New CD reviews: Sky Ferreira, Diane Birch

  • Updated: November 4, 2013 - 4:05 PM
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Sky Ferreira

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POP/ROCK

Sky Ferreira, “Night Time, My Time” (Capitol)

How much longer will Ferreira not get what she wants? The agony of disappointment is wearing on her, and animating her. See “Nobody Asked Me (If I Was Okay)” — which turns lashing out into a sticky, moody song — from her bracing, aggressive and surprisingly tender debut album.

For much of the song, her singing telegraphs as eye-rolling, exasperated boredom, even when the words are sour. It rests somewhere near the intersection of Marilyn Manson’s motorized angst and Best Coast’s mournful tunefulness, which is to say, Courtney Love. That’s driven home near the end, when Ferreira borrows a page from Love and amps up her voice, turning a burr into a shriek. Her sadness, bordering on petulant rage, is palpable.

That explosion is a breakout moment for a young singer who has spent much of the past few years struggling to be heard. Signed at the age of 15, Ferreira has been stuck in an extended purgatory of failed pop experiments. But it turns out that when Ferreira, now 21, sings about being systematically denied, she shines. Most of the best songs on this impressive album are about failure or longing or feeling apart.

Which places her squarely at the center of contemporary female pop. The year’s recent pop blockbusters have all been downers of a sort — Miley Cyrus’ “Bangerz” has a streak of sadness underpinning its “who wants what” attitude, and Katy Perry’s “Prism” is the sound of giving up on youth in favor of a more measured adulthood. Neither album is exuberant, or saccharine.

But both are contemporary in a way that Ferreira rejects; she is the most authentically down of all. Everything about her album is a counterstroke. Her influences are more considered, more stance-taking: late 1970s art-rock, mid-1980s soundtrack pop. Producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen have fashioned Ferreira as a dream-girl/antihero, ambitious in scale but reluctant in tone.

There isn’t even a flash of the optimistic bubbly pop she delivered on “Everything Is Embarrassing,” her 2012 single. The closest she comes is the album opener, “Boys,” about finding a gem in the rough. “24 Hours” has the urgent synthesizers that connoted sexual awakening three decades ago, and the chorus is as transcendent as any love ballad.

While there is some optimistic music here, many of her choices are abrasive: the doom-and-gloom post-New Age on the title track, the heavy feedback on the purposefully odd “Omanko,” the grimy guitars and heavily treated vocals on “Kristine.”

And in places, she treats herself roughly in the lyrics, too, especially on “I Blame Myself.” If Ferreira feels the blame falls on her shoulders, that’s sad, because after an album like this, who will deny Ferreira? Maybe only herself.

Jon Caramanica, New York Times

 

Diane Birch, “Speak a Little Louder” (S-Curve)

On her 2009 debut, “Bible Belt,” Birch masterfully evoked the golden era of the late ’60s and early ’70s, drawing comparisons to such fellow piano-playing singer-songwriters as Laura Nyro and Carole King.

Here, Birch is decidedly less retro, at least on the surface. Gone are the overt R&B and gospel touches, and the tracks tend to be swathed in a synthesizer gloss and other more modern textures that can make the drama of the songs seem a bit overblown. It would be more off-putting if Birch’s strengths as a singer and writer were not still in evidence. Especially on numbers that plumb romantic tribulations, such as “Love and War” and “Frozen Over,” her soul shines through the sometimes sterile surroundings.

Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer

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