Friday, February 12, 2021

Review: Who Am I? • Pale Waves

When the band debuted a full-length project a few years ago, Pale Waves presented some dissonance for the senses. Adorned in heavy black eyeliner and fishnets, the band styled themselves as moody goth-pop newcomers who yearned for The Cure-era counterculture revival – but with debut record My Mind Makes Noises, the band fused synthesizers and guitars just as expected from a streaming-era act co-signed by The 1975. While “Television Romance” and “Eighteen” bouyed the record, it sometimes felt like maundering derivative of their closest contemporaries. This said, it initially seemed ironic for the band to title their follow-up Who Am I? – until we heard it.

Sharing only the most successful elements of the band’s debut, Who Am I? coordinates their guitar-driven synth pop with era-appropriate post-grunge. The resulting product presents as a fresh renovation to the space that Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson once successfully occupied. The hallmarks of high drama and neon melodies are superimposed over a rock music underlayment, all of which has been polished to an attractive contemporary glisten. Album highlight “Easy,” where blown-out synths and full-bodied guitars collide in a climax of emotion, is perhaps best representative of how the record is indebted as much to aughts rock hit radio as it is to a ‘10s alternative playlist.

On “She’s My Religion,” meanwhile, these elements collide with the most melodrama. “She’s cold, she’s dark, she’s cynical. She’s forever angry at the world. She’s no angel, but she is my religion,” lead vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie declares on the slow burner. Similar remarks could be made about “Wish U Were Here,” perhaps the record’s best down-tempo reflection: “Crying on the floor, wishing you were here. Life is unfair, just want you here,” she sings through a hopscotch melody over fuzzy, unobtrusive guitar work. But when some instrumental energy backlights the group’s lyrics, the record presents even better material: “Change,” “Tomorrow,” and “Fall to Pieces” all thrash around to match the unruly energy that inspired this record’s aesthetic.

After Pale Waves positioned themselves as anonymous streaming fodder to benefit from their peers’ wake, Who Am I? answers its titular question with a course correction that moves them in the right direction, even if it fails to offer a completely unique definition to the band. While they sometimes graze the boundaries of self-parody with something like “You Don’t Own Me” or “Odd One Out,” Pale Waves make a relatively strong case as a rock band cosplay for the streaming age. Both their snippet-sized, stadium-ready anthems and their occasional depressive alcoves, yes, can lack nuance in their delivery and seem calculated for an optimal burst of nostalgia – yet their subtle progressive accents revitalize the genre with enough modern splash to make the album worthwhile.

Who Am I? is available now under Dirty Hit Records.

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