Wednesday, September 18, 2019

album review: 'miami memory' by alex cameron

It's funny, I saw a tweet a couple days ago by someone who had been watching my past couple reviews, specifically those of the Highwomen and Rapsody, and who remarked that given my current upcoming slate of projects to cover, the discussions of feminism and toxic masculinity were going to surge to the forefront yet again. And to do any of my upcoming reviews properly - given my current docket includes JPEGMAFIA and Chelsea Wolfe and Jenny Hval and eventually I'll get to Tropical Fuck Storm - the political discourse is inevitable.

Now granted, I'm not going to deny it can be dense or draining or frustrating - I've seen the subscriber drop-off after certain, more political reviews, so I get it, especially given that I don't tend to be as funny as your average critic who can lean into the memes and wittiness alongside my analysis. But hey, this could be a good test, given how the artist himself has always embraced some of the parodic side of his work: Alex Cameron! I'll be honest, the fact that his cult following has inflated the way it has is a real treat to see - I was kind of lukewarm on his debut but by the time I got to Forced Witness a few months late, I was astounded how much wit, melodic flair, and dissection of "traditional masculinity" was wedged into his retro 80s pop rock sound. I still that album as an absolute delight and one of the sleeper best of 2017 - and in retrospect, it's only grown on me since. And I'll admit a certain wry fascination with Alex Cameron: his shambling theatricality, his blend of pop sounds and willingness to embrace satire that most guys will never have the balls to seize, all with a real earnest intensity that I have to respect, to the point where it should surprise nobody he's dating Jemima Kirke, who you might recognize as Jessa from HBO's Girls! So for me to say that I was excited for Miami Memory was an understatement, even if he had a tough project to follow - so what did we get?

Man, I wanted to love this. I really did, Alex Cameron seemed to have everything set up to stick the landing with Miami Memory, transitioning from writing from the overstuffed machismo of Forced Witness to something a little more grounded in his own perspective and genuinely lovestruck while still remaining conscious... and yet I'm just not as gripped or moved as I was by the best moments of Forced Witness. It's absolutely good and at points damn close to great, but the frustrating thing is that it's not really a factor of the writing so much as it is the presentation. Hell, Cameron is still drawing upon the same palette of mid-80s soft rock schlock, but the tonal choices just aren't delivering the scope and swell that play to his strengths, even if they are closer to his last album than some detractors of this project would admit.

Granted, the most immediate shift comes through the vocal delivery and affectations Cameron is embracing this time around - the usual parallel that many made from Forced Witness was Springsteen, but I know someone pulling from the canon of Jon Parr, Eddie Money, and mid-80s Meat Loaf more than I probably should. But this time you can tell Cameron is testing his range further, pulling less from mid-80s MOR-soft rock machismo to the schmaltzier side you'd hear from Billy Joel in this era that's a little more ornate and arranged. The 80s Meat Loaf parallel hasn't gone away, but maybe complimented with some splashes of Don Henley, Steely Dan, or The Cutting Crew along the way - hell, with those backing vocals, 'Far From Born Again' would fit right into Joel's 80s work! But of course this comes with risk: Cameron's never been a powerful singer, but the husky swagger makes sense in rock where charisma can override raw vocal talent... but if you ramp up the gloss of the production with flashier keyboards and brighter theatricality, his vocal shortcomings are a little more evident. I might appreciate the blaring new wave synths on 'Stepdad' - later revisited with Righteous Brothers-esque bombast on 'Too Far' - but it's hard not to wince at how sharp he comes in on the hook, and while he's doing his damnedest on 'Other Ladies' against the seedy organ and richer female backing chorus, this brand of singer-songwriter soul is just out of his range. 

