The sunniest thing you’ll experience all February.
Tender Tender Rush, 2014
7.9 / 10
I’m an optimist.
There was once a time when I was a cynic. There was once a time when I would be likely to dismiss a pop record before giving it a fair shake. And even though I’d like to think that music criticism has grown more accepting of pop music in the past five years, the genre is still more scrutinized than others. Is it fair to judge a pop record by the same standards as that of a high-brow “indie” album? We wouldn’t judge a hip hop album based on its likeness to a high-brow “indie” album, would we? Maybe it’s a straw-man argument here, but I think that pop music – while it sells well – gets maligned by critics just for being pop1.
Let me step off of my soapbox for a minute to tell you why I started thinking about this. Young Heart is the new album by Blondfire, a band – a brother/sister duo – that makes solid, effective pop music. Blondfire’s music is wide-eyed and innocent. It’s bright and shiny, and best of all, it doesn’t feel manipulative. Often in audience-friendly pop-centric music, you can see the strings attached – emotional moments feel forced and contrived, and melodies follow suit. Blondfire, on the other hand, is bouncy and fun without feeling like it was born and birthed in the studio. Young Heart is an album that wants to please its audience, wants to be liked by everyone, but refuses to stoop to a low-brown level.
Erica and Bruce Driscoll are the aforementioned siblings behind Blondfire. Erica handles the guitars/keyboards and vocals, while her younger brother handles programming and production. Bruce Discoll has worked on a number of albums to date, mostly staying behind the curtain2, but most of his projects are marked by slick, compressed, polished music with an electronic bottom (Sleepy Rebels, Freedom Fry). Together, the two make an effective pair – they complement each other’s contributions well, where it’s hard to imagine Erica’s vocals without Bruce’s backdrop, or imagine Bruce’s production without a voice like Erica’s fronting it.
So then, the question becomes that of songwriting; a pop album can get by on a pretty frontman singing well or on strong, fluent production, but a good pop album needs catchy, enduring melodies. Young Heart is littered with such melodies: these vocal hooks are strong and prominent, but they’re not cheesy or trite. Instead, the arrangements and vocals work together to create some truly fun tunes. The chorus of “Waves”, for example, has a decent enough vocal line, but what makes it a great song is the percussive flourishes that punctuate the otherwise straight-laced song. The lyrics are good – with this genre, you can get away with pretty much anything, so Erica Driscoll’s attempt to put something meaningful in a bouncy, sunny pop song ought to be commended. You’re not going to hear the next song to spark political upheaval on Young Heart, or any Tom Wais-esque life-on-the-streets philosophical gems. But hey, that’s okay – that’s not what this record is for.
There’s probably not a lot about Young Heart that you haven’t heard in some capacity before. What separates Blondfire (and the Driscolls) from the pack is their ability to package these old (and by now, stale) ingredients into something surprising, fun, and evocative. The first half of the album is stacked with the best songs, and the second half’s tracks, and unfortunately, these tracks were previously featured on the 2012 EP, Where The Kids Are. So here’s the deal: if you like pop music, and you haven’t bought Where The Kids Are, Blondfire’s Young Heart is not optional. The value of Young Heart depreciates slightly if you’ve already listened to the EP, because its best tracks are already a year old. This is honest, naïve pop music, and it’ll be the sunniest thing you hear all February.
“Walking With The Giants”
“Dear In Your Headlights”
1. I’m aware that, at some level, this is the pot calling the kettle black. After all, I criticized Haim and Chvrches for not being original or innovative enough in their approaches. The difference here, I would argue, is that of form – these bands dressed up pop music in synthesizers and thrift-store clothes.
2. Most notably, to me, is Ivy’s All Hours, and album drenched in pop production.