Sunday, June 2, 2019

album review: '2waymirror' by gabbie hanna

If you're surprised that I'm covering this project, you haven't been paying attention.

Because I've mentioned before that I've watched Gabbie Hanna for some time now, for at least a couple of years, and I actually got into her content well before she started making music at all. Now you might be wondering why on earth I'm watching this - I'm clearly not her target demo in any criteria - but I've always been curious about framing, fostering a relationship with one's audience, and for Gabbie's brand of content to have survived so much, that speaks to her tenacity and work ethic.

That being said, I've been on the fence about her musical ambitions for some time now, mostly because she doesn't seem to cleanly fit into an easy box within the mainstream, and I question how much she should even go in that direction. She certainly has the presence and charisma and look of a pop act, especially given her commitment to dance... but you can also tell her other natural talents don't really fit in that lane. For one, there's her voice, which has a rough, throatier edge that I've always been convinced would be a better fit for rock or punk or emo - and that's not even taking into account her style of writing, which has a level of intricacy and poetry that'd be a natural fit for an act like Jetty Bones or Say Anything or even the old-school emo rap set - I remember seeing her 'Roast Herself' and being reminded of cadences from Sage Francis or Atmosphere, and that's high praise I rarely give! So packaging her into a mainstream-accessible pop package - when mainstream pop music is currently at one of its weakest points - it worried me that she'd play to a sound that was accessible but not the most flattering to her strengths, and given how she has a built-in, diehard audience, she doesn't need to do that. That said, I remember being pleasantly surprised by Emma Blackery last year, so what did I get from Gabbie on 2WayMirror?

So this might sound a little weird, but this review almost feels too easy to put together, mostly because 2WayMirror sounds exactly like I would have expected from its lead-off singles and the pop direction that Gabbie's chasing. And as such, I'd like to think this is pretty good - absolutely flawed and not great and we'll be discussing why shortly - but the more listens I gave it the more I was absolutely convinced it should be a little better, and that's even beyond the creative decisions where I feel Gabbie's not flattering her strongest assets. If anything, the most stark criticism is that it hews closer to conventionality than it needs to, wearing its influences a little too prominently and sounding a bit compromised in order to avoid shocking or alienating a wider pop crowd, but that's also what you'd expect from a first-time EP from an artist outside the label model.

So let's start by talking about the influences, which come through most strongly in the composition and production. Now my immediate comparison point was that this album sounds like a split between Jetty Bones' - and October's Ultra Red, but those are both indie projects and Gabbie's talked about her idols in music before. So when I hear the classical, more delicately arranged passages and a prim, slightly throaty delivery and then remember hearing that Gabbie has liked Julia Michaels in the past... well, that makes sense. Same with the broad sense of theatricality and slightly manic undercurrent that show her fondness for Brendon Urie - if you know what you're listening for, it's pretty obvious. Now that's not a bad thing - I daresay I enjoyed this EP more than Panic! At The Disco's last album and certainly more than anything Julia Michaels has ever released - but in Urie's case you're seeing an act that has progressively gotten less interesting the more pop he's gone, and there's a similar air of compromise when it comes to the sound of this album. There are moments that are distorted and sound heavier - the whirring grind of 'Broken Girls', the ominous minor chord shifts across the prechorus of 'Pillowcase' that actually sound really cool, the fact that I kept expecting 'Medicate' to really explode vocally instead of plugging in a squonking drop, the pseudo-dubstep warp of the synths on 'Goodbye, For Now' that might be a little overmixed - and maybe it was a question of slimming down the arrangement and not quite nailing the crescendo to really hit, but I did expect Gabbie to have at least one moment that felt genuinely shocking and raw, and I didn't really get that. The closest I came to getting genuinely surprised was the faster-paced, borderline Broadway-esque cadence on the breakdown of 'Perfect Day (A True Story)', but that's created through contrast and pacing, not really through production. Now I could be harsh and say a more diverse and expanded instrumental palette that maybe called upon rock or emo might have worked better to match her tone and delivery, but I'd argue it's simpler than that: I don't think her vocal production allows her to get as raw as she could to sell these moments. For the most part she's mixed right at the front of the mix, allowing a lot of focus on her precise vocal control of her throatier tones, but whenever you can tell she's stepping out that range to maybe get louder or rougher, her vocal placement slides back and the reverb piles in. Maybe it was an issue of mic technique and smoothing out patches, maybe someone got spooked after her peaking sharp in the 'Monster' Genius video went viral and assumed your average consumer wouldn't notice - which they won't - but it got distracting and more to the point, it felt unnecessary, as if the appearance of refinement matters more than the emotional core.

