Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lights - The Listening [music review]

* Released in September
I must admit, it feels strange writing that I enjoyed this album from Canadian singer-songwriter Lights. Here's why: when I first saw her video for "Drive My Soul" I was appalled at how cheesy it seemed (the video and the song) and also because this is the type of music that generally would attract a demographic of 12 to 18-year-old girls. I am most decidely not in that demographic. Granted, my musical tastes have always been a little, well, all-over-the-place, including a fondness for lightweight, bubblegum pop that a nearing-middle-aged straight male probably shouldn't cop to thoroughly enjoying (examples: The Backstreet Boys, Hanson, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, The Veronicas and some Spice Girls songs...I'm all about the honesty). After The Listening was released in September, I came across a copy of it online and downloaded it almost as a sick exercise in seeing how badly it would suck. Damn, did that backfire. Instead, what I found was an infectious album of electro-pop that began to command a healthy amount of listening time amongst a crowded field of albums already on my computer, and subsequently a CD sale for the 22-year-old Timmins, Ontario-born Valerie Poxleitner (her real name...she actually had it legally changed to "Lights").
Visually, Lights stands out, despite her tiny frame. Whether it's her striking exotic looks, fondness for tattoos (including a large back piece featuring Wonder Woman), once signature headband (which she thankfully appears to have gotten rid of) or propensity for rocking a mightily uncool keytar when she plays live, she doesn't look like every other young pop star out there right now. Add to that the discovery she can also play a number of instruments, cites artists from Bjork to Phil Collins to ABBA as influences, is a talented comic book style artist, and a complete World Of Warcraft geek (going as far as tattooing some WOW themes on her arms) and you end up with someone whose intriguing personality is a bonus companion to her raw and still developing songwriting and performing talents.
Four songs on The Listening appeared on her 2008 self-titled EP and the rest of the full length album doesn't deviate far from that heavily synthesized and robotic percussion sound. Lights' voice has an airy, dare I say "light" quality, and the vocal comparison she seems to draw most is to Vanessa Carlton. The lyrics can tend to have a depth consistent with those straight out of a teenager's diary entry ("When you're gone/Will I lose control?/You're the only road I know/You show me where to go/Who will drive my soul?"), but hey, she's barely in her 20's, so it's hard to criticize too much. There are moments where she displays a more mature outlook, such as on "Savior", "Lions!" and the sombre "Pretend", which is a lament about having to grow up and missing the innocence of childhood. I guess even 22-year-olds can feel old. The song shows up in its regular synthy version and an even better take on it to close the album. Stripped bare with just vocals and piano, it hints at a future where Lights could ditch the keyboards and computerized drum tracks to head in a more musically organic direction. A number of excellent similar "laid bare" versions of her songs, with her simply singing and playing an acoustic guitar, have been posted online (see below).
Overall, it's a highly impressive debut. Of the thirteen tracks, only two don't warrant repeat listens: "Ice", a frothy piece of dreck that amazingly was chosen for the second single, and "Quiet", a reminder of the worst kind of 80's synth pop from the kinds of bands that were relegated to the "one hit wonder" bin. There's a fair bit of auto tune used on The Listening as well, an unfortunate by-product of its popularity in today's music and a contributing factor to my initial dislike of her music. Hopefully, she ditches that in the future, too.
The likability of Lights' music is intrinsically linked to her and her co-writers' (Dave Thomson and Thomas Salter) ears for a good hook, which trumps the innate unreachability of most synth and computer-driven music in conveying an emotion other than one of detached, artificial coldness. The fact that Lights has managed to win me over, despite my many initial obstacles towards that ever happening, tells me she's someone to watch.
Guilty pleasure? Sure. But screw it...I'll just go with it.
Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
"The Listening" Ustream acoustic video