Review Summary: Never guilty/Say it ain't your fault because you had an emotionally abusive daddy/And cause of this you don't know how to act.
Let’s just get one thing off the bat: the sonic and lyrical ground covered by LA’s Jillian Banks on this record isn’t all that new. In fact, this particular brand of confessional “post-R&B” has been pretty fruitfully plundered over the past 4 years, especially in light of the innovations to the formula made by artists like James Blake, How to Dress Well and The Weeknd. Because of this form of R&B’s pliability, it’s been adapted into many different parts of the pop world, much to the chagrin of alt-R&B “purists.” Sensual late night slow jams can now be heard on an Usher album or a Justin Bieber b-sides compilations (Climax and PYD, respectively), and has effectively become the norm for pop artists wishing to show their mettle as legit songwriters. Taking all this into account, what about Bank’s “London” EP makes it so compelling?
For one thing, Banks is a remarkably capable singer. From soaring falsetto notes to a gravelly and earthen contralto, she shows remarkable range all across this EP. From the cooing chorus of ‘Change’ to the sensual come-ons that bookend ‘Waiting Game,’ Jillian seems to be bringing it all vocally. Yet this kind of vocal accomplishment could easily be overlooked if the lyrics were poor, as evidenced by the Weeknd’s latest output in “Kiss Land”. Fortunately for everyone, the lyrics that Banks brings to the table here are some of the most raw and affecting this side of “Echoes of Silence.” ‘Change’ is particularly moving as Banks details an emotionally abusive relationship and the variety of excuses that her abuser uses to justify his behaviors. The lyrics read like entries from the diary of a truly fragile woman who’s found out far too many times the pitfalls of fully vesting trust in another person. This puts her firmly in the camp of confessional singer-songwriters that have been rising out of the R&B landscape these days, but moreso than that it puts her right at the forefront of these artists, especially considering this is more-or-less her first release.
Additionally, the production is all-around fantastic, even considering that it does hit the usual touchstones of this kind of music. There’s still the rippling basslines that you’d expect from a Weeknd or James Blake track, as well as HTDW’s icy synthscapes. Despite being from Los Angeles, Banks enlists the help of some of the UK’s best producers to craft a singular sound with an almost Eastern bent. The melismatic chorus that opens ‘Waiting Game’ is provided by SOHN in what may be one of the best instrumentals he’s yet crafted (and certainly one that would’ve made “Tremors” a more compelling listen). Lead single “This Is What It Feels Like,” produced by Jamie Woon and Lil Silva, serves as a testament to both their capability as producers and Banks’ wonderful eye for instrumentals. In fact, this song is the most “R&B” on the EP, with its woozy melody and sensual drum sequencing. It recalls contemporaries like Nelly Furtado and Amy Winehouse, but does so in a way that puts them to shame, showing the full extent of Banks’ capability as a songsmith. The only real letdown here is ‘Bedroom Wall,’ which stagnantly floats through its 4+ minute length without much excitement or narrative depth. But even the nadir of this EP is still head-and-shoulders above the low points of the aforementioned “Tremors” and “Kiss Land.”
With this EP, Banks showcases a wonderfully malleable voice and effective songwriting that doesn’t rely too heavily on production to provide replay value. The messages of longing and sadness in love are universal, and communicated in the best possible way. With debut single ‘Fall Over,’ Banks flirted with these themes, but played it safe with more pop-oriented songwriting. On “London,” nothing’s held back, making for an emotionally compelling listen and one that forecasts a long and illustrious career. Among the camp of female singer-songwriters, Banks has proven herself to be the one to watch for 2014.