Friday, June 30, 2017

Review of Hey Violet's "From the Outside"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website.

Review Summary: The music is mostly lethargic, and a lot of the lyrics are kind of creepy. So why do I still sort of like these guys?

You've probably heard of "The Lost Boys", either from Peter Pan or from the tongue-in-cheek vampire movie of the same name. I've come to think of Hey Violet as "The Lost Girls", even if they now have a pair male members to go with the founding female trio. They don't know who they are. Or worse, maybe they've finally figured it out, and it's this.

They started life as Cherri Bomb, four middle school girls who played a generic mix of hard rock and punk. They put out one mediocre LP. Then they canned their lead singer, reformed as Hey Violet, and morphed into a pop punk band -- a really good one. In 2015, they released an excellent 5-song EP called I Can Feel It, and I couldn't wait to see what they'd do next. In 2016, they veered in more of an electro-pop direction with an EP called Brand New Moves. It seemed like a step backwards, but I tried to reserve judgment. And now we get From the Outside, their first full-lengther as Hey Violet. Ho boy. Where do I start?

This isn't a good album. It's average at best, and I'm probably being kind here. In 2015, they were working in the tradition of bands like The Go-Go's, The Runaways and Sleater-Kinney. Now they're aiming to be Halsey or Charlie XCX. Maybe it's a good move financially. Pop sells. But it makes me feel sad. It's like that kid cousin who was always so sweet. But now she's swearing like a sailor, staying out all night, and into all kinds of stuff you shudder to even think about.

The music here is mostly lethargic. Almost every song is slow-to-mid-tempo, and filled with those cutesy little electronic vocal effects that are so prevalent on second-rate pop albums like the new one by Linkin Park. It sounds like 3 AM in a seedy stripper bar -- music to pole dance to. Even on the one track that shows a little energy, "This Is Me Breaking Up With You", I get the feeling they were trying more to channel Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" than their own exceptional "You Don't Love Me Like You Should" from their better days. It's like they're trying to be The Spice Girls for a new generation.

As for the lyrics on this LP, they're often kind of creepy. Cherri Bomb formed in 2008, so I'm thinking even though they started as pre-teens, these girls have to be at least 20 now. But the songs are aimed at teens and tweens, and the subject matter ranges from boys begging for nude photos, to getting with older men ('cause "Guys my age don't know how to touch me"), to Celebratory Cutting for Couples 101. I know these are things high schoolers deal with in real life, but too often, the songs are written as smarmy seduction songs without an ounce of sincerity. One Sputnik User recently wrote "This album has about as much emotional depth as a badly made ham sandwich", and on too many of the songs, he was right on target.

So why do I still like these guys? And why did I rate the album as "average" instead of "poor" or worse? I'm not entirely sure myself, but here are a few thoughts. For starters, Rena Lovelis is a pretty good lead vocalist. She shows a strong but likable voice on the numbers where she's singing seriously. And she's also capable of the kind of vocal playfulness that singers like Gwen Stefani or Deborah Harry have gotten so much mileage out of over the years. She might not be as successful as, say, Halsey, but she's a thousand times more interesting.

Also, not all of the songs are just trying to be edgy -- a few feel more authentic. "O.D.D." is sung from a perspective many of us recognize, that of being a complete outsider. "I'm the girl in the back of the class," Lovelis explains. "Blank stare, don't care, don't ask." "Hoodie" is another song that feels real. It's sung from the perspective of a girl who's been dumped, but she just can't let go of that one last memento: "I'm still rocking your hoodie/And chewing on the strings/It makes me think about you/So I wear it when I sleep." Yes, this kind of thing has been done before. But it's done pretty well here.

Even a couple of the sleazier songs are at least catchy, like "Guys My Age" and "Fuqboi" (Get it? F-u-c-k-b-o-y! Get it?!...Please kill me.) They might make me want to take a shower. But damn it, I can't get them out of my head. And believe me, I've tried.

There are also small things that give the album what advertising double talkers like to call "added value". Like when they suddenly swerve way outside of the pop lane and throw a song such as "Like Lovers Do" at you, which almost sounds like gypsy folk music. Or when they use unusual turns of the phrase, like "When you spill your guts they don't go back in" on "Consequence", or the tacky "I'd rather cut out my tongue/Than let you kiss me with yours" on "Fuqboi". And when they do finally cut loose on "This Is Me Breaking Up With You" at the end of the album, it feels like a cooling rainstorm on a humid, steamy day.

All of which is to say I'm conflicted about this album. It's certainly not the musical direction that I hoped to see Hey Violet travel in, and there are a lot of things to criticize here. On the other hand, in fairness, I'm clearly not the target audience for From the Outside. And even with all of its low points, there are just enough little nuggets of gold here to make me want to hang in there with this band. Guess I'll have to wait to see where they go from here.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars