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

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Recording review - Got a Girl, I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now (2014)

Moody pop with swinging retro French style

While it's not quite as surprising as finding out that Phil Collins is a recognized expert on the Alamo, you're still likely to be taken aback by Daniel Nakamura's deep appreciation for retro French pop. Dan the Automator is known for quirky and creative production, but his work with Got a Girl is refreshingly direct. Collaborating with the actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Got a Girl fills I Love You But I Must Drive Off This Cliff Now with chill sophistication and nuanced musical allusions that demonstrate an understanding of the genre without slavishly recreating the past. The two of them flow like top grade dance partners, effortlessly leveraging moody grooves into lush gems while drawing on contemporary pop.

Nakamura and Winstead met when they both worked on the 2010 film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and that connection laid the groundwork for Got a Girl. They nailed down the idea for I Love You But as early as 2012, but it took a long time for the project to come to fruition. Along the way, Winstead contributed vocals to Deltron 3030′s Event 2. Listening to their work on that album, it’s hard to hear the continuity with Got a Girl’s sound, although there’s a hint of Winstead’s pop chops in her backing for “Looking at the Sky”. Of course, the Deltron project was a completely different animal, with Dan the Automator taking a more typical hip-hop approach on his beats and Winstead’s voice used more for texture than lead. Still, that contrast make this new release more satisfying for its ambiance.

The album sets the hook early, with “Did We Live Too Fast”. The carillon intro sets a thoughtful tone, and then the main groove drops the song into the middle of a ’60s mod movie. Winstead alternates between coy seduction and sultry distance, and Nakamura’s music masterfully supports her performance with horn punches and sighing strings. His arrangement captures the sense of the era, but it incorporates modern touches, periodically tagging lines with a light glitch skip or using a glaring synth melody on the bridge. As the title suggests, the lyrics are filled with both wistful nostalgia and jaded fatalism. The pair tap into that same vein again on “Things Will Never Be the Same”, this time getting darker and more theatrical.

Later, on “Close To You”, the synth instrumentation and disco rhythm push the album forward into the ’7Os, but the bridge reaches backward as it paraphrases the classic late ’60s hit, “Love Is Blue (L’Amour Est Bleu).” It’s almost subliminal and probably too subtle for younger listeners, but it shows that Nakamura has done his homework. Even the seemingly normal pop tunes like “I’ll Never Hold You Back” or “Last Stop” have a sparse beauty. Winstead uses these tracks to show her versatility; her voice opens and softens, complementing the sweet simplicity.

I Love You But is remarkably even with one exception, the poorly conceived “Da Da Da”. The rest of the album maintains a well-crafted sense of time and mood, but this one tune sabotages all of that work. The music doesn’t drift too far, but Winstead’s petulant boredom and the crass lyrics hit like a warm spray of spittle. This is clearly intended to be a joke, but as she announces, “This song is shit/ It sucks/ It’s a piece of shit,” her point is all too true. The slinky tension of the final song, “Heavenly”, does its best to recover, but the bad smell lingers. Unfortunately, it’s hard to unhear the offending track; the best I can do is delete it from the playlist and wait for its memory to fade.

(A version of this review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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