Monday, January 20, 2014

Chvrches, The Bones of What You Believe

Think more repetitive than abstract, and probably not nuclear

Not making the lists?

The Bones of What You Believe
, the first full-length album by Scottish trio Chvrches, had a lot of buzz when it came out in September of 2013, but didn't really make anyone's year-end list. Maybe that’s because a lot of critics working now grew up in the 70s and were affronted by the synth-pop movement. I, on the other hand, am a child of the 80s and have no such qualms.

Or maybe for some people, the songs just don’t hold up as well on repeated listenings. I found the opposite—they more I listened to the album, the more I liked it. There's a lot of variation between songs, and most of the songs are carefully constructed (mostly by ingenious variation instead of unnecessary repetition) so that I hardly lose interest. Granted, there are a few songs of lower quality—mostly the few where Lauren Mayberry (the female of the trio) is not singing lead. Mayberry's voice is unique, clear, and perhaps childlike voice, high in contrast to most pop divas, is front and center for most of the album, and should be. Her voice has enough character that sometimes the added electronic vocal enhancements sometimes seem unnecessary, though understandable given the genre.

It's about the story, too

Despite the group's manipulations and sonic palate comprised entirely of synth effects, I hesitate to call this electronic music, because these effects aren't employed like most electronic music, e.g. to be mixed by D.J.s on a dance floor. While the electronics and production is definitely a focus, this music is song-based, telling short, memorable stories; the songs are tightly woven and compact, at 3-4 minutes apiece. Not that it isn't danceable, but dance is not the main point.

About those stories: it’s interesting that the songs with vitriolic lyrics, of which there are many in this album, don’t sound very different in character from the uplifting ones. This is not a criticism, just a curiosity—I'm not quite sure what it means. Maybe these vitriolic songs are supposed to be uplifting in an empowering way? Or maybe the minor mode, which unconsciously I'm expecting for signaling anger, is just absent from their musical vocabulary. Actually, the vitriol might be more interesting for me than songs like "Under the Tide," which is more like a self-help book in contrast with the intriguing fiction shorts of "We Sink" and "Gun".

A note about the melodies

One thing I've taken note of is how the melodies are constructed. The songs' staccato, repetitive melodies generally match the textures, I think. For example, in "The Mother We Share," which is pretty typical of the album as a whole, the verse's melody is made up of a string of short phrases of staccato notes, mirroring the staccato vocal-based bursts that we hear at the song's start. These phrases also sit on of top of repetitive, electronic textures, which are not about swaths of sounds, but fast-moving, repeating textures. Even the chorus, which has a more sustained melody, does not have long notes.

But I don't want to leave the impression that all the songs are the same. There's plenty of variation in textures, even within songs. The group has learned to change melodies, textures, rhythms, layers, etc., sometimes gradually, to keep interest. The one critique that I have: there's more distortion than I would like. I realize that this is a personal taste for clearness over big sound, and might also be related to my speakers.

What did you think of the album? Would anyone prefer that I came up with rating scale for reviews, like 5 stars, thumb up or down, etc.?

Vocab: staccato, melody, texture, verse, chorus, phrase, lyrics, rhythm, minor mode

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