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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recording review - Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones (2015)

A long time coming, but real and in-the-moment 


It's not that hard to see why Kate Pierson has finally made her first solo album. While her voice has always been a central part of the B-52s, their party atmosphere doesn't easily accommodate more serious feelings or deeper expression. The real surprise is that, despite numerous guest appearances with artists like Iggy Pop or REM, it's taken her nearly 40 years to get to this point. Fortunately, Guitars and Microphones is a confident step forward, facing hard situations, regret, and loss with strength, depth, and resilience. But fans shouldn't expect this to be a downer; these songs are anchored in a contemporary aesthetic that buoys the mood.

Pop icon Sia Furler bears some credit for this; she helped inspire Pierson to make the album, she contributed several songs, and she acted as the executive producer. Pierson’s new wave foundation has been infused with a lot more electro-pop beats and production and that seems to reflect Sia's influence. It’s not too much of a stretch, though, because Pierson's distinctive voice neatly slides into this polished setting, with some of these tracks, like “Bottoms Up” or “Time Wave Zero”,  rivaling Katy Perry and other diva youngsters for bouncy, danceable fun. More importantly, her trademark spunk and personal experience give the material weight and demonstrate that she hasn't surrendered her character or sold out for a desperate shot at relevance.

Guitars and Microphones leads with that sass on “Throw Down the Roses”, where Pierson pumps up the infectious groove with poised attitude, refusing to be a mere follower. Girl Power is nothing new, but she sells it with the perfect amount of poisonous sneer and tight lyrical turns, "I don't ever do rocker boys like you/ I'm an artist, too/ I'm a show stopper." A couple of songs later, though, the autobiographical feel of the title track trades some of that pride for a more ambivalent mood. Pierson free associates memories of sweet youth and loss, with the raw edges of her voice conveying her mixed emotions over a synth-driven new wave melody that recalls Dale Bozzio and Missing Persons. The music is smooth, but those occasional crumbling notes in her voice imbue the piece with an essential realness.

That depth continues on “Wolves”, one of the most impressive songs on the album that moves even further away from her B-52s past. The lush production matches the poetic lyrics about love and freedom. There’s a touch of Disney musical magic in the epic beauty of the tune, with Pierson's aching sincerity adding the right poignant note on lines like “We all love to play/ We play at love then run away.” This and the somber “Pulls You Under” represent a much more nuanced character than we've heard in the past.

Where those songs are fairly direct, Guitars and Microphones also features a number of more oblique tunes. “Bring Your Arms”, for example, is full of cool imagery (“And we are running with a light bulb”) that never gelled until she provided the back story in an interview. But even without the context, the dreamy intensity and urgency make their own kind of compelling sense. It’s worth remembering that plenty of B-52s songs were built on flimsy lyrical conceits that just sounded right, like “Rock Lobster”.

The only sour note on the album has been with the first single, “Mister Sister”, which stirred up a controversy with some members of the trans community. Pierson has made it clear that her intention was to continue the same kind of supportive attitude that her band has often expressed for alternative lifestyles and anyone who feels like an outsider. Unfortunately, not everyone has received it in that spirit. While I am certainly not qualified to tell anyone how they should feel about the tune, I can empathize with Pierson’s surprise at the backlash. The song itself serves as the cleanest bridge between her quirky B-52s roots and her desire to show more emotional depth on this solo project. With or without it, she's definitely achieved that goal on Guitars and Microphones.

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