Saturday, June 19, 2021

Retrospective: The Best Damn Thing • Avril Lavigne

Benefitting from the guitar-wielding alternative rock women who ruled the 1990s, Candian singer-songwriter Avril Lavigne was the indisputable headliner of the alternateens – perhaps because she was a teen when Let Go, her debut record, was released in 2002. Despite a lukewarm critical response – Rolling Stone, for example, referred to her as “Ontario’s tiny terror” in its review – the record resonated with kids and teens and contains Avril’s career bests. Its front half is packed with timeless pop-rock staples: Hell, Twitter rediscovers that “I’m With You” is the best song created every three weeks and floods my timeline with the same video snippet each time. Before the album campaign could close out, though, she had already sneered at her own accomplishments. In a 2003 Rolling Stone article, this one profiling her as “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” Lavigne said, “The songs I did with the Matrix, yeah, they were good for my first record, but I don’t want to be that pop anymore.”

Avril Lavigne didn’t want to be a pop artist, but more importantly, she definitely didn’t want to be punk. Arguing against a “punk” label in a studded bracelet and black “Queen of the Universe” shirt, she said in an early (and forever iconic) interview, “I think that I’m just a rock chick, and I like to rock out. I like to throw shit around. I like to go nuts. I like to lose myself on stage.” A few years later, she returned to the public eye after two completed album cycles in a nearly unrecognizable reinvention involving bleached hair, flashy tank tops, and heavy black eyeliner. She described herself in a different fashion by then: “I was just touring for two years straight, and I really felt like, you know what, my next album needs to be fast. Because if I’m going to spend the majority of my life out on the road playing these songs every night, I want to have fun. This is the kind of music I like. I’m the kind of girl who likes to have fun. I like to dance,” she told ET Canada. The Queen of the Universe had pivoted on her anti-pop punk platform and gunned straight toward the genre.

So the story begins of Avril Lavigne’s most and least popular album: The Best Damn Thing, a blockbuster record that topped the charts at the price of a public image schism. While she told The Guardian in 2019 that the record was not a product of industry force and insinuated she’s still happy with the work from its booze-soaked sessions, it’s easy to see where someone might insinuate interference from her fresh contract with RCA Records: A young, established recording artist is handed to a new label and gets a coincidental image overhaul as she crests into her early 20s. Surely that could be suspect. Media coverage, meanwhile, had profiled her as a much more stubborn and focused musician than she was, despite her quotes within each article that reflected a constant state of artistic flux. (I mean, c'mon... one year before Let Go was released, she was covering country-pop staples in a bookstore. I feel like we were all tend to forget that a "rock chick," she originally was not.) We as her audience were primed unfairly to believe Avril Lavigne would never "sell out" – so how could The Best Damn Thing happen?

•  •  •

The answer is quite simple, of course: Enter aspiring actress Melissa Vandella, a young woman with almost – and I cannot stress this enough, almost – identical features to Avril Lavigne. According to internet folklore, Melissa was the stunt double chosen to replace Lavigne after she committed suicide in 2003. (And no, her passing didn’t make any headlines. She was a very private person. You’re a fake fan for even asking that!) Lavigne left behind recordings of a darker rock album for the record label to release, so Melissa would promote 2004’s Under My Skin under Lavigne’s name. She toured with a higher soprano voice, appeared in photoshoots with slightly different freckle patterns, and signed autographs in a sharper penmanship. (Nice try! The real fans noticed.) The experiment was so profitable that the new Avril would continue, and when Melissa was finally responsible for recording her own material, she required an Avril overhaul: The perfect explanation for the resulting album, The Best Damn Thing.

Now, of course the Avril Lavigne replacement theory is asinine online fodder, allegedly originating from Brazilian fan sites. But it also underscores the cultural whiplash she delivered with The Best Damn Thing – and for good reason. Until the record, she had been wedged into pop culture as the “real” musician opposite a class of sexual pop singers. She was hailed as the moral high ground with a guitar yet profiled as a teenage miscreant eating cereal off a skateboard on a hotel room floor. It was time for an Avril Lavigne song like “Hot,” a phenomenal pop song that contained guitars and lyrics about being, well, hot and bothered. Contrary to the popular narrative that told girls they could be only a Britney, a Christina, or an Avril, she proved that all could be accomplished at once. Avril Lavigne as a sexual being was not a surprising development, but Avril Lavigne embodying a punk brat was what launched a year-long takeover of award shows, music charts, and popular fashion.

Lavigne’s hot pink makeover roughly coincides with pop music’s rejuvenation of pop punk – the perfect climate for a rock-informed pop artist to rebuild a viable stage within the mainstream. The artist who rebuked (or at the very least, didn't feel welcome in) punk became the face of it: Married to and collaborating with Sum 41 frontman Deryck Whibley, Avril merged into her now ex-husband’s territory the same wild year that Paramore smashed through with Riot!, Fall Out Boy swerved into Infinity on High, and Metro Station dropped their debut (and only) scene pop record. All hail those scene kids: Oversized cargo pockets and trench coats were out, giving way to punchy neon highlights and circulation-inhibiting skinny jeans. As the movement's established headliner, Lavigne split the difference between authentic punk and pop appeal: While Blink 182’s Travis Barker was called in for drum work and Whibley was involved to a degree, pop-rock producers Butch Walker and the now-dishonorable Dr. Luke carried the bulk of The Best Damn Thing. The result was a well-executed, sorely underappreciated pop-punk milestone worthy of vindication.

