Friday, April 8, 2016

Midnight Machines | Lights

"Get you a man who can do both," reads a popular new Twitter trend. Accompanying the phrase are two pictures of the same person in contrasting lights; in Gordon Ramsey's case, he can not only make a child laugh, but also slap a woman's head between two pieces of bread and call her an "idiot sandwich." As for Lights, she is a woman who can do both: she's a synthpop superwoman by day and a guitar-slinging songbird by night. Each of her album cycles have been given a send-off with an accompanying acoustic studio set, so it was no surprise when Midnight Machines was announced as an eight-track farewell to the Little Machines sessions.

As was the case with her previous acoustic releases, this album gives new life to some songs and completely new form to others. While its original counterpart was a highlight from Little Machines, "Up We Go" underwent an unbelievable rehaul; what was once a punchy, shouted anthem has become a subdued, glistening acknowledgment of the optimism that fueled the hyperactivity of the original. Her voice, which was the least important element among spiking synths and pounding drum machines in the first cut, becomes the focal point now that the song has been tamed to a lower key.

Also given key and tempo changes, "Same Sea" and "Meteorites" are now unrecognizable from their original underwhelming counterparts. I would be a liar if I said I didn't initially sigh when I saw that "Meteorites" was being pushed as the first taste of this album; after all, the song was arguably the most forgettable of the Little Machines tracks. That attitude changed within the first 90 seconds of the acoustic track's run time, though, and for obvious reasons. Dare I say it is her most striking translation of a song into an acoustic format since "Suspension" from her last stripped set?

Both "Running with the Boys" and "Don't Go Home Without Me" are simply spruced up for this package, but definitely not lazily. While "Running" was built atop a guitar base in its first form, it now sounds much more organic. "Don't Go Home," too, lends itself to an acoustic rework with ease, bearing much similarity to its studio sister. The track might even be more enjoyable this way, without the snapping drumbeat that added a spark to the original track that should have been more sincere than lively.

Two brand new tracks grace the track listing as an added bonus. "Follow You Down" might just be the shining star of this set, giving Lights' vocals room to echo with emotion as confesses her complete dedication to her partner. Although a strange comparison, the song would have fit perfectly somewhere on a Shania Twain record, which is a compliment of utmost distinction in my book; it's quite easy to imagine Twain nailing the emotive melody line of those verses and pre-choruses.

"Head Cold," meanwhile, may be the album's dullest moment thanks to its routine choruses, but it doesn't fail to shimmer in its own understated way. There's nothing wrong with repetition in high-energy pop, but it makes this down-tempo track seem comparatively lazy as it stands between "Running with the Boys" and a string-laden rendition of "Muscle Memory" in the track listing. That last track, by the way, doesn't disappoint. It's moody and mysterious, with 45 seconds spent highlighting the haunting backing vocal arrangement that originally sat behind the bridge. It's the treatment we all wanted for the fan-favorite track.

Pure. This release is nothing if not pure. Even when she breaks into her lighter-raising rounds of stretched vowel formations ("oohs," "ahs," and the like), as she does quite often here, Lights mesmerizes at nearly every moment of this record with no more than her voice and guitar. It's clear why she takes the time to produce these acoustic albums with care: she sounds great in a comfortable blanket of synthesizers and heavy drumbeats, but she sounds excellent in these soundscapes that leave her vocals fully exposed. And with pipes like hers and songwriting that doesn't need the electronic frills to impress, there's no reason that she shouldn't flaunt them.

Midnight Machines is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

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