And yet if we're looking for an issue with the 'sound' of this album, it becomes that added layer of polish and drawing sharper comparisons to acts of that era. Part of the untold genius of Forced Witness was that if you were familiar with the also-rans and one-hit wonders of mid-80s soft rock, the sonic palette Alex Cameron was drawing on felt familiar with the canned, chintzy production, drum machines, seedy keyboards, and let's not forget Roy Molloy's saxophone, but still strong enough hooks to convince you his chops were strong enough to shine through - and for those unfamiliar, on sound alone they'd probably assume he was just some forgotten act of the era. But go to a cut like the title track here, and while the piano line, gummy synth gloss, flutes, and subtle guitar rollick could have placed it in that same era, but the blocky roiling drum machine doesn't match, and it pulls you out of the experience - all of the sounds are contemporaneous to that era, but they don't quite gel together, and instead of sounding like a product of that era, it feels like a clumsier imitation than it should. Similar case for the leaden groove behind the acoustics and fluttery gloss of 'Gaslight', or how abrupt the seediness cuts to the front of 'PC With Me', which just feels a little awkwardly short - but the larger problem is that even the songs that click can't help but feel a little "smaller" than the dusty sweep of Forced Witness. And part of that was inevitable by going smaller and more 'realistic', for lack of better terms - there's less of a need for satirical broadness, and Cameron is a good enough songwriter to make the work-a-day normalcy of 'Far From Born Again' note-perfect to the scene with that harmonica and isolated clap, make 'Bad For The Boys' to sound imported from the regular bouncy rollick of jaunty heartland rock, and really work that Don Henley comparison on 'End Is Nigh' - but even in the last case, you have all the swell to make a truly epic tune and it's cut short before it can really take off, not the first moment where it feels like the lyrical ideas were just cut a little short across this album.

And while we're here, let's talk songwriting, by far the biggest draw for Alex Cameron and where I was intrigued how his relationship with Jemima Kirke opened up to a more honest POV. And what we got... well, it's quintessentially Alex Cameron in its unique brand of overcompensating awkwardness and razor sharp insight, only this time a little more lovestruck and likely going to overthink all of it into the ground. Like Forced Witness there's an element of genuine desperation and insecurity, but the framing has subtly shifted, less from embodying that asshole to the uncomfortable reality of how in modern relationships it's so damn easy to wind up in that same position. 'Stepdad' is a prime example, with all of the overcompensating grubbiness that would come from a stepparent trying - and failing - to make it work, anchored in the same slightly pathetic insecurity that drives a cut like 'Gaslight', which never makes him sympathetic but highlights exactly how a 'nice guy' might utilize such manipulative tactics. But hell, even when it seems like he's doing everything right - within reason, as some of the trashier but instantly recognizable details of 'PC With Me' highlight - she still wants him to tread into more dangerous waters, and it's that subtle push-and-pull across blurry lines that gives the album its drama... 

And yet it's not these songs that feel like they work the strongest. Hell, songs like 'Far From Born Again' with its blunt, pro-sex worker and porn message and 'Bad For The Boys' tearing into hypermasculine and exploitative archetypes feel the most self-contained and punchy with their insight, maybe a little too transgressive for your average audience but certainly in the right, wryly self-assured ballpark that has worked for acts like IDLES. But you can also tell they're not the focus, so instead you get the quasi-drunken breakdown approaching AA in the face of the apocalypse on 'End Is Nigh', or the eminently pathetic prostration of loyalty on 'Other Ladies' that on some level feels like complete bullshit, especially when it's preceded by the nastiness of 'Divorce'. But if Cameron is drawing on something genuinely lovestruck with Miami Memory, it's one where the oversharing never stops and the flaws in his partner can't stop rearing in his head, as if he can't stop rewriting Billy Joel's 'She's Always A Woman'... which is why I love how this album ends with 'Too Far', as he can't help but feel some type of way about the ex that can never leave her mind, and yet he gets it. It almost feels a little like 'To Be With You' by Mr. Big where he recognizes he might only be one in the long line of men to be with her and in a moment he knows his exit strategy... but he also recognizes how his overthought expression of love is just as jealous and pathetic as the ex that always seems to be in the corner of his eye, once again rooting the themes of this album in confronting his insecurity over hers, and by the end finding security and confidence in himself. And it is a tougher revelation coming from Forced Witness, where he could manufacture distance from the satire - on Miami Memory, the uncomfortable reality of his own weaknesses are much closer to home, and that's something he has to deal with.

And man, I wish the music came together to match it a little better! That's the exasperating thing about Miami Memory, because like with his last album the writing is genuinely excellent - a little more scattered, sure, but as a whole it comes together. But the seams of the songs feel a little more visible, the hooks not quite as punchy, and as a whole a little less sure - understandable, given the content, but you'd think the fragmentation wouldn't carry over to that point of execution! But again, I still really like this and I appreciate Alex Cameron's role in modern pop, which is why I'm giving this a very solid 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation. Sharp stuff, and if there's a guy for whom my wish of love and happiness can tightly mirror my own, it's him - best of luck, my man, best of luck and love.

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