If you’ve listened to enough pop music over your years of taking in culture, you’ll eventually come to realize that things just can’t be the way you’d want them to be. Yes, there is some truth in the existence of the lowest common denominator. Hey, it’s “popular” music for a reason. A pretty big majority of listeners aren’t all that interested in being challenged.
They just want to have fun. Lady Gaga, Justin Beiber, Rihanna — fun is the word. Same as it ever was.
Every so often there are surprises, though. Moments when music of a little more complexity and subtlety breaks through to the top. The last huge one was probably Norah Jones. I thought for sure that Regina Spektor was going to be next. She’s done well but hasn’t turned out to be the huge commercial phenomenon that Norah was.
Maybe this is all for the good. Not that it always happens, but I sort of hate to see artists pressured by their fame to maintain a certain direction and speed. It’s also disheartening to read of the inevitable pile-on that follows after somebody hits it big. Sometimes it seems like the public enjoys knocking down the successful artist more than reveling in their good fortune.
Don’t take this to mean that I’m necessarily dooming songwriter/pianist Misty Boyce to a career of obscurity and Ramen noodle dinners. I sure hope that’s not what happens, though she does fit right in that gray area with material that’s maybe too sophisticated for pop, too pop for the sophisticates.
On first listen, the opening track “Razor,” made me think that my finger would soon be wandering over to the “eject” button. Though my ears were drawn to the sprightly verse with its staccato piano chords as well as the windup to the chorus, the arrival of that refrain just screamed “Generic!!” That’s because I wasn’t listening yet. Repeated visits unearthed a wealth of pop detailing, including strings shadowing the vocal melody. One particular detail stood out, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Then the name popped out: Olivia Newton John.
This is a good thing. Trust me. Read on.
This record is made up of songs that inhabit emotional landscapes that sway between pensive thought-pieces (“All You Need Is Here”) and seemingly randy pop nuggets: Check out the infectious bounce of “Love You Down.” “Let’s Get Lonely” represents the other side, a soulful and serious trip.
OK, back to the Olivia Newton John thing. Yes, I was reminded of her voice as the chorus of that first song lifted off. Then again, I was also reminded (just a bit) of Regina Spektor during the quirky, jaunty “Be A Man,” especially when the piano doubled her vocal line. Comparisons to Tori are also inevitable. But at the end of the album, my ears were not left with remnants of those other artists. No, Misty Boyce is doing her own thing. Make fun of Olivia Newton John all you want, but nobody else sounded like her. Same thing goes for both Regina and Tori.
The standout track here is “Trouble.” A powerful lament over what the protagonist has become, it’s sung to simple piano accompaniment during the verses with a swelling of strings and guitar in the chorus. It also took me by surprise with its emotionally raw confession of personal decay: “Cuz lately I’ve been fucking like a man/getting drunk and making plans … ” Ouch. That’s some distilled and brutal honestly right there.
Pop music for adults, is how people tend to think of music like this. Lady Gaga might be fine for throwin’ down on a Saturday night, but we need something to take us through the rest of the week. I just hope that there are some adults still listening, because this is some fabulous stuff.