Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Review: Supervision • La Roux

An interview with Elly Jackson wouldn’t be complete without a boisterous remark, perfect for a pull-out quote or a boldface headline. 

Not long after La Roux’s Grammy-winning debut record was released, she slammed her own wheelhouse – “I don’t want to make synth music for the rest of my fucking life,” she told one music news outlet. Ironically, she emerged from a public blackout four years later to release Trouble in Paradise, a shining example of what nu-disco synth music should be – but a disinterested label discriminated against the record, jeopardizing its chances of reaching its full potential. Ironically, once again, she came to pop music’s defense during the record’s promotion, telling Time Out magazine, “I’m sick of people saying: 'That record was so great' and yet it only sells 4,000 copies. I don’t see what’s cool about not writing hooks: if you’re really fucking clever, where’s the fucking melody that I can remember?” Trouble in Paradise sold just over double that in its first week in her native United Kingdom.

This time around, not much has changed – spare the record label, which exited the picture via a priority letter delivered on New Year’s Eve to drop Jackson a few years back. In promoting her third studio record, she expanded her digital sass receipt by taking aim at a fellow graduate of the late 2000s Britpop surge: “No offense to Ellie Goulding, but I won’t make that music that boring,” she told The Telegraph early this year. And for a third time, let’s talk about irony, because La Roux’s Supervision – a tidy little independent release of just eight tracks – doesn’t dare reach the interesting textures and gripping songwriting delivered on her first two releases. To be fair, those albums aimed high and were ultimately high achievers, so many other records would seem dull in comparison. But Supervision shouldn’t be one of those other records.

The musical breadth gained on her last record is constricted, as these long-winded songs are homogenized into an homage to post-disco – less ABBA, more Michael Jackson. Tinny drums and incapacitated vocals litter the tracks, but any signs of a rich bass groove is sorely missed – which is perhaps this record’s most evident flaw. A track title from La Roux’s first record comes to mind when understanding this one: “Colourless Colour.” These songs sound as if they could have contained saturated sounds and melodic ambition, but with their dyes rinsed out, the results are pastel at best. Though “International Woman of Leisure” was meant to be the album’s big moment, its underproduction dampens it to a domestic affair; many of the others tracks (“Otherside,” “Everything I Live For,” to name a few) very well could have used variants of the same beat sample as foundations.

The songs are perfectly fine for casual listening – It's hard to imagine La Roux producing an entirely abominable tune. But they stall under their own size: The album’s eight tracks pool into 40 straight minutes mid-tempo pop. Jackson’s sharpest melodic moments are lost amid wandering stanzas and unending synth loops. (“Automatic Driver” sticks best, but also spirals into nonsense the least.) It’s a shame to see such solid songwriting be diluted and left to simmer on an album created under anything but supervision. The residual arrogance from a successful foray with simplicity – Trouble in Paradise stripped much of the debut record’s heavy-handed synth work – leads to a careless experiment that allows minimalism to run far too deep for dance music.

Supervision is available now under Supercolour Records.

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