Friday, March 2, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Grimes - Visions

By Steve Jones.

Grimes is the stage name of Toronto native Claire Boucher, and Visions is her third full-length release.

To be up front and frank, I find Visions to be disappointing.  Before I listened to it, the album seemed like my kind of strange-flavored pop music, perhaps with a little Asian twist to further appeal to me.  The first track I heard, "Circumambient," similarly raised my expectations.  Its jerky pace punctuated by clipped drums and Boucher's vocal acrobatics felt exciting.  Even though it contained some of the cheap synth sounds and reverb that characterized a lot of the modern synth pop that gets on my nerves, this song's style stood out as distinctive.  Its sweetness was tempered with just enough sourness, just enough of an edge.

I was disappointed, then, when the album as a whole fell short of that song's promise.  As it stands, Visions is another relatively solid entry in the floaty and spacey direction that synth pop seems to be taking.  That's not to say it is entirely unremarkable or without flair.  As a matter of fact, I rather like the aesthetic of Visions, which decorates its tracks with lots of neat ornamentation--such as tiny synth fills or voice processing--that is one of the album's saving graces.  The other saving grace is Boucher's voice.  Its high-pitched and inherently saccharine quality may put off some listeners, but her range is admirable and her delivery expressive. 

The record starts with its strongest tracks.  "Genesis" is a little light on substance, but its layering of the pentatonic scale creates a nice Eastern sound that I don't hear a lot from popular musicians these days.  "Oblivion" reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees for some reason.  I can't quite place it, but it does share some of the Gothic flair of Siouxsie, particularly in its slightly demented outro.  "Eight" gets a little harder, a little more electroclashy, but it ends way too quickly.  And "Circumambient," like I already said, is the record's highlight.

From "Vowels = Space and Time" on, however, is where I start losing interest and songs start melting formlessly into each other.  My biggest grievance with the album comes down to a point of variety, and too many of the songs sound interchangeable with their thin synths and washed out reverb.  And its also a problem within individual songs.  Too many of them reveal their entire structure within the first 30 seconds, with little to no progression to be found in the rest of their time.  They do supplement this lack with that neat attention to ornamentation that I mentioned earlier, but I'll take interesting songs over interesting arrangements any day.  I will grant that a song staying in one place does not matter so much if you like the place it stays in, but the second half of this album is almost entirely bereft of any hooks that really dig into me and won't let go.

One notable and wonderful exception is the penultimate track "Skin."  After a barrage of sweet high-energy music, we are treated with a song which is soft, subdued, and genuinely touching.  Boucher pushes the boundaries of her voice, and her lower register is affectingly haunting.  "Skin" also progresses from beginning to end in a clear fashion.  From the first moments of a few quiet chords to the final moments of Boucher's cooing, the song builds and deconstructs, rises and falls.  It's the longest track on the album, but it doesn't feel nearly as long as "Colour of Moonlight" or "Nightmusic."

What ultimately frustrates me about Visions is how safe it sounds.  This music has the potential to be  transgressive and abrasive, to be something more than "just another pop record".  Stripped of some of its excess reverb and graced with some stronger songwriting, this flavor of bubblegum death pseudo-appropriated J-pop enhanced by Boucher's distinctive voice could appeal quite a bit to my senses.  If Grimes would let go and sound as garish and unrestrained as this album art, as diverse and hard-hitting as "Circumambient" and "Skin," I have little doubt that I would be loving Visions.  As it stands, the music falls short of its style, but its a promising enough style that I'll be paying attention to how Grimes evolves in her next adventure.

Score: Strong 5

(Steve Jones is excited to be reviewing music he is ambivalent about.  If you have suggestions for reviews, let him know in the comments, or pester him on his Twitter @vestenet.)

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