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 couldve been made 30 years ago. Thats a good thing when the finished product matches the artists intent.
Then you have albums that sound like they could have been made five or 10 years ago simply because theyre unoriginal and boring. To paraphrase the late Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, I dont 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 thats 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 doesnt 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 dont like the sound of it, you wont 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 thats the intent, which perhaps raises the problem that theres not much originality to be found on Ladyhawke. In an album executed with such confidence and dedication to cohesion, I cant fault it for failing to break new ground. With song titles like Back of the Van and Another Runaway you know exactly what youre 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 Im feeling younger, its better than wiser. Sandwiched between lyrics about unappreciated love and the need to move on, Ladyhawke makes a good case for straightforward songwriting thats 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 todays politics or cultural battles wouldve 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, its 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 cant say, but I know after several listens it retains its freshness and reveals itself as something more serious than just a party record.