Saturday, September 9, 2017

Lovers | Anna of the North

Anna Lotterud, one-half of the pop music duo Anna of the North and its only visible member, carries a voice with the density of cotton candy. It glides over minimalist electronic soundscapes fueled on tinny drums and cool, fuzzy atmospheres, an affinity for which originates from her upbringing in a household that cultivated a passion for '80s pop music. But unlike most acts touted as '80s-inspired, who often sort themselves as dance-pop or power rock, Anna of the North often dips the decade's warm aesthetic in a pool of hyper-real, synthesized backdrops while they cover heartbreak in its many forms on debut album Lovers.

Despite the implied tone of the album's title or its opening track, the driving, neon-lit "Moving On," most of the album copes with distress, both in singularity and in a relationship. As expected, Lotterud deals with personal heartbreak ("I'm in the dark," she cries on the title track) and loneliness ("I'm tired of being in love, always in the background," she sings on "Always"). And although she still hasn't recovered herself, she also lends support to others. The chanting, airy chorus on "Money," for example, warns another of a common gold digger: "Open your eyes, my love. She's not the one for you, just wants one thing from you: your money." 

The complexities of being in love and the dynamic of a relationship are often conveyed in states of euphoria or disaster; Not often are such strong feelings presented in a soft, collected manner as they are on Lovers. On most occasions, the album rides on chilly vibes rather than outbursts or climaxes, just as the duo has done since their earliest tracks. "Baby," the only of their first tracks to make it to this album, doesn't even carry a defined chorus, and closing track "All I Want" gets its kicks from twinkling synthesizer plucks and Lotterud's breezy, double-tracked vocals.

But there are times when Lotterud and producer Brady Daniell-Smith spike the formula, most notably when listeners approach prepackaged party track "Fire" and "Someone." On "Someone," they are able to tie together the gap between Madonna and Journey that most cannot. Easily the duo's most encompassing use of an expansive soundscape since "The Dreamer," it commences with clean drum-machine hits and swells into the overwrought ways of '80s power ballads: blaring choruses, prominent guitar lines, multilayered vocals – oh, and a key change, which concretes the duo's successful effort to replicate the authenticity of an '80s radio behemoth.

It may be easy to write off Anna of the North as only an aesthetics act, capitalizing on viral appeal for sharp cinematography and living in a world colored in pastel pink and baby blue. While that may have been a more accurate description in the days of "Sway," the disjointed breakthrough track recorded on GarageBand, today's Anna of the North has a clearer trajectory. They've found their place along the musical spectrum, nixing their initial nods to hip-hop for feathery synthpop. Now to be considered the formal introduction to the duo, Lovers is a focused ten-track outfit with the sounds and substance to captivate.

Lovers is available now under Different Recordings.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell | PVRIS

Having built a name as a metal band before splicing electronics into their debut studio album, rock band PVRIS shares the niche allure of a cover band that transposes popular contemporary hits into edgy rock pieces – spare the fact that PVRIS's tracks are, well, enjoyable. On White Noise, lead singer Lynn Gunn and bandmates Alex Babinski and Brian MacDonald steamrolled sharp hooks with electronic rock and a voice capable of coarse screams and smooth warbles. Given the success of that guise, they created a sophomore album that proves mainstream rock and pop-punk, although more pop than punk, are still alive and well.

To understand the band's sophomore album, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, perhaps it is best to reference its title in its original context. Pulled from the final lines of an Emily Dickinson poem, it reads in full, "Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell." The phrase implies conflicting feelings of hope and doom, but lead singer Lynn Gunn errs on the side of hopelessness: "You took my heaven away," she belts on the album's opening track, a driving rock-leaning anthem engulfed in stern wails and heavy drums.

Splattering misery across the record's ten tracks, Gunn has been caught in a toxic whirlwind since the band's last record. The cause of her despair can be thrown up to a manipulative relationship and industry growing pains, but she ensures its severity is scaled to the utmost extreme: On "What's Wrong," she laments, "I don't need a metaphor for you to know I'm miserable." And from there, she burrows into herself, translating her tattered psyche through ear-catching melodies and soundscapes that shatter the barriers of pop sensibility and rock personality.

At times, in fact, it is hard to distinguish whether PVRIS is a pop-oriented rock band – as they present themselves on the jagged "No Mercy," which detonates in a screamed chorus – or a rock-influenced pop band – as we hear them on the dancing "Anyone Else" and forlorn "Separate," during which Gunn employs a slurred, Sia-like delivery. Though it bends genres further into a tailor-made mold for the band, the songwriting here is tighter and stronger than that on the debut: the melodies are more potent and pack a stronger punch to the senses, and the vision and storytelling offer a clearer vision into Gunn's world.

With the concept of coping as a reference point, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell offers a resolution that Dickinson was unable to provide when writing the phrase in regard to death. The album's closing track, "Nola 1," accepts ignorance as to where it all went wrong but realizes Gunn's ultimate purpose: "Don't know where I went wrong, but I keep singing." In a way, it is this phrase that ties Gunn and Dickinson's perspectives together: parting, regardless of context, can be painfully unfathomable, but when the storm clouds pass, it becomes clear that the world continues to turn. This record, of course, is just an explosive snapshot of Gunn as she weathers the storm.

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell is available now under Rise Records.