(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Recording review - Dragonette, Bodyparts (2012)

Imperfect pop but some cool stuff on the edges

Perfect pop is all about plasticity. That's why so many pop acts are almost interchangeable. Every now and then a fresh flavor catches the market and creates a new star, but other acts soon coopt the pattern and restore balance to the pop arms race. Many bands last for a while and then either fade into obscurity or transform themselves into a unique voice.

Dragonette are not the perfect pop band, though they seem to aim for that. The electro pop grooves on Bodyparts hit a good balance of dance-oriented beats and cool electronica, while singer Martina Sorbara's vocals are sweetened to teen idol smoothness on many of the tracks. But they miss the pop ideal because they never quite manage to mold themselves into a pure image. They toy with expressive synth pop, sassy rock, and emotional pop along with their dancier pop moments. This makes it hard to know how to take them

This weakness is a sign that Dragonette may achieve greater artistic impact with a longer career. But it makes Bodyparts a mixed bag. They undercut the overall super pop vibe with too many edges. At the same time, the polished smoothness makes it harder to trust their credibility. It's never quite clear whether they even take themselves seriously.

Bodyparts opens with a bubbly synth pop sound on Run Run Run. Sorbara's vocal is scrubbed clean except for a touch of echo and chorus. She sounds like a mix of retro acts like Teri Nunn crossed with a more modern Gwen Stefani. The arrangement fits the style, with shimmery keyboards, the obligatory arpeggiated synth, and a solid kick-heavy beat. It's catchy, setting a good pop mood.

Unfortunately, the next track, Live In This City, shatters that vibe. It's still poppy, but reaches for old school rock 'n' roll, with a swirl of Pat Benetar or the Runaways channeled into bubble gum pop. The lyrics are full of braggadocio:
Me and my gang and some blind bandit
We wind up around the summer, roll it over to Can'da
Just so you know, that queen with the face that you call My Little Pony
We basically invented this place, that's why it's standing room only
Standing room only!
I love the spunky attitude and the wacky video. But these first two songs together make it hard to figure out what Dragonette is trying to do.

My other favorite track also stands out from the mix. My Legs sets up a moody electro pop groove. The song picks a cool progressive house feel as it builds into the chorus. The lyrical concept is clever, with Sorbara blaming her body for leading her astray:
Awake, I don't know how I got there
A number written on my arm in marker
Ten bucks spent, I'm feelin' better
Five phone calls for me to fill in the picture
I can't stop my legs
My legs go out late dancing
I try to wash my face
My lips say "Put on makeup"
Can't stay home cause my body's 
Got itself all dressed up
And I'm the one who pays for it 
Tomorrow when I wake up.
The tension builds with the saw chord synth gouging chunks out of the groove. Dragonette channels a bit of Deadmau5 here to good effect.

Don't get me wrong, the pure pop side of the band on songs like Lay Low, Rocket Ship, or Riot is decent, too. They offer great dance beats, slick production, and catchy hooks. If Bodyparts had stayed in this mode, it would have been satisfying session of sweet distraction. On the other hand, the energy and attitude of Live In This City and My Legs are blunted by the simpler dance grooves on the rest of the album. Those two songs have a strong pop vibe, but they have more spice than the other tracks. It sounds like the band can't quite settle on a sound or they're just trying to capitalize on their success with Martin Solveig on his song Hello.

 With a little effort and some playlist editing, this is a solvable problem. In the meantime, I'll be interested to see which direction Dragonette chooses.

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