Friday, July 12, 2019

Review: III • Banks

Half a decade ago, singer-songwriter Jillian Banks christened herself as a goddess. The introduction was not immediately fitting, as she crept on her tip-toes around a manipulative boyfriend throughout her debut album, but she certainly set into motion a self-fulfilling prophecy. By her second record, she had grown unshakable, abusing lifelike busts of herself and sending her lover off to someone weaker and more submissive. The record marked incredible growth in emotional strength and musical ability in its time, but the third chapter of her journey – simply titled III, straying from the charged religious ethos of Goddess and The Altar – also happens to be her most dynamic display of talent yet.

Her relationship status hasn't changed: It's complicated. However, she has further nurtured her self-worth – and she puts her foot down. "And you put your words in my mouth 'til now. And I let you turn me around 'til now. And you've been messing me around ’til now. And I let you push me around 'til now," she shouts across the opening track. She still slides into thoughts of unfulfilled possibilities – "If you could rearrange your words, you could've saved it. If we were made of water, we could swim around it," she sings at a near whisper on "If We Were Made of Water" – but as the bad memories are recalled, sarcasm and a sharp tongue prevail. "Stroke" may be the harshest of them, where she references the masturbation of her narcissist lover's ego.

With interesting use of thick vocoders, syrupy AutoTune and violent instrumental spasms on III, Banks expands upon her previous material without knocking loose the integrity of her musical roots. Her ballads, once built upon bare piano chords, have evolved into down-tempo slow burners: "Sawzall" swings itself into a humid rhythm and blues vibe, and her voice creates most of the texture above dark synthesizer hums on the incredible track "Contaminated." But when she breaks open a few beats, she owns them: She rattles through her lyrics over the slinky, downright sexy thump of "Alaska," and she slides her voice around the sleek waves that energize "Propaganda." Francis and the Lights collaboration “Look What You’re Doing to Me” is the only near-unrecognizable moment, as dual gospel melodies slur together over a snappy beat and Banks’ voice reaches its ragged limits.

Though she has proven it long before III, Banks is the definitive vocal contortionist. Collapsing gracefully into billowing runs on "Contaminated" and moaning ambient harmonies into existence on "The Fall," she proves her ability to maneuver her vibrato and texture is unmatched. On this record, she not only brings her voice to a rolling boil at times, but also dabbles heavily in the power of vocal manipulation. As she breaks into a belt on triumphant album highlight "Godless," for example, a bedrock of her digitized vocal lines support her. And she punctuates the bridge of the demanding trance banger "Gimme," perhaps the only color-by-numbers Banks track of the bunch, with a stern “woof!,” which marks the second time she has successfully imitated a dog in a song.

Because her music rests upon the boundary lines of so many genres, Banks is hard to categorize in an era of music discovery reliant on popular playlist real estate and auto-generated suggestions. While she doesn't emerge from the broad pool of alternative pop and experimental rhythm and blues on III, she exercises new methods to stretch her music well beyond expectations – in ways that are fresh and unpredictable, sometimes to a fault but never to the point of absolute exhaustion. Early in the record, she insists we call her "that bitch," an utmost term of endearment in the social media age. And every moment thereafter, she proves why she deserves no less than that title.

III is available now under Harvest Records.

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