Sunday, July 7, 2019

album review: 'scared of you' by laura imbruglia

I can imagine that some of you are looking at this review and have questions. For one, if you follow me on Instagram you've probably seen this album on my schedule and are thinking, 'Wait, wasn't this supposed to be on the Trailing Edge?', or you're seeing the name of the artist and if you know the 90s at all you might be thinking, 'Wait, she's got a new album?'.

And I'm here to say that, in your own way, you're both wrong. For one, you're probably thinking of Natalie Imbruglia, most well-known for her 90s staple 'Torn', and while Laura Imbruglia is related, her music has been way more interesting this past decade and is our primary focus here. For one, Laura Imbruglia has been far more punk in her releases, and while she may have had a famous older sister that might have opened doors for her in the industry, the sound she was pursuing would have slammed those doors in her face, embracing an artsier side of punk rock, indie rock, and even alternative country, complete with a distinctly Australian jagged side that led to weirder song constructions and lyrics that took more chances. Yeah, her back catalog is uneven - mostly on the country side where her song structures got a bit more conventional but not always to her benefit - but for the past fifteen or so years she's been working in the indie circuit and the albums have been well-written, nuanced, and incredibly catchy. And since this is her first album since 2013, I wanted to give it some airtime even if it was going to wind up on the  Trailing Edge, so what did I find in Scared Of You?

Well, here's the thing: I've always promised that if a project was genuinely great, it wouldn't wind up on the Trailing Edge, and much to my great pleasure, Scared Of You by Laura Imbruglia is absolutely a cut above, and probably the first point where I've heard her drill into the tighter punk-influenced indie rock rooted into jangling noisy riffs and varied delivery that has felt spotty on previous projects. Yeah, the country influence has been dialed back, but for the hooks and writing to materialize as well as they do is more than enough, especially when the album still can feel modern, varied, and cutting as all hell. And while I'm kicking myself for being late to the party, this is an album that wound up on my recurrent list and growing into greatness, at least for me.

Now that being said, I won't deny that Laura Imbruglia's sonic palette doesn't show its lineage, especially in the guitar timbres with alternatively its jangling echo reminiscent of the late 80s, and the ragged scuzzed out blocks and shorter song construction of cuts like 'You're Shit' and 'Give Boys Pink Toys' that owe a bit more to early 90s riot grrl. And the acoustic pairing with the brighter pealing lead on 'CBT' show the country isn't entirely gone here, along with some of the echoing smolder and bass swagger on 'Shame', even if strangely I think they're the moments that impress me the least here. Granted, some of that is a matter of comparison: the melody is so damn catchy on 'Tricks' that I'm reminded of the last Lydia Loveless project, albeit with much more impressive soloing, and that's before you get the jaunty pop punk of 'Carry You Around', the choppy grind of 'Now I'm Mum' that shows an easy parallel to Sleater-Kinney, and then the phenomenally well-balanced slow burns of 'Diptych' and the great closer 'Casual' that lets its main riff pile up the feedback for a crushing moment of distorted payoff that frankly worked way better than I expected. And the more I listened to this project, especially in parallel with that last Mannequin Pussy album, I heard so much similar DNA between the two projects and yet found the hooks more composed and mature here, courtesy of more measured guitar layering, stronger bass grooves, and - to my surprise - Laura Imbruglia herself. Her vocal timbre isn't refined and there's a very distinctive 90s whine to her tone, but her screams are just as convincing, and that tone just carries dejection, annoyance, and world-weariness so much more effectively - again, very much reminiscent of Lydia Loveless and I intend that as a compliment, albeit much more willing to let the rough edges or shrillness slice through. And while I understand that this style of vocals can be hit-and-miss... this is not an album trying to sugarcoat things or sound pretty, and I like that Laura Imbruglia embraces this.

And this takes us to the content, and this is where I think the biggest coup comes through, because for as much as the title of this project show a real and often justified fear of 'you' - which at points represents her partner, her exes, her friends and family, a corrupt and patriarchal society - she's all too keenly aware of how fear - and by extension love - are not entirely rational emotions, and the relationship songs show as much internal give-and-take as they do external drama. The lead-off single 'Tricks' is a great example: the relationship is petering out naturally, and while on some level she can see through all of his bullshit and good intentions, when it doesn't work organically the ties needs to be cut, no matter how ugly it is. And 'Diptych' flips the script - acknowledging how they're two sides of the same coin, flaws and all, and she just wants a reassurance that her fear matches his and that he grasps the weight of their possible connection. And that fits into the desire for neat compartmentalization that isn't quite a reality on 'Carry You Around', or how age and changing standards leads to a relationship and maybe even kids on 'Now I'm Mum' with the sort of bemused, semi-tragedy that's almost heartbreaking in its reality, and the focus gets even tighter on 'Casual', the really quite sad 'friends-with-benefits' situation where feelings do creep in, but a move hasn't been made. It leads to one of the great ironies of the album, because she's not afraid to make very strident, very political songs like 'Give Boys Pink Toys' and 'You're Shit' and 'Shame', spanning across feminist theory, political corruption and an older generation who is carelessly ruining the environment, but the fear becomes paralyzing when the stakes get closer to home. And while I think these political songs are a little heavy-handed - all the more blunt when she spells out her own privilege on 'CBT' which is trying to get herself together crossed with self-pity crossed again with how to live with being flawed and human if not quite accepted - there's enough human context and level framing that gives her a ton of character and anchors the emotional drama. And the most potent struggle on this album is internal - do you stifle real emotions to conform, some of which might happen naturally with maturity and time, or do you fight your way past those risks and embrace a real emotion, be it paralyzing or maybe something more?

So in short... yeah, I was really impressed by this in the same way I've been with artists like Lydia Loveless in the past. The writing is sharp as all hell, the hooks are great, the mix is solidly balanced and produced with real grooves... just damn great indie rock and probably among Laura Imbruglia's tightest and most effective to date. For me, it's an 8/10 and absolutely recommended, especially if you've got a taste for the rougher, more emotionally intelligent side of punk and college rock. For everyone else... look, for me, this goes in the category with albums with Hell-On by Neko Case and Real by Lydia Loveless, the tempered but biting maturity that seems to connect every time. And that's great company to be in, so while I'm extremely late to the punch, you all need to check this out!

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