Thursday, April 1, 2021

Review: The Bitter Truth • Evanescence

For a band that has so infrequently occupied the past, Evanescence is often dominated by conversations about it. While the band has released fewer albums in almost two decades than Taylor Swift has in two years, the band seemed to burn their presence into memory each time they returned to the surface of pop culture. Fallen, the band’s major-label debut, grew the legs expected from any career-defining record: It crawled across radio formats, moved millions of units, and earned the band two Grammy Awards. Achieving commercial rock music with a sullen pop slant and a few lines from an anonymous angry rapper, the album was the universal beacon of early aughts teen culture. Fallen and the band’s two subsequent releases, though, have all aged with much more grace than studded belts and fingerless gloves – especially The Open Door, a masterclass performance in rock music with crossover appeal. Likewise, the band grew well beyond an artifact of the era and into one of today’s most accessible hard rock bands.

As the band’s first collection of all-new material since their 2011, The Bitter Truth is likely their first to benefit from the poptimism erosion of genre purity standards, wherein past Top 40 radio-occupying rock acts and rock-adjacent pop acts alike have been vindicated for their fluidity. (The Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance, the catch-all successor category to the Best Hard Rock Performance trophy that Evanescence won in 2003, was given to Fiona Apple this year for a piano-led art pop song. And hey, it also seems as if society is ready to accept that Ashlee Simpson’s Autobiography was actually kind of a good record.) But perhaps there is more to be said about Evanescence framed as a legacy act that has been long set in their ways, without having shown any concessions to modify their mission statement to better fit critics’ narrative: Not to expect a collection of heavy thrashers and overwrought power ballads spiked with a certain level of histrionics from Evanescence would be unrealistic, if not just foolish.

That holds true for The Bitter Truth, an album that works to preserve the band’s legacy despite unprecedented creative liberty after the demise of their soured record label relationship. As the opening track’s electronic static flickers and bleeds into “Broken Pieces Shine,” the album’s crowning jewel emerges. The unrelenting call for perseverance foreshadows a record that processes past wrongdoings and loss through garden variety Evanescence songwriting. While The Bitter Truth was created with the same producer as the last Evanescence record and pulls few surprises, the electrified “Take Cover” benefits from some uncharacteristic wit. “Yeah Right” even infuses some impressively danceable bass fit for a Goldfrapp record. It’s disappointing, however, to hear frontwoman Amy Lee fill dead space with “slap-silly-happy” and “tip-tip-toppy high of the low.” Aside from placing the belly flop lead single “Wasted on You” between two of the record’s highest octane cuts, it’s the sorest oversight on an otherwise tactful record that achieves the Millennial whoop (“Use My Voice”) and blows tangled strands of harmonic belts through nu-metal wind tunnels (“Better Without You,” “Blind Belief”) with equal success. 

Despite 20 years of shifting music trends and more recent pandemic-inflicted barriers to music production, Evanescence still makes, well, Evanescence music. And while something like the Synthesis project proved interesting in its reframing of the band’s music into progressive orchestration, there’s still something so fulfilling to be swept into the high drama hallmarks and rock music thunderstorm. Sure, not much has changed as Evanescence swirls around the same territory, but why should it? Lee delivers suckerpunch performances; the lyrics paint distress in vivid detail, dribbling sensationalism to the nth degree; and the incredibly ornate music is calculated for ultimate payoff at each turn, offering something for a multidisciplinary collective of music fans. In short, if you haven't already bought into their longstanding vision, it's probably best to leave Evanescence alone. Even as a band that could have been frozen in a time capsule of peak goth rock, they seem to be doing just fine.

The Bitter Truth is now available under BMG Rights Management.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Review: Chemtrails over the Country Club • Lana Del Rey


Gangsta Nancy Sinatra: It’s a phrase that has been reprinted in so many pieces on Lana Del Rey – hack jobs and profiles alike – that it’s impossible to find the source of the buzzy description in a pile of headlines. Whether it was her sarcastic YouTube profile tagline or just has been passed down as music journalism folklore, the phrase is often leveraged against Del Rey as a sign of her alleged inauthenticity or lack of self-awareness. And while its derogatory uses may be valid in the sense that Del Rey has a certain ignorance to spatial recognition, it never seemed compatible with the introductory version of Lana Del Rey: She was both an emotional songwriter and technically sound vocalist, but neither in a particularly tender manner – “was” being the operative word.

After merging into alternative rock on 2013’s Ultraviolence, Del Rey spent no less than two full album cycles loosening the bolts of Born To Die, a landmark pop record that splattered overwrought misfit poetry over a gentrified hip-hop environment. Sharp repurposed beats faded into warm smolders as she moved toward Norman Fucking Rockwell!, a record that pivoted her into the space she thought she always occupied. An unexpected win for Del Rey in the critical arena that had battered her many times over, it’s a skillful singer-songwriter’s record that touts purposeful songwriting while seeming to spill off the cuff – and with its release, the once “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” had crossed into Nancy Sinatra’s territory. What was chosen to succeed Norman!, to many, would be an important compass as to the artistry Lana Del Rey can sustain.

Announced the day Norman! was released, Chemtrails over the Country Club solidifies its predecessor's move into folk-informed soft pop. Peeling back any ornamentation used to glamourize Del Rey’s songwriting and leaving just the studs intact, the musical sketchbook takes the pace of a slow walk down the path less traveled. All the while, each track reaches closer toward the album’s closing cover, aspiring to match the picturesque storytelling on her loyal rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” And in that way, the record fulfills its goal while remaining as much a Del Rey record as any other in some regards: A long time collector of buzzy phrases, she stitches them together into vivid, inexplicably alluring stanzas without the prerequisite of clarity when she intertwines her own experiences into those of a jewel-adorned country club socialite, a disaster-bound dignitary, and a secluded songwriter beyond her years.

