October 23, 2013

Test Spins: Poliça, Shulasmith

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By CALVIN PATTEN

Front-woman Channy Leaneagh accurately and succinctly wrapped up Poliça’s latest album, Shulasmith, in describing it as “Drums. Bass. Synths. Me. Women.” But in explaining a relatively commonplace approach to creating music, she fails to convey the ingenuity, skill and fantastic production that makes Shulasmith a must hear album.

Poliça, best described as an R&B-infused electro-pop band, was founded in Minneapolis in 2011. Within a year of forming, the band released their first album, the well-received Give You the Ghost, which introduced listeners to the group’s unique musical styling. The band, which includes two drummers and a bass guitarist and features the production work of Ryan Olsen, quickly gained recognition, not just for Ghost, but for its live shows. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame, who makes a brief appearance on Shulasmith-highlight “Tiff,” anointed them as “the best band in the world,” and a sensation was born.

Released 20 months after Ghost, Shulasmith is a slightly more mature, thorough piece of music. The record itself incorporates a moody and often frantic sound, as sped-up synths and occasionally off-beat percussion build to a frenzy. Leaneagh’s voice, heavily distorted with the help of Auto Tune, is the connecting tissue between tracks that are frequently in tonal contrast to each other and her lyrics. Together, they create an organic rendering of a woman very much in toil over her affection for a man and her simultaneous desire for personal independence. The thematic content is largely hinted at by the album title: Shulasmith Firestone was an influential, radical feminist in the ’70s, whose writing Leaneagh has cited as an inspiration.

The album’s ability to combine a variety of distinct — sometimes disharmonious — sounds into cohesive songs is truly impressive. At various points, each element (the bass, percussion, vocals and synthesizers) is allowed to come to the forefront, but no single element  ever dominates the music. Album intro “Chain My Name” opens with an up-tempo, high-pitched, synthesized layer over a throbbing, funky bass line, coupled with energetic percussion before Leaneagh’s distorted, somewhat muted vocals begin. As the song progresses, these sounds move in and out, giving each at least a brief focus. It is a great first track, not just for how it introduces each musical component, but also for how it establishes the confusion and self-doubt that is the thematic base of Shulasmith. The funk is uptempo and fun, but Leaneagh is less than convinced, singing “So are we made just to fight/All our lives/Chain my name, chain my name, chain my name, chain my name beside you.”

As Shulasmith progresses, the listener is further introduced to the variety of sounds and styles Poliça employs. “Smug,” immediately following “Chain my Name,” is a cooler and more subdued song, with scratches, cymbals and hand claps keeping rhythm. Even when the song crescendos, it does so with a quick flurry of percussion before retreating. Quickly, it becomes apparent that the band has an advanced understand of how to juxtapose fast and slow and loud and quiet, not only between songs, but within them.

One of the standout efforts on Shulasmith is the dark, relentless “Very Cruel,” which plays to Poliça’s R&B interest and could easily pass for a Weeknd track. The bass, consistently a highlight of the album, pulses throughout. It is a possessive, minimalist song that ends by encapsulating the Leaneagh’s deranged and shattered mindset as the lyric “We’re so very close,” loops. It is terrifying in a way that music rarely is.

“Tiff,” the Justin Vernon feature, is also a standout, though it underutilizes Vernon’s capabilities — he provides little more than background vocals in his duet. In the song’s successes however, we also glimpse a couple of the album’s issues and miscues. For parts of “Tiff,” Leanegh’s vocals are only minimally distorted, allowing them to be much more easily understood. It is a rare point when her lyrics can be understood without unyielding focus, and it gives the listener an opportunity to enjoy poetic and poignant lines like “Measuring up the pretty girls/body buildings sickly fed/need my TV, need my meds/tiffany my vanity.” This is a well-written album, but it can be difficult to discern just how well it is written without actively looking up the lyrics.

“Tiff” also demonstrates just how good the music sounds when that second, male voice is included. As unique as Leanegh’s sound is, it is relatively staid. The inclusion of more backing could help maintain a diverse sound, especially in parts where the vocals are pushed to the forefront. The production is so good that her lack of dynamism is largely hidden, but hearing the depth provided by Justin Vernon, it becomes noticeable.

Calvin Patten is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He cam be reached at cpatten@cornellsun.com.