Friday, March 15, 2019

Girl • Maren Morris

Conversations surrounding the mere existence of Maren Morris as a mainstream recording artist spark a turf war. Though billed as the alternative to the typical Nashville star, she split the divides between country, folk, and pop with Hero, a polished, hook-driven major label debut – and fans of each genre wanted either to call her their own or to discredit her from their camp entirely. Unlike crossover acts like Shania Twain and Kacey Musgraves, who first built audiences with records that were solidly country before they branched out, Morris was undefinable out of the gate. And with the release of her sophomore record, Girl, she further proves that she will never be boxed in.

Girl is an ambitious record, but Morris may have her eyes set on sights too broad to capture in one shot. Like its predecessor, Girl uses country only as its home base: Warm guitars and country-oriented songwriting form the record's foundation, but they’re textured with the smooth climaxes of pop and the clapping, snapping beats of contemporary rhythm and blues. On the summery earworm “The Feels” and the stomp-clap singalong “The Bones,” it’s a combination that feels appropriate for modern country. And when the title track forces an anthem out of a chorus that shouldn't be an arena-filler, it somehow works somewhat nicely.

It’s perhaps when Morris swerves hardest, however, that she is at her most interesting: Her Brandi Carlisle collaboration, “Common,” is a compelling adult contemporary cut, and although genuine flairs of emotion have been reduced and streamlined across the record, the tropical trap of “RSVP” allows her to slide into her most sensual vocal performance. That isn't to say that the record isn't otherwise enjoyable: To her credit, she really lets the wheels fall of the wagon only once on the record: “Make Out With Me,” a faux-vintage track with a title alone that paints an awful mental image. But as she tries to make a likable record for everyone, Morris forgets to settle on a singular vision.

Girl is out now under Columbia Records Nashville.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sucker Punch • Sigrid

Sigrid started with a splash. Though the 22-year-old singer-songwriter tinkered around with music in her native Norway earlier this decade, she went international in 2017 with "Don't Kill My Vibe," a damning proclamation against unnamed songwriting titans who tried to discount her abilities. But from there, her popularity grew as she decided exactly what she wanted from her career: The success of "Strangers" proved she can put together one hell of a club smash, but the underwhelming Raw extended play, released awkwardly in the middle of the build-up for her debut full-length, was the product of a newcomer unsure of her place in music.

Ultimately, she countered with Sucker Punch, an uncomplicated pop record that matches its artist's causal style and retains her growing pains. Ignoring the Raw extended play entirely, the record picks up career essentials "Strangers," "Don't Kill My Vibe," and "Dynamite," and continues forward with a set of proficient pop songs about falling in love, breaking up, and persevering against the industry. Her infectious hooks command attention, especially on the supersized servings like the title track and "Mine Right Now," and her vocal versatility is utilized in great capacity. But while more subtle cuts – ones like "Level Up" and the cutesy little "Sight of You" – reveal more about the girl behind the music, they sound much more meandering than the electrified standouts of this record.

With Sucker Punch, Sigrid continues her residence somewhere in the space between the Top 40 and Spotify exclusivity. The deep bass groove of "Never Mine" and the ecstatic vowel runs of "Basic" make them optimal material for dance floors and airplay alike, bolstering the husky voice of a girl who seems as if she would be more comfortable on the floor of an downtown apartment with a webcam and an acoustic guitar than in the studio of any given pop producer. After all, despite being a major label act, she makes it clear that she doesn't want to be seen as such: Standing beside "Don't Kill My Vibe" on the record is "Business Dinners," a bubbly – albeit somewhat gratingly so – track about some sour feelings surrounding her record contract signing.

A functional and enjoyable record, Sucker Punch echoes a young artist who has just as many skills as she does hesitations on what to do with them. While Sigrid doesn't revolutionize pop music, she appeals to a wide audience by remaining nondescript and relatively lighthearted. No matter her subject matter, she livens each track with a club funk, an overloaded chorus, or a saccharine beat -- and some of those tactics work better than others. It's when she really lets loose, which she does often enough on Sucker Punch, that the record truly matches the intensity of its title.

Sucker Punch is available now under Island Records.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Good at Falling • The Japanese House

Don’t call Amber Bain mysterious... at least not anymore.

When she premiered her debut single on BBC Radio 1 in 2015, the anonymity behind Bain's solo project, The Japanese House, was part of her allure. Releasing music under a faceless moniker and boasting a voice that resides in the murky territory between masculinity and femininity, Bain conjured interest with ambient pop music that always left enough to the imagination. But four years later, Bain isn’t afraid to confront every last bit of her last relationship and commit the details to her debut full-length record – a shift in her status quo with gorgeous results.

Bain splatters realization, heartbreak, and healing across Good at Falling, a 13-track memorial of her relationship’s demise ("We Talk All The Time," "f a r a w a y," "somethingfartoogoodtofeel") and her depression's destruction ("You Seemed So Happy," "Everybody Hates Me"). Easily the record's most vital statements, "Lilo" captures the placidity of her past relationship with ease, while "Maybe You're the Reason" bounces her depression off a shield of love and a summery guitar. They suggest Bain had a degree of reliance on her girlfriend as a source of her own happiness, giving the record a reference point for the disbelief of "We Talk All the Time" or the devastation on "Follow My Girl."

Alongside Bon Iver producer BJ Burton and The 1975’s George Daniel, she stretches awe-striking, left-lane pop canvases upon which to paint her stories. Much like her friends and mentors in The 1975, she knows how to texture a sonic space and thrives in layers of deep, fluid sounds. Disorienting vocoders and pitch-shifts amplify her pain or apathy, oftentimes giving her a defensive glaze to her own emotions. As "Everybody Hates Me" and "Marika is Sleeping" blurs into one song, for example, her voice's robotic vibrato blurs the tracks' opposing hopelessness and introspection.

The record's opening track recounts her relationship's beginnings: Deep, commanding drums match the excitement of the quick flame. While the fire is sparked in an instant on "Went to Meet Her (Intro)," its embers cool to ashes slowly through the record's run. Much of Good at Falling copes with the finite existence to everything as an unavoidable fact of life, but by the record's finale, a stripped version of "I Saw You in a Dream," Bain finally accepts the thought of it. And as painful as it was for her to translate into song, the emotional processing of it all is absolutely stunning.

Good at Falling is available now under Dirty Hit Records.

© Aural Fixation Reviews
Maira Gall