Friday, July 13, 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Purity Ring - Shrines

By Steve Jones.

Purity Ring is the electronic music project of Corin Roddick (of GOBBLE GOBBLE (now Born Gold) fame) and vocalist Megan James. We have a lovely Northern Exposure exposé on the band that you can read for further elucidation. Shrines is their full length debut on the heels of a hype-building string of internet singles.

I avoided most of the singles for this record. It wasn't a very conscious decision, but I tend to be more of an album guy, digesting music in one 40-minute swoop instead of a few minutes spread across a few months. I did, however, listen to Purity Ring's first single, "Ungirthed," which was revealed over a year ago, and I dug the hell out of it. It was like someone took a serrated blade to a radio pop song and then pieced it back together in grotesquely Frankensteinian manner. The beat was herky and jerky, demonic voices and electronics clawed at my ears, and the vocalist was unsuitably heavenly. It sounded like a fresh take on synth pop, free of the then-ubiquitous trappings of chillwave.

Shrines sounds exactly like I expected the album to sound after hearing "Ungirthed." In fact, it sounds a bit too much like I expected. In fact, after the first track, you're given the formula for what each of the following ten tracks is going to sound like.

1) Take some deep bass or howling
2) Contrast with tinny synth sounds
3) Add some cheap drum machining and echoey handclaps for percussion
4) Have some of those parts crescendo then cut off at odd intervals to establish syncopation AND/OR play some of those parts backwards
5) Layer on the distant and unaffected vocals
7) Wash, rinse, and repeat for the next track. Actually, forget the washing and rinsing. Just repeat.

Now, there is nothing intrinsically incorrect about having a very particular sound for an album. Consistency can be a good thing if it's a sound you enjoy, and you'll notice I mentioned above that I liked the sound of "Ungirthed" quite a bit. But what works for a single 3 minute song may not work over the 11 songs and 40 minutes of an album. Shrines as a whole does not work for me. I was sick of the album before I finished listening to it once, and the last few tracks actively annoyed me.

I got frustrated trying to identify why the record wasn't appealing to me, because there were a lot of things I liked about it. Most of those "steps" I outlined above are textures I enjoyed (aside from the echoey handclaps and REVERB, which truth be told is not as bad as most). I can have a special affectation for cheap electronic sounds in the right context. I like a good chopped-up instrumental portion (sliced-and-diced vocals more so). I think their contrast between dark and light sounds is a good place for a band to explore. But even though I liked those parts of the production, I have to blame the overall production for this album's failings.

Here's the thing: modern pop music relies just as much on its production as on its songwriting. Production is probably more important. Did you know "Call Me Maybe" was originally written as a folk song? Do you think it would have been nearly as successful without its bright, poppy production? I digress a little, but my point is that simple songwriting alone does not an excellent pop album make. It's the arrangements, the structuring, the mixing, the dressing that can transform "your favorite chord progression here" into something stellar.

The songwriting on Shrines strikes me as just dandy. Above average, even. Most of its tracks have at least one really good hook (I'm especially partial to how sexy "Odebear" sounds), and they're all straightforward in construction. Art pop it is not, but that is fine. When production time comes around, I think most albums aim for a balance between making the songs distinguishable while still maintaining a cohesive aesthetic. Trust accomplished that really well earlier this year with their debut TRST. It was clearly indebted to the goth rock and coldwaves of the '80s, but each song had its own personality. Purity Ring's songs are certainly cohesive, but there's so little sonic variety in Shrines that it felt like I was listening to one way-too-long pop song. I'll admit that I'm much more forgiving towards an album whose sound is all over the place versus one which sounds too stagnant, because inconsistency at least points to creativity. Purity Ring feel like a one-trick pony.

I said earlier that I'm more of an album guy than a singles guy, but I think Shrines is best digested as individual singles and not all at once. It has tracks I'll be coming back to ("Ungirthed," "Odebear," "Crawlersout," "Belispeak"), but it's a grating record in its entirety. The tricks I liked are beaten into mundanity, and its flaws become more prominent. By no means is it a terrible album, and if you aren't annoyed by the problems I've outlined you should enjoy it. For me, it's a case where a little variety would have gone a long way. Purity Ring have a unique style, but they manage to make it sound boring.

Score: Strong 5/Lite 6
(Steve Jones is seeking to exchange purity rings with any man or woman who also wishes to maintain the purity of their body's temple in the eyes of the LORD. Interested parties may contact his Twitter @vestenet.)

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, it's formulaic. BUT GOD DAMN I LOVE THE FORMULA!