Friday, July 17, 2015

How Does It Feel | MS MR

Ah, the inevitable growing pains. Every act has them, but how they are handled can make a world of difference; some use the pressure for the betterment of their output, a few for the worsening. For members of newer acts, musical maturation is often accompanied by the fear of the sophomore slump - a fear that the curtain of novelty that once surrounded them will fall and that their new record will bomb in comparison to their first. I'm not sure if Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow, members of alt-pop MS MR, considered the slump while they composed their follow-up to 2013's Secondhand Rapture, but perhaps they should have.

On their sophomore album, How Does It Feel, the two try to chase the best of both mainstream pop and alt-pop, but they ultimately end up stagnant in an obscure left field. Visually, they have stepped away from the enigmatic ways of the past and plastered this era with saturated neon colors and their own faces, and in terms of productions, Hershenow has fused energized, mainstream-leaning dance into the duo's former grimy, gloomy backdrops. Despite their best efforts to dazzle as a fresh new pop alternative, they forgot crucial pieces to the pop puzzle: ear-grabbing hooks and melodies. Lead single "Painted" makes this obvious, as it is reliant on its production and simple chants of "what did you think would happen?" to demand attention. Unfortunately, very few other tracks manage to pique the interest that the single does. Most notably, though, "Pieces" accumulates with layers of vocals and layers of production that nod back to their debut, and "How Does It Feel" offers a hook actually worth waiting for.

The jump to a vitalized production style has uncovered a lethal detail that was concealed by the murky soundscapes of their debut: Plapinger's apathetic vocal delivery. As if the lack of commanding melodies wasn't disastrous enough, the voice delivering those lackluster lines bears similarity to that of a self-entitled girl fumbling through a solo audition in front of her high school choir director. Her lack of inflection plagues her own music; she strips ballads of emotion and drags what should be the album's most powerful moments down to low mumbles. The La Roux-evoking "Criminal," for example, could have been quite the anthem with the right voice behind the reins. And with a little more implication of authenticity behind their lyrics, "Cruel" and "Wrong Victory" could have offered some of the band's most intimate moments. But instead, the only times we twist any sort of variety out of her is during the few short moments that she shouts, "how does it feel?" in the title track and throughout the muted, ill-fitting piano ballad "All the Things Lost."

May I stress now that the production on this record isn't bad by any means, but it isn't complemented by simplistic lyrics and indifferent vocals, either. It seems as if the members of MS MR would like to make the move to heavier-hitting synthpop but were only partially committed to the idea by the time they hit the studio. The potential is there - don't forget, they did make a pretty solid entry with their debut record - but it isn't fulfilled this time around. Remember those growing pains we talked about earlier? For all intents and purposes, let's say that the duo is currently in their awkward middle school years; it seems like a grand time now, but neither one of them will want to remember any of this many years from now when they're in college and have taken yet another new, and hopefully far improved, form.

How Does It Feel is available now under Columbia Records.

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