effectively in pop, and when you couple it with neither writing or production being as strong as it should be, it led to a messy debut. But what I've noticed is that the conversation surrounding exactly how Maren Morris is straddling both worlds has been much more contentious than her music: leveraging Nashville for streaming placements and promotion, but given that country radio doesn't promote women her most prominent successes have come on pop songs. 

And on some level I'm not going to disparage her for the pop pivot - the poisoned well of Nashville radio is only going to get worse before it gets better - except for two things: one, how much she continues to swipe up country promotion when it's abundantly clear she'd rather be anywhere else, which absolutely takes from the precious few slots for which other women are forced to compete; and more importantly, as a pure pop artist her work has been underwhelming in establishing an audience. Hell, if you look outside of 'The Middle', she's retreated to the easy push of country playlist placement when her solo material has underperformed - Bebe Rexha has done the same thing only coming from pop, and it's a cheap shortcut that only highlights the weaknesses of their music.

And thus I had no idea where her second album would go - I had no expectations that anything close to 'My Church' would be here, but would she bring enough country tones to hit that sweet spot in both markets - which for the record can work for acts like Kelsea Ballerini or Carrie Underwood when the music fits - or would this be a pure pop effort to drop her in the mid-tier and give her real competition? So yeah, what did we get from GIRL?

You know, I don't normally bring up individual songs this early in the conversation, but I think it's worth noting that Maren Morris included the song 'Flavor' midway into the track listing, which seems rather pointed at Saving Country Music for their rather aggressive criticisms of her debut, to the point where Pitchfork even cited as a semi-influential blogger. Now I could be coy and say it's nice that what used to be a semi-influential website like Pitchfork is paying attention to what's going on in country, but I want to get into the roots of 'Flavor' which along with the expected defensiveness wants to establish that she's pursuing her own flavour and tone of pop country... all of which I find ironic because GIRL is alarmingly milquetoast and beholden to entirely too many sounds across mainstream country and pop to have much personality at all! That's not saying it's precisely bad - it doesn't have the outright duds that persisted across HERO - but said duds at least came from a unique place that might not have worked but were at least trying! I can't remotely say that for GIRL, which might be more consistent but sadly isn't all that interesting.

Now that'd normally mean I'd consign this to the Trailing Edge and move on, but I do feel there are a few things worth observing about the balancing act Maren Morris is attempting, and let's start with Maren Morris herself. Now I've said in the past that I'm not the biggest fan of Morris as a singer and sadly that is still the case - I drew a comparison to Miley Cyrus in my last review in that the vocals rely more on strident, nasal tones, but I think my frustration comes in a lack of subtlety or convincing bite. She'd much rather open up and belt rather than rely on a slower burn or develop a sense of dynamics, so when you put her opposite Brandi Carlile's greater poise on 'Common' or the smolder of Brothers Osborne on 'All My Favorite People', she doesn't quite command the mix in the same way. Granted, a big part of this circles back to the production - we'll get to this - but it leads to a delivery that's sharp enough to grab the ear, but not rough or raw enough to fit in a rock grain or with enough distinctive personality or complexity to make folks want to stay. Take a song like 'Make Out With Me' which seems to be playing for the same elegance and low-key hookup that Caitlyn Smith knocked out of the park on 'Cheap Date' with the watery guitars and strings - albeit with a snap beat - but it just comes across as completely oversold. I respect her pipes and how hard she's trying, but it's worrisome that she hasn't grasped when it's a good time to step back and let the music and song speak for itself.

Granted, maybe she feels she has to try this hard to compete with her production, which mostly courtesy of busbee and Greg Kurstin is nestling her deeper into the mix, adding lo-fi filters, autotune, reverb and increasingly thin multi-tracking, and then trying to tack on swells of melody that might approach a groove or feel country every once and a while but don't disguise how clunky some of these percussion lines are, on live drums or otherwise! And while I could say that forcing your singer to compromise subtlety to fight against the production is pretty asinine, this is also where the obvious parallels to acts in pop and country start to get really concerning, because they don't do nearly enough to help refine a unique tone or style for Maren Morris - for god's sake, 'Common' has the reverb saturation of a Lykke Li song from five years ago! Same with 'All My Favorite People' - I'm not going to complain about what might as well be a lost Brothers Osborne song from last year, it's decent enough with the scuzzy guitar and running a little too long, but it's not helping Morris herself stand out. And while the mixing isn't quite as exasperating as the clunkers on Keith Urban's last project - a low bar indeed, although the percussion is still way louder that it should be compared to the actual melodies, you can definitely tell this is one of Greg Kurstin's first attempts at country in his tonal choices, although with cuts like the lumpy and oddly tinny 'Gold Love' from busbee he's not exempt either - what is the point of the weedy fragments sloppily layered over that pulsating bass synth on 'Great Ones', or the low-rent snap beat on 'RSVP' that opens into trap hi-hats that seems to treat its guitar and limp keyboard melodies as perfunctory? And I hate to repeat what I said three years ago, but I will: when Maren Morris makes songs that sound like straightforward country or pop country, that doesn't compromise those richer, organic tones for pop concessions, she can make really damn good music. 'To Hell & Back' has a gentle, mostly organic groove that can actually make its smoky pedal steel work, and while I'm not crazy about the oddly muffled layering on the closer 'Shade', I did think there was some genuine swell on the song. And while we'll discuss the content in a moment, the acoustic twinkle that picks up into the mostly organic groove holding together 'A Song For Everything' is genuinely good as well.

But here's the problem: while the production rarely rises to quality, all of this could be redeemed if the songwriting stepped up... and if I want to highlight where GIRL lags significantly behind even her last album, it's here. Hell, I highlighted the defensiveness of 'Flavor' early, but truth be told it's one of the few moments of the album has some spice and flair to it in terms of writing - I'd take it over the by-the-numbers empowerment pablum of the title track, or how 'Common' is yet another pop country 'can't we all just get along' tune where it's abundantly clear Brandi Carlile only contributed her singing, not her writing. Then you have 'A Song For Everything', where a fair few people have already lambasted the song for referencing more pop acts than actual country, but I'm more exasperated by the fact she says the first time she held a lighter up was when Coldplay was playing clubs - that would have been in the late 90s and you're my age, I don't remotely buy that you were holding a lighter up for Coldplay when you were eight or nine! But beyond those moments, pretty much the majority of the album comes in as love songs, where about a third feel they have to oversell her prickly nature or are just a little embarrassing - 'The Feels' springs to mind - a third are sex songs that are decently well-written but aren't performed convincingly - in that category we've got 'RSVP' - and the final third actually feel real and wind up as good tracks. I like how 'To Hell & Back' plays with its divine metaphors with a bit of a gothic spin that nevertheless highlights the maturity of a couple who have accepted each other for who they are, and while it's a little more saccharine, 'Good Woman' does the same. Hell, 'Shade' might overextend the metaphors - saying the guy is the prism you see through is poetic but has some questionable implications - but it at least feels a little more unique with its references to light and color. Again, my frustration is that I do think Maren Morris and her cowriters have talent, but unless she's got Natalie Hemby punching up the songs country or otherwise, there's little here that cuts or carries with it much weight or drama, or helps her stand out.

So at the end of the day... look, I wish I could come here and say that GIRL is a project that'll move the needle one way or the other, but it feels like a project stuck in a holding pattern with no clear idea what sound best flatters her voice or what will help her stand out regardless of the genre where she lands. And while I'd argue country is probably the best fit, I'm not going to begrudge her for wanting to avoid how Music Row handles female artists - but I will begrudge her for not being able to deliver more quality in the mean time regardless of genre. So for me... eh, strong 5/10, the fans can take it or leave it, but while this is more consistent there was a flair to HERO that GIRL just doesn't have, and I can see some finding it not as interesting, so take that as you will.

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