Sunday, September 18, 2022

Review: Hold the Girl • Rina Sawayama


If imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, Japanese-British singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama may be pop music’s most successful sycophant. Having been recruited for projects with Elton John, Lady Gaga, and Charli XCX, she skirted the upper echelons of the industry with just one record to her name – so it feels natural for her second record to be a well-studied Cliffs Notes amalgamation of supersized pop music moments. Hold The Girl, named after a secular gospel banger with obvious Madonna overtones, contains a Celine Dion penny whistle (“Catch Me in the Air”), a Shania Twain “let’s go, girls” and a Paris Hilton “that’s hot” (“This Hell”), and a heavy dose of Evanescence-meets-Lady Gaga melodrama.

While her debut album was a frenetic exploration of the many styles Sawayama could pursue, Hold the Girl settles on perhaps the safest of them all: Empowerment pop with a slant toward her younger self in regard to both sonic palette and generational trauma. At its greatest, the album flashes in bright strobes: “Imagining” glitches into a dance-rock slammer, and “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” strikes a satisfying balance between its deep trance underbelly and ascending synth loop. “Catch Me in the Air,” too, stuns with its lightweight yet invincible pop-rock construction. In this regard, the album feels exactly as it was intended: Like tuning into a Top 40 station in 2005, when popular music was a grab bag of genres with equally punchy hooks.

The penmanship across the beats and glimmers, however, misses her self-imposed benchmarks. She told Apple Music that country music was the crux of the album: “I really connect with the storytelling aspect of country,” she told the streaming platform in the album’s digital introduction. Ultimately, she mostly tells stories in an abstract sense. The core of the story is left to subtext provided outside the record, and instead is wallpapered with generalized storyboards of the underdog and the misfit. It’s all fine and good, and some tracks here are even great – but when stacked up against what Sawayama has proven capable of producing before, something feels like a regression here. Hold the Girl is a cute girl, but in the words of a modern day saint: Cute next to gorgeous, gorgeous is going to devour cute.

Hold the Girl is available now under Dirty Hit Records.

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