And again, I get it - if you're making pop with a theatrical bent, you want the veneer to be preserved and polished, and even if I'd argue Gabbie is far more expressive and potent mid-breakdown on these songs than with a ton of polish, I get going for this tone. But it's not as unique it as it could be - I've heard a lot of mainstream pop in the 2010s that is otherwise compromised on its groove try and work off of hitting a balance between exposed edges and a polished melodic framework. More to the point, her style of writing can fit within this theatricality as well as more stripped back and raw emo - and if I'm going to praise Gabbie anywhere, it's in her writing. Now again, structurally I could point out this project is not all that surprising especially coming from Gabbie - it's set mid-breakup, vocal snippets are given their own track number and placement, and there's a narrative flow to the EP that feels emotionally consistent and nuanced. And the best element is the framing: 2WayMirror is a pretty apt title because for as much as she'll accuse her partner of being emotionally manipulative, lightly toxic, needy, and then cheating to boot, she's self-aware enough to realize she wants some of the same things and even will even play into self-destructive impulses to satisfy them. She follows 'Broken Girls' in its call-out of the guys who want to play hero with 'Broken Boys', highlighting a similar attraction that she knows about herself, and then she'll follow it with the real emotional crisis of 'Butterflies', where she has every reason to believe it's going to go wrong, but instead of addressing how healthy pursuing self-sabotage is and its roots, she chooses to place it in her art instead. And I like how she's aware of the selfish, almost calculating impulse that drives that pursuit, and how that can lead to being reckless and emotionally demanding, to say nothing of second-guessing every possibility of a good relationship. And that's one reason why 'Medicate' works on this EP - the obvious point is taking drugs to become less of yourself to escape pain and your own vices, but what I find more interesting is the line 'make your tragedies a work of art', which provides a similar sort of emotional distance. Now the follow-up point is that self-awareness might explain being toxic, but it doesn't excuse it, which is why this album has to end in a hard breakup, and I like the little details across 'Goodbye, For Now' that highlight how this is never going to work. On the first verse she admits she doesn't know him that well - which makes sense, because she was self-focused entering a relationship, not willing to give, only take for her art - and while that doesn't let him off the hook, the EP gives him the apology and final word, even as the abrupt ending to the song and final coda imply a sharper and likely more permanent break; the EP is over, she needs him no longer.

Okay, that's callous, but there's a note of truth that comes with it, especially given how the style of this album is so theatrical and measured. And in a sense that can be a problem: the framing and writing of this album imply that the compositions should sound more tangled and raw and explosive, and yet I'm left with the feeling this album is produced to sound more composed and small than it is. Yeah, the reverb tricks being pulled on 'Butterflies' are more effective than expected, and I like the subtle drippy effects around the pulsating groove of 'Pillowcase', but this a project that could have afforded to get much rougher or to ramp up pure pop melodrama, in which Gabbie's writing would punch above. But I can't judge this project based off of what it could have been - which I imagine at its peak would sound more like Phantoms by Marianas Trench from this year, which I think Gabbie could pull off and might be in her wheelhouse - and instead off of what it is, and that is... generally pretty good. I'm not sure all the aesthetic choices flatter her or her writing, but there is an intricacy and enough of a distinctive flair that makes her music stand out; it certainly sounds better than whatever Halsey puts out in a similar lane, where her angst sounds focus-grouped, sterile, and with even worse production, and that's high praise indeed. So yeah, for me this is an extremely light 7/10, absolutely recommended for the fans, and for everyone else... if you're curious and willing to pay attention to the details, I think you might like this. And as for Gabbie... well, she saw herself in that two-way mirror - now I want her to break it and see herself in the shards.

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