Thursday, February 20, 2014

Dark Horses: New EPs by Meg Myers and Kimberly Cole Are Just What the Doctor Ordered

The other night I was listening to Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill for about the 43879643th time and thinking something I've thought for a while now: what the world needs now is some good new pissed-off-chick music. It's not specifically "rock" I mean, although it was late 90s rock that saw the last big wave; what I'm jonesing for is something "darker," but aggressive, rather than depressive, as most down-tempo female pop has been for most of the millennium (Adele, R&B on the whole). I think that's why I've latched onto Lorde so enthusiastically (especially her goth-y minimalist Hot Topic Grammys performance) and why my songs like Meredith Brooks' "Bitch," Björk's "Human Behaviour," Garbage's "#1 Crush," and Peaches' "Fuck the Pain Away" keep popping up on my playlists lately.

Meg Myers is ready for, ready for a perfect storm

And there's some evidence that I'm not entirely alone here. There is, of course, Lorde's nine-week reign atop the Billboard Hot 100 with "Royals" (although with the success of its rather more friendly followup, "Team," it's hard to say for certain that her popular embrace stems from precisely the same place as my own), as well as the rabid response to Beyoncé's sexy, insubordinate new album. A Slate piece suggested that the popularity of Katy Perry's "Dark Horse," the current Hot 100 #1, belies a public interest in her "goth-girl-with-training-wheels persona," which is a bit maddening not only given how I was mocked for predicting, back in late 2012, that Perry's third album might be "some unexpected alt-pop masterpiece" but especially because I sure want something much better than "Dark Horse." Sky Ferreira's album of moody indie-rockish-pop was much fawned over by critics (it wasn't my thing), and Nicki Minaj's bellicose new video caused so much Twitter ejaculation I had to grab an umbrella. All of this indicates that a pair of excellent EPs released last week might be just what the doctor ordered.

Meg Myers established her street-smart alt-rock sound - a 50/50 blend of Tori Amos/Lilith Fair mid-90s attitude with very 2010s lush electronic soundscapes somewhere between Katy Perry and Charli XCX in density - on her 2012 debut EP, Daughter in the Choir, and hones it further on Make a Shadow, the followup of a confident artist comfortable in her style, polishing its edges and exploring its subtleties. Perhaps having vented her frustrations in her debut, she's more playful and intimate this time around, melting snowcaps as a temptress in "Desire," taunting enemies in "Go," even tender and wistful (and slightly creepy) in the stunning minimalist fantasia, "The Morning After." (Not that Myers has gone soft on us: her screamo video for "Heart Heart Head" would send Katy's horse fleeing with tail between its legs.) Dr. Rosen Rosen's sleek production is once again clever and respectful and spiced with delicious (but not distracting!) tidbits of sonic detail. The two seem relaxed and comfortable with one another but also with the audience, allowing it to come a few steps closer, and the realness gives a significant boost to this already solid music.

While Meg Myers has dwelled comfortably in shadow since she arrived, Kimberly Cole's new EP, The Prelude, takes a hard left turn from her previous material. Cole's precociously impressive first solo full-length, Bad Girls Club, was one of the best dance pop albums of the past decade, and her subsequent, more techno-driven dance singles were also good, but, like so much that came out in the EDM boom, very much of-the-time. The Prelude is a suite of significantly darker-hued dance pop: not ballads, but not coked-up glow stick rave bangers either, like what you'd hear near the end of a Little Boots record. The mood is a mix of defensiveness (the dubby single "Found Better," "Wind Up Dead"), wounded soldier of love ("Heart I Didn't Break," "Let Me Go"), and wounded-and-pissed-about-it soldier of love ("Cruel"). Like Alanis, Shirley Manson, or Beyoncé, though, there's always a certain agency Cole maintains even when she's been wronged; there's a sense that she may be hurt or upset but she's still the one with power over herself.

Kimberly Cole's big tonal shift differs from Katy Perry's (and Lorde's) in that it doesn't look to R&B and hip hop to facilitate it ("something more urban" is a euphemistic meme, culled from a quote by Britney Spears on The X Factor, regarding white pop stars' usually misguided appropriations of black music over the years). If anything, The Prelude blends the buzzy new downtempo electronica of Charli XCX and Katy B with the turn-of-the-millennium British trip-hop of Garbage and Sneaker Pimps ("Cruel," the set's best track, has a distinct whiff of Zero 7).

This emerging and increasingly popular style inhabits the current reaction to the vacuous excesses of the EDM bubble in a way that doesn't alienate the people who actually liked EDM, and it's a very forward-thinking artistic decision for Cole. With the obvious advantage of her deep and educated knowledge of pop music from artistic and business perspectives, passion for vocal work, more than competent grasp of songwriting, and brilliant producing partner of her own (Jean-Yves Ducornet, even more of a seasoned pro in the field), Kimberly Cole pulls off her big stylistic about-face like those professional drivers (closed course) in TV commercials you're not supposed to imitate. She definitely earns your interest in whatever it is she's preluding to.

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