On Second Listen: Ladyhawke – Ladyhawke

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Jenny Lewis’ latest album, Acid Tongue, received many props for its lo-fi approach to recording (including our very own year-end list). It hearkens back to the simple country albums of yesteryear that were recorded without a lot of effects and knob-twisting. It sounds like an album that could’ve been made 30 years ago. That’s a good thing when the finished product matches the artist’s intent.

Then you have albums that sound like they could have been made five or 10 years ago simply because they’re unoriginal and boring. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, I don’t know what makes an album a reverent homage and another trite, but I recognize it when I hear it.

And this brings me to Ladyhawke, Phillipa “Pip” Brown, a New Zealander whose eponymous debut album is so 1980s it makes me miss Reaganomics. And that’s a compliment, believe it or not.

Ladyhawke follows a message from the opening track to the last: Retro electro-pop can be as serious as it is fun. She doesn’t ease you into it and ask you to play along, which I suspect will turn away many listeners. The opener, “Magic”, sounds like Imogen Heap singing lead on a Patty Smith song as performed by Air. A convoluted description, but as apt as any I can conjure. If you don’t like the sound of it, you won’t care much for the 13 tracks that follow.

Every minute of this disk recalls a spiky-haired female rocker pounding her gloved fist in the air. At no point do I doubt that’s the intent, which perhaps raises the problem that there’s not much originality to be found on Ladyhawke. In an album executed with such confidence and dedication to cohesion, I can’t fault it for failing to break new ground. With song titles like “Back of the Van” and “Another Runaway” you know exactly what you’re getting.

Buried within these synths and guitars are heartfelt lyrics alongside the fun ones. The toe-tapping beats of “Better Than Sunday” almost cause you to miss the simplicity of the line “I’m feeling younger, it’s better than wiser.” Sandwiched between lyrics about unappreciated love and the need to move on, Ladyhawke makes a good case for straightforward songwriting that’s free of abstractions.

The decision to embrace all aspects of the era strengthens the album. Making a retro album in sound, only to subvert it with musings on today’s politics or cultural battles would’ve been an obvious move. Instead, she seems to respect the decade, recreating choruses and bridges that mimic the best pop/rock of the time. The chorus of “Dust ‘Til Dawn” is a simple mix of “Bang bang bang on the wall / From dusk ‘til dawn” and wordless harmonizing that creates the right atmosphere.

The trick with this sort of LP is the aging process. In 2008, it’s retro. In another decade will it still sound like a smart throwback to the past or will it be dismissed as poor attempt to recapture a time long gone? Of course I can’t say, but I know after several listens it retains its freshness and reveals itself as something more serious than just a party record.

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