Lights – Siberia: Holy Flux!

2011_Lights_SiberiaArtist: Lights
Album: Siberia
Year: 2011
Grade: B-

In Brief: Siberia is uneven, but it demonstrates some growth and maturity after The Listening, being a better album overall despite a few serious speed bumps.

So it would seem that Lights has a bit of a reputation for being “the female Owl City“. It’s not exactly an idea that this youthful Canadian synthpop artist has worked particularly hard to squash – some might say she even got a bigger break by touring with owl City, and by virtue of doing a duet with him on “The Yacht Club” and making a cameo in his video for “Deer in the Headlights”, it would seem that she’