Caroline Polachek'sÂ*voice has always functioned as a study in plasticity. The sonic remnants of her well-known indie pop project Chairlift (2005-2016) bear this truth out: from the ebullient "I Belong in Your Arms" to a delicious cover of Beyonce's "Party" (YouTube it), Polachek fashions her own proprietary brand of AutoTune with nothing more than the tumbling contours of her natural articulations. Like Young Thug but contriving a bold romanticism rather than a wicked sense of humor, Polachek has what others want...or, at least, what they should
want. Imagine, say, Magdalene
--any number of well-regarded experimental pop albums released in the past few years fit the bill here--if the aural magic trick was not the deliverance of the artist's voice through a stack of squelchy filters, but instead the squelchiness of the voice unadorned. Magdalene
--or whichever album you choose--wouldn't necessarily be better
this way, but Polachek's wildly vacillating intonations, like Hendrix's shredding or Buddy Rich's furious thwacking, forces us as listeners to contemplate the inherent value of personal virtuosity. Brandishing production credits by PC Music's A. G. Cook and Danny L Harle, Pang
, Polachek's first studio album under her own name, primes us to take her vocal vacillations as a means to a conceptual end: a formal correlative to modernist alienation, the vicissitudes of gender performance, maybe consumerism or something if you zoom out far enough. This kind of thematic approach serves to deprecate, a little bit or a lot, the technical accomplishments of the artists involved.
, however, Polachek's beautiful and strange singing functions as an end in itself. To be clear, it's almost certain that this album contains more vocal processing and production ***ery than I've let on, and there's a lot going on that isn't reducible to the projections and inflections of the voice. (Although, if you doubt at various points that Polachek's voice can "really do that," you should watch that "Party" video. You should really watch it no matter what.) Just as with the Cindy Sherman-esque action movie album cover, Polachek isn't out of the picture for even a split second on Pang
, and one receives the uncanny sense throughout that it is her declamations driving the slick, swirling electropop backdrops rather than vice versa. Those electropop backdrops aren't inconsequential, but they are considerably more subdued and moderate than usual for Cook and Harle; it's as if the producers involved with this album felt that they already had a sonic firecracker in Polachek and didn't need to siphon their most outrageous songwriting impulses into the space of the album. Again like Sherman, Polachek asserts her presence on Pang
both as the brightly shining star of her movie and as the auteur behind the camera.
But is Pang
as good as it is impressive, as it is smart? Ultimately, not quite. Airy and operatic and a little stagnant, the album cycles through its ethereal scenery with all the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. My very favorite of the fourteen tracks here, "New Normal," operates on the melodic groundwork set by an enticing modulation between two keys; sadly, no other song even attempts this kind of songwriting hook. ("New Normal" also has steel guitar. Yes!) I've listened to Pang
a bunch of times, and each time it more or less passes right through me, as if I were just finishing an unfocused first listen, again and again. Weak, diluted choruses abound: just the two tracks that sandwich "New Normal" are enough proof, as skittering drums and string-synth-vocal pad combinations serve to project a generic sense of awe. Polachek is spectacular throughout, to be sure, but the end result veers dangerously close to the sensation of listening to, I dunno, Dido? Sarah McLachlan?Â*
Through some ineffable and unseemly sleight-of-hand trick, Pang
exploits the sonic vocabulary of forward-thinking electronic pop music to approximate a sentimental strain of pop that decidedly hasn't aged well. The album is therefore perched on the precipice of the producers' ironic predations and a more straightforward corniness in the chords and melodies. Without some sort of dialectical holding pattern to make sense of this imbalance, Polachek's extraordinary voice is left stranded. Pang
is surely worth your time, and it might be worth more of mine. Impossible to shake, however, is the feeling that the album documents immense talent sort of spewed forth rather than harnessed and directed. This could scan to friendly listeners as a refreshing change from the more stringent concepts and ideas of Polachek's peers. An album this tepid--which is to say, not completely tepid, but tepid enough
--from a talent that immense, though, can only register as a minor failure. She can do better. The sonic virtues of her performance on Pang
, however mixed, guarantee that I'll be listening.