Even if she sometimes gives herself the liberty to coil around the same unregimented musical ideas, Chemtrails over the Country Club becomes Del Rey’s most uncompromising statement. Teetering within the fragile place between her chest voice and upper register, she defies expectations with a polarizing delivery on opening track “White Dress” as she crafts the narrative of a young waitress seemingly on a whim. It’s a resounding success to my ear, for what it’s worth, and an accurate foreshadow to the remainder of a record that unfolds rather than climaxes. As her vocals carry over vast open spaces in Jack Antonoff’s production work, the songs only intensify when she harmonizes – most remarkably on “Wild at Heart,” which interpolates (and outshines) Norman! cut “How to Disappear,” and with singer-songwriter Nikki Lane on “Breaking Up Slowly,” a somber echo chamber that integrates Lane’s country music background.

Of course, with every Lana Del Rey album cycle comes the perpetual question: Does she even want to do this anymore? In the months prior to the album’s release, she posted an eclectic collection of material to her social media accounts: A visit to a stuntman who sat in a pool of bean dip for a day, a preemptive self-defense essay regarding the diversity represented on this album’s cover image, and appreciation posts for Andra Day and Joan Baez. Four days before release, when most artists would intensify promotion of their records, Del Rey posted, “This is my last post as my album rapidly approaches. [...] Until we meet again, I’ll be out there somewhere. Running with the wolves.” So is the mysterious life of Lana Del Rey: Forever on the run, dropping us into another intense phase in her life with each record before abandoning us there once again in search of the next.

The day after the release of Chemtrails over the Country, she had already vacated interest in favor of a new record announced via a spiteful Instagram response to a critical Harper’s Bazaar article. The upcoming one, she implied, seeks revenge over claims of cultural appropriation and insensitivity. Nevertheless, Chemtrails manages to capture Lana Del Rey content in stasis, just for a few moments: Spacious and stagnant, the record detaches Del Rey from her chaotic celebrity status and instead reframes her as a nomadic Midwest troubadour with a much better understanding of her own vintage musical inspirations. And while this record relies too strongly on a listener’s patience for subtle flourishes, it is among her sharpest artistic moments that provides a clearer view into the artist Lana Del Rey wants to be – at least for now, that is.

Chemtrails over the Country Club is available now under Interscope Records.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Review: Spaceman • Nick Jonas

If ever there were a textbook definition to an adequate pop star, Nick Jonas would meet the criteria. As the primary songwriter and most promising member of his blockbuster sibling trio, Jonas ricocheted off the back of purity ring-touting teenage stardom and into serviceable age-appropriate music by his early 20s. When we last heard a solo record from Jonas, he had rebounded from a break-up on Last Year was Complicated: While a proficient record at the time, it – like the self-titled effort before it and the Jonas Brothers record to follow – ultimately suffered in longevity from its noncommittal meandering between contemporary R&B and pop music.

His first solo record in five years, Spaceman leverages his marriage, life suspended in global quarantine, and super-producer Greg Kurstin to attempt a bolder statement. And despite a stellar early showing with "This is Heaven," a neon-lit synthpop love confessional that calls in a sax solo and a bold choral backing, the full record can't escape his taste for modesty. He once again sketches a rough outline of his peers and idols alike, then paints carefully within the lines to create a streaming-sized (but continuously mixed!) collage of fine rhythmic pop music dedicated more so to cosmetics than to the temporarily long-distance relationship with his wife that inspired it.

Admittedly, where his previous records failed, Spaceman succeeds: Written and produced in its entirety alongside Kurstin and songwriter Mozella, the release stabilizes his level of service and boosts his batting average. Almost every track feels comfortable aside its peers here: Kurstin's work with a drum machine and elastic synth samples ties many of the tracks together into the same sonic storyboard, providing a similar moody weightlessness, for example, to midtempo tracks like "Heights" and "If I Fall." Meanwhile, the more assertive "Delicious," a groovy number with a faux-brass hook, amplifies the same successful elements without blowing itself out of the record's framework.

The worst crimes committed on the record may be anonymity  "2Drunk" and "Sexual" could have been ripped from a Justin Timberlake record for all I know  and the occasional cockeyed line. "You could put me in a coffin, I'm always going to find your love," Jonas declares in what are somehow not the worst lines from "Death Do Us Part," by far the album's weakest point. In an act of mercy, it's cut to an interlude's length in favor of "Nervous," a better expression of his love via synth ballad. (Better yet in his power ballad catalog, however, is "Deeper Love," a close but more energized younger cousin to Foreigner's "I Want To Know What Love Is.")

Jonas is still adequate, yes, but one adequate pop star does not a memorable musician necessarily make  or at least, that must be what he believes. In the most shameless instance of algorithm manipulation in recent history, Spaceman already has been succeeded on streaming services by Spaceman: Classics Edition, a bastardized greatest hits version of the record with his earlier radio hits shoved into the track listing. While the glorified playlist strategy compromises the record's integrity, it does remind us that Nick Jonas has produced a few incredible tracks. To be fair, he's done the same with Spaceman, but his centrist tendencies too often divert him from his ambitious aspirations.

Spaceman is available now under Island Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall