Saturday, October 19, 2019

Review: Pang • Caroline Polachek

Caroline Polachek has always maintained higher aspirations for pop music. As one-half of Chairlift, she grew from spacey novelty cuts to something like Moth, an unexpectedly sharp record that bookended the duo’s career while they were at their best. Her solo career, meanwhile, has been more of a sandbox, with her hackneyed Ramona Lisa project and a second record that meandered through ambient static. She has been in the industry for over a decade but never put her full name at risk across the cover of a project until now. And there’s good reason for that: While some careers have started with one spontaneous bang, Polachek’s feels as if it has been building up to Pang.

Polachek’s first proper solo record, Pang guides her through a similar trajectory to that of Charli XCX: As the sum of all her experiences, the record melds the best of traditional pop music and superhuman experimental approaches. However, unlike Charli, which explored both sides of its creator's musicality on separate planes, Polachek’s Pang acts as a prism: Both PC Music associates (Danny L Harle, A. G. Cook) and notable Spotify-era pop songwriters and producers (Valley Girl, Andrew Wyatt, Teddy Geiger) back her vision, working alongside her to conjure thick electronics and inescapable melodies. Between the two worlds, she strikes an incredible balance: "So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings" makes itself comfortable as one of the most interesting tracks of the year thanks to its heat-warped harmonies, and "Door" waits for an eternity to unleash its hypnotic melody loop. (But hot damn, the return-on-investment on "Door" is incredible.)

Harle does the heavy lifting in production, pushing and pulling ornate electronic textures under Polachek’s ebb and flow. But Polachek’s voice is the integral piece of Pang: Loosely operatic and often blurred into the digital workings, it oils all the record’s moving gears. On "Ocean of Tears," it soars above a grinding guitar line; on "So Hot," it becomes the guitar line. She cracks like lightning with the record’s namesake, ratchets down to a sing-rap on the woozy club number "Hit Me Where It Hurts," and matures into baroque theatrics on closing cut "Parachute." She stretches the record across a lot of real estate – from the ambient "Insomnia," which captures the lonely, eerily introspective feeling of being left awake while everyone else has fallen silent for the night, to "Caroline Shut Up," a self-deprecating love song that eventually reveals a doo-wop underbelly. But she does it only because she can pull it off: Like a vocal chameleon, she commits her delivery to fit each of these environments.

Out of habit, the word "pang" rolls off the tongue with a certain spurt of emotion – by nature, it’s an unexpected exclamation. And as a record, Pang embodies its namesake. Polachek commands each track and emotion with the same intensity as the most effortless one: "Pang!" Sticky melodies, intelligent musings, and her rippling voice smooth the roughest corners of the aggressive PC Music production philosophy, making Pang an accessible – and vital – stepping stone into the ambiguous “future of pop music.” This very well could be a pivotal moment for Polachek, putting an end to the musical soul-searching she has undertaken throughout most of her career. Whatever mission statements she unrolled in the past, she fulfilled them all well – but what she captures on Pang, a show of arms in her musical wisdom and adventurous intentions, is something downright incredible. 

Pang is available now under The Orchard and Perpetual Novice.

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