Friday, September 25, 2015

Youth Lagoon - Savage Hills Ballroom Review

If it wasn’t already obvious that the boy trapped in his Idaho bedroom staring at posters and reminiscing on his wasted adolescence has moved on to larger, more audacious adventures, Savage Hills Ballroom, his third LP, will convince you. For better or worse Trevor Powers, the mind behind Youth Lagoon, long had visions far exceeding that hollowed Lo-Fi origin. Following Year Of Hibernation, his soon-to-be cult classic debut, Powers submerged his mind, body, and soul in Psychedelic Rock with the ever-expansive and explosive Wondrous Bughouse. Now, nearly three years later, the expressive artist has blossomed into grandiloquent Art Pop, a sub-genre where anything unconventionally approachable gets corralled, from FKA Twigs to Perfume Genius to tUnE-yArDs. In some cases, Art Pop functions as a summation of genres fused together, diluting any subjugated defining characteristic to satisfy a dissentient approach. This logically explains Savage Hills Ballroom. For where Youth Lagoon’s first two LP’s have distinct, sustainable foundation’s, his latest sacrifices that cordial coherency for a sound that’s as diverse as he wants it to be, a show-all, tell-all collective work to advertise Powers’ musical savvy. 

To listeners of Youth Lagoon’s hushed debut, the first thing piquing ears here is that of his voice. Prominent, defiant in tone, and on full display, Powers’ noted voice, similar to a whimpering dog, is an acquired taste. As lead single ‘The Knower’ and opener ‘Officer Telephone’ make fully aware, Powers stands strong behind his weak voice, trembling in pitch with every shift in syllable. The first five seconds of ‘The Knower’ contains nothing but Powers’ elongated hold of “oh,” effectively turning his voice into noise. There comes a division though once the lyrics start seeping through, where a languid individual rebelliously wrecks havoc upon those he sees. “Everybody wants to think that they’re good at heart, when they’re full of hate” he mutters, conveying the message of this said knower, “the clones, they’ve always said to stay in line” he utters on ‘Rotten Human.’ These societal critiques come overwrought and often, and is easily the biggest flaw of Savage Hills Ballroom where, for the first time in his career, Powers dares to speak out, his attempts at doing so though are cliched and crude. When Powers returns to his personal roots, like on ‘Kerry’ where he speaks about his uncle’s battle between women and cocaine, that connection to the virtuous adolescent is once again restored, the forced commentary on a Capitalistic society derails any serious reflection.

What deserves undeniable attention though is Powers’ talents as a composer, a facet of his musicianship that has improved throughout his tenure. Whereas each track on Year Of Hibernation followed a vanilla-like pattern, Savage Hills Ballroom takes structure to new heights, duplicitously bouncing between styles and arrangement at nauseating speeds. ‘No One Can Tell’ moves unsteadily between movements, some more hushed and melodic than others, all centered around one verse and one chorus, while ‘Officer Telephone,’ after escalating to an electronic bum-rush, tapers off unexpectedly, and disappointingly, but really shows off the multi-faceted approach to song structure Youth Lagoon takes here. There’s even two instrumental movements (‘Doll’s Estate’ and ‘X-Ray’) featuring elegant pianos manifesting into contorted bass reverberations that rise in uneasiness before dwindling down to silence. These staunch variations pigeon-hold Savage Hills Ballroom gallantly into Art Pop, the only thing holding it back is its intent on forcing Experimentalism. At times it feels Powers makes things for the sake of being different, like the explosive siren jammed in ‘Again’s’ third chorus, or the stuttering vocals on ‘The Knower.’ For someone whose bathed themselves in Lo-Fi and Psychedelic, abandoning that for an unorthodox stream of consciousness comes across as artificial. 

While on their own the ten tracks are admirable, as a whole they somewhat fall. This is best indicated through the cover. Whereas his first two releases captured listeners through an awe-inspiring vision, be that a mountain range or a kaleidoscopic drawing, Savage Hills Ballroom is blunt. The cover itself even declares this as “a collection of 10 songs” rather than an album, a move that’ll make diehard listeners mournful of a more whimsical past. There are high moments here though. Ignoring the contentious lyrics (“cause you’d rather spend than grow a crop” stands out erroneously) ‘Again’ features a monumental bass dancing robotically with a piano line that Powers unconventionally raps on. And the second single, ‘Highway Patrol Stun Gun,’ progresses with beautiful melody, cadence, and tone, his fear of a violent encounter further intensifies the song and his emotion. A lot of tracks here feature refined moments that make each song worthy of a listen in one way or another. ‘No One Can Tell’ flips quickly into a haunting medley of cloud-based stuttering, while ‘Rotten Human’ sees Powers flailing about, singing “on your way” with marching band drums and children chanting aggressively. These moments add life to the piece with each functioning as its own beast, the tracks, and especially the album, just a vessel for their presence.

For all that Youth Lagoon risks here, sputtering in many of those aspects, the songs are still good, some really, really good. Ignoring the two instrumental pieces, which offer little to the album, the bulk is comprised in just 30 minutes. And while Powers has never been known for fluff, always releasing albums with ten tracks, the short time-length has me hoping for more. The militant ending of ‘Free Me’ has me equal halves reluctant and excited to see what Youth Lagoon has next on tap. Savage Hills Ballroom isn’t short on ambition but it may be lacking in greatness, at least in comparison to his previous two releases which are some of my favorites to come out in the past few years. Savage Hills Ballroom bears resemblance, for me, to Son Lux, another Art Pop figurehead. His 2015 album Bones featured brittle anthems, distress calls, and strewn and misshapen instrumentation. And, much like Youth Lagoon, it followed a superior album, Lanterns, that offered coherency and consistency in the form of a distinct message sonically and lyrically. For all its mishaps though, Youth Lagoon’s latest is a stimulating journey through an artist not afraid to face untested waters.

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