•  •  •

Although framed as an awkward elbow jutting from her discography, the album skewed the trajectory for the rest of Lavigne’s career. The album to follow it, Goodbye Lullaby, was delayed well into 2009, allegedly until she could supplement the original record with songs that could compete with its predecessor’s energy and radio airplay preferences. In fact, each of her albums since The Best Damn Thing has contained a jump-scare to recapture the energy of “Girlfriend,” the global smash of a lead single that would redefine her artistry. With a drumline fit for a high school marching band and catty lyrics that began as a joke while intoxicated, “Girlfriend” ushered in a permanently perkier, more superficial variant of Avril Lavigne that contrasted her teenage persona. Whatever the means or reason, the abrupt evolution worked: According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, The Best Damn Thing was the fourth best-selling album around the globe in 2007. 

In a documentary covering the record’s production, the studio is run like a frat house. There seems to be a mutual understanding between all parties involved that the record was to be playful, if not a big inside joke: Shots and skateboard breaks almost become as important as the project at hand, leading to an obsession over referencing limoncello in “I Can Do Better” (Spoiler alert: She gets her wish!) and a burping fit before the recording of the title track’s cheerleader chant. The resulting product, frankly, is much ado about nothing: "Some of the songs I wrote didn't even mean that much to me. It's not like some personal thing I'm going through. They're just songs,” Lavigne told MTV before the album’s release. And if a listener recognizes and agrees to the album's mission statement, it's an irresistible fireball of fun from front to back. The most disruptive tracks,  “I Don’t Have to Try” and “Everything Back But You,” very well could be parodies of hard rock, while something like “Contagious” features a sarcastic vocal lick without losing melodic consciousness. 

Through a retrospective lens, Avril Lavigne’s career has proven to be malleable under the crunch of label compromises. No matter how great, her debut reflects the pendulum swing from acoustic adult contemporary to gentrified nu-metal that occurred throughout its curation; the sessions for her second album were crunched into six months, just for its second single to overshadow Arista Records’ pick for a lead single; and label-pleasing concessions can be identified easily within most of her later albums. In comparison, The Best Damn Thing is a justifiable effort that doesn't suffer from the same issues: Albeit brash and goofy, it’s her most coherent vision. Even the ballads – the emotional linchpins of any Avril Lavigne album – interlock into the otherwise chaotic vision as memorable anchor points. Sure, it may be the flat-ironed, pink-highlighted, chrome-studded monument toward which she would backslide for future material, no matter if the age-inappropriate outcomes were not in her best interest. But it also may be the most compelling, consistently enjoyable release of her career.

The Best Damn Thing was released on April 17, 2007 under RCA Records.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Review: Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land • Marina

“I know exactly what I want and who I want to be. I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine. I'm now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy,” Marina Diamandis declared on her debut record, The Family Jewels, over 10 years ago. The record kept American celebrity culture at an arm’s length, both admiring and criticizing Hollywood’s outrageousness. Just two years later, she became an immersion journalist in the very subject with Electra Heart, a concept record made for and by the American pop music machine – and if convincing emulation was the goal, the record was a success. But since she split her career into two polarized halves in its infancy, Marina Diamandis has become the perpetual pop music pendulum: Each record to follow has teetered between ironic criticism of superficial culture and sanctimonious social experimentation within it. How exactly was someone like Marina to correct her own pinballed trajectory?

Well, something like Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land might do the trick. Marina’s fifth studio record, it refocuses the songwriter as a social commentator via snappy pop songs: Its title track whips out a breakneck drumbeat with which Diamandis must keep pace as she rattles through her lyrics. That’s a common theme in the record’s front half, where the album is most ear-catching: Though it suffers from a nonevent chorus, “Purge the Poison” barrels along with a similar intensity as she recounts society’s failings without much analysis. As the album turns the corner around the booming “New America,” however, it hits an emotional wall from which it never recovers. The album stumbles into its latter piano ballads, all of which are fine listens at best while suffering from a strange disconnect from their counterparts’ shiny activism. It’s a lopsided attempt to remedy Diamandis’ identity crisis – but a much more admirable one than the last.

Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is available now under Atlantic Records.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Review: Blue Weekend • Wolf Alice


Even before their third record could memorialize the fact, British quartet Wolf Alice always has made music for every blue weekend. As a powerful mainstay in rock music, the band merges grunge music and dreary shoegaze into records that are equally drenched in tears and seizing with anger. Some may think it’s a combination that shouldn’t work well: After all, the band whiplashes listeners with emotionally unlevel albums, throwing them between very immediate, electrified smashers and drifting ballads. The folks at the Mercury Prize and most major music festivals, however, would disagree with that assessment – and with the release of the band’s newest record, Blue Weekend, so would I.

Blue Weekend busts open the established definition of Wolf Alice and guides it toward a far more nuanced place than either of their previous records. The band reframes both their guitar-driven rock music and their piano ballads into high-definition widescreen, overlaying it with flair and shine: Pushed as the album’s lead single, “The Last Man On Earth” is among the most unexpected yet affecting products here as it grows into an enormous power ballad. Similar remarks could be made for “How Can I Make It OK?,” which first buzzes with a neon synth then swells into the album’s crowning jewel. From snarled rock bangers like “Smile” to the full-bodied ambiance found in “Feeling Myself” or “Delicious Things,” the band surprises at every sonic shift as they lean into a sound that is unmistakably their own yet vaguely reminiscent of decades past.

While sessions for Blue Weekend were already underway prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s isolation was spent in part with producer Markus Dravs, who had a hand in both Coldplay and Florence + The Machine’s best albums. The resulting material presents a Wolf Alice with no option but to reflect on their half-completed work – and through that process, their career-best material was extracted. This record is free of any aimless meandering or harsh pivots, and instead, the songs coalesce into an engaging portrait of a band attempting to deduce what they want from their career, relationships, and life at large. Even to someone who hadn’t recognized their allure with previous records, Blue Weekend cements Wolf Alice’s well-deserved top billing in today’s alternative rock music landscape.

Blue Weekend is available now under RCA Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall