Friday, 11 May 2012

Marina and The Diamonds - Electra Heart

There was a time when I regularly bought LPs on their day of release, even to the point of waiting outside music shops so as to rush inside the minute they opened so as to be heading homewards with a brand new LP clutched in my sweaty paw by 9.01 am.  Happy days.  Since the advent of the CD and now Downloads that initial enthusiasm has waned for the most part although some items have been snapped up immediately but these days that just means clicking the pre-order button.

Despite my aging cynicism, there is one album that I have been awaiting for some few months and it is ‘Electra Heart’ by the strangely accented Marina Diamandis (or Marina and the Diamonds as she has styled herself).  When her debut, ‘The Family Jewels’ arrived in 2010 I decided to give it a listen despite the hype from the music press and found that there was substance to the hyperbole.  In fact it turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year, melding astute lyrics to crafted melodies sung in that peculiar half Welsh, half Greek accent.  It sounded different.  It was different.

So her follow up album has been on my list ever since and as the months have passed, it has grown into a must buy.  Hence my first day of release purchase like the awe-struck teenager that I once was.  But was it worth it?  Now read on.

Well, after several plays I can report that the voice is still as beguiling as it ever was.  That low register growl that shoots up to a pure falsetto inflected with that kooky Welsh/Greek accent is one of pop’s most unique instruments.  Also present and correct are the thoughtful yet pointed lyrics.  I haven’t found myself really listening to what a song is actually saying since ooh…the days of Joni Mitchell in the 70s.  She really does have a way with words, this girl.

Nevertheless, as with many second albums, the music is not quite up to the standard of ‘Family Jewels’.  There are exceptions, like the storming opener ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ and the atmospheric closer ‘Fear and Loathing’ and one or two in between but generally, it is not quite as consistent, but this was almost inevitable given the quality of FJ.  My feeling is that Marina wants to be a star and is prepared to be drawn into the ‘star-making machinery’ (to quote the aforementioned Ms Mitchell).  There are no less than 8 producer/writers credited on this album, one of them being star-maker writer himself, Rick Nowells.  As a result, the album is all over the place, style-wise and struggles for consistency.  It lurches from crunching cutting edge synthesised ‘beats’ one minute to old-school rock arrangements the next.  Little Boots’ debut ‘Hands’ suffered the same way – it seems that the current music industry is so paranoid of failure that it will dress up all potential new talent with a slick everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production believing this will make them mass audience friendly rather than letting them breathe by themselves.

But in the case of Ms Diamandis, I can’t help feeling that all this paraphernalia is totally unnecessary.  The fact is that Marina has the most important tools required to be a star already on board – her unique voice and her undoubted song writing ability, both with tunes and lyrics.  The issue with this album is that both are submerged in a mess of over-production and too many song writing collaborations.  Aimee Mann and Nerina Pallot have also been pushed down the ‘must collaborate’ path and it didn’t work for them either.  ‘Fear and Loathing’ and the excellent 'Teen Idle' are by far the best songs in the set and she wrote them by herself.  QED.

Despite all this, I still like ‘Electra Heart’, and seeing the ‘acoustic’ versions of some of the songs on YouTube just confirms my views about production (see video attached to this post).  Marina, please just take a deep breath, write some great songs and find a producer who will set them sympathetically to show off your thought-provoking lyrics and that fascinating voice.  Those are your USPs - not an all-enveloping production.  You don’t need to be Katy Perry to succeed.


j manchester said...

Hi, Martin - I have finally surfaced from a long, long project. "Fear and Loathing" is quiet good on first listen. I still owe you for the incomparable Nerina - have you heard Ingrid Michelson? Her "Ghost" caught my attention, and I downloaded her last two albums. Very good.

An BTW, I have come around to liking the last Nerina album better. There are some very fine songs, and with repeated listening the bizarre arrangements become less distracting.

music obsessive said...

Hi John - I hope your long project was worth it! I have come to like the strangely accented Marina a lot of late and am intrigued to see where she will go next.
Glad to hear that 'The Year of the Wolf' is now sounding better - things usually do after a period of consolidation. I agree that the production is a bit on the heavy side but the songs just about manage to get their heads above water!
I'll keep an ear out for Ingrid in the meantime.