Review Summary: Presenting 2013’s most overrated album.
One need not look further than industry-leading electronic music coverage site Resident Advisor to see the gushing praise critics everywhere have lavished on Jessy Lanza’s debut LP Pull My Hair Back
. Praising Lanza’s “skeletal approaches to pop music” and “knack for velveteen R&B melodies,” RA rated the album a 4.5/5, calling it “one of the year’s best debuts.” This reviewer would like to claim that Resident Advisor is failing to make an important distinction between good music and experimentation. After all, it’s true that Pull My Hair Back
is sonically ambitious. It’s a rather difficult listen, with muted, arpeggiated synths repeating to the point of exhaustion and Lanza’s breathy vocals providing a fascinating counterpoint to the weight of the melodies. The album explores oft-untrodden territories, and Lanza should be rightfully proud of how much ground she has covered on her first full-length release.
However, there comes a point when music becomes too obtuse for its own good. 2-CD concept albums and fifteen-minute guitar solos fall on one end of this minimalist-maximalist spectrum, overindulgent to the point of being practically masturbatory. On the other end lies Pull My Hair Back
. If there is a gray area between interesting and, quite frankly, boring scarcity, Lanza bounds past the edges of the gray at full stride. And while some people will obviously see beauty in the nagging, obnoxious melodies and the lack of the subtle sonic elements - an eerie high-pitched string, maybe, or even just a crackle of static - that separate Lanza from some of her more mature (and better) Hyperdub labelmates, in this writer’s humble opinion Pull My Hair Back
is sparse to the point of pomposity and insipidity. At times, it’s almost as if Lanza is anticipating this negative response to the album by taunting us, daring us to speak out against the overwhelming positive reception the album has received - if you don’t like it, “you can call me - you know my address.” (This may indeed be an attempt to be seductive or romantic, but Lanza delivers the line so smugly that it’s hard to interpret it as such.)
What’s most shocking about the countless magazines and blogs lauding this album is that almost all of them cite the production as a central point of praise. The rapid arpeggios - most of which sound strikingly similar - grate and chafe. Whether it’s because of the unsatisfyingly blocky sonic architecture, the use and reuse of a seemingly arbitrary trio of notes ad nauseam (looking at you, “Giddy”), or the way the on-beat synths clash with the eerie strings, the melodies and harmonies are uninteresting at best and annoying at worst. Even during the few moments Lanza shines vocally, there’s always some musical element which throws off an otherwise solid few seconds. Take “Fu
ck Diamond,” for example: Lanza’s wonderful wordless warbling rubs up against poorly placed male vocals and a female sample repeating the title over and over again.
Staying with “Fu
ck Diamond” as an example for a moment, it’s unfortunate to see that voice and instrumentation are never totally on the same page. A surprisingly wonderful intro and verse give way to wavery, slightly off-key crooning unfortunately characteristic of much of Lanza’s lower range. Her upper end, while slightly better, is hampered by how weightless it sounds, airy to the point of total lack of substance and purpose. And when Lanza is indeed on point, some element, most often obnoxious-as-fu
ck spoken-word clips (I swear, next time I hear that goddamn “Kathy Lee” sample, bad things will happen), derail the music and divert the listener’s attention from what Lanza is doing well.
And, looking back, it’s sad to see how many little things went wrong with Pull My Hair Back
- this could have been a very good album. Lanza has the potential to be as vulnerable and beautifully fragile as the most intense UK-bass-meets-American-RnB moments have allowed, and at times the production - most notably in the spaced-out funk of “Keep Moving” - truly shines. However, even given that Lanza explores sonic landscapes many artists of her ilk won’t even touch, especially as such a young artist, it seems as though she has sacrificed musical quality for the pursuit of the new and unknown - a sacrifice which doesn’t often turn out well.