out on 5.29
Over the last few years a surprising relationship has developed between progressive dance producers and sentimental pop music. Some of the best purveyors of Garage, 2 Step, and Grime are consistently employing cheesy 80's synths and lush R&B samples, which are remnants of a genre that, at least on paper, is antithetical to the ethos of an underground dance scene. However, the pairing works, and it works well. Soul Clap has a stellar “Rock the Boat” remix (chopping Aliyah is a rite of passage these days). Jacques Greene cites R&B as one of his most important influences and vocal samples from the genre are a trademark of his work. A DJ set from any member of the Night Slugs crew is as rich in pop melodies as it is in filthy synth lines. Overlap between dance and pop music is nothing new but it is nevertheless notable that many of today's premier dabblers in deep bass and punchy rhythms are also likely to pop on a Patti Labelle record from time to time.
Lemonade's newest album may be the most focused attempt yet to meld the two styles. The Brooklyn by way of San Francisco trio have developed a boy-band sweetness that is set to shimmering synths, UK Funky drum patterns, and a smattering of bass. Whereas their earlier work indulged in abstract tangents, relied heavily on vocal manipulation, and generally hovered in the more obscure realm of psychedelic dance music, Diver is sleek and restrained. Consequently, it is their most cohesive work yet but it also their least exciting. Their sound was once strangely alluring and its unpredictability forced the listener to pay attention; Diver, on the other hand, is a perfect background to a sublime, sunny day but it is not necessarily an enthralling listening experience on its own.
“Infinite Style”, the first track on the album, opens with a foreboding siren sample and an icy drum break, which makes it all the more surprising when a glistening, DX-7esque synth line takes over the song. Lemonade have embraced with open arms their fondness for that particular brand of electronic 80's pop that was self-consciously over the top and, as such, kind of touching. “Neptune” tells a classic story of a relationship on the rocks, as a lush, yet somewhat overstuffed, R&B backdrop unfolds. Biting and complex percussive patterns (reminiscent of 2 step) combine with sheets of intertwined vocal and synth layers on “Vivid”. Meanwhile, the sound becomes particularly suited to a zesty, drug addled tropical beach party on “Big Changes” (you can decide for yourself whether thats a compliment). None of these tracks offend but at the same time they manage to combine sentimental pop and forward thinking dance music in such a way that it is neither as heartfelt as the former nor as head-snapping as the latter.
Diver finds its groove when it tries to seek out its own territory. “Eye Drops” sports the best combination of timbres on the record, as the excellent vocal loop swirls around the sharp piano line. It is a quirky song with a penetrating bass line and the kind of melody that can support rather than isolate Callan Clendenin's lilting vocals. Drummer Alex Pasternak lays down a particularly groovy beat on “Sister” and the lyrics (I think I'd like to meet your sister/ she looked at us through a picture/ staring through the fragile glass of you sitting with her/ I heard you used to be a diver/ and you never broke the water) take a welcome break from sounding like the words that usually come before the drop on a Tiesto track. Spots like this on the album find the band more outside of its own head, possibly making the kind of tunes that feel right instinctively if not intellectually.
Whether a band gets better as it “matures” and begins to refine its sound is not only different from band to band, but depends largely on the context in which the comparison is being made. My answer to the question of whether Slanted and Enchanted is better than Crooked Rain will differ depending on how my day is going. Thus, it is hard to say with any confidence what this stylistic shift means for Lemonade. At first blush, it seems that they have found the sound that they were looking for; but, in the process, they have abandoned the experimental edge that defined the journey to begin with. Songs like “Blissout” and “Big Weekend” were wacky and cobbled together but they were a lot of fun. Diver eschews this approach in favor of sharp production and carefully plotted arrangements. It was a natural progression. I am just not sure it was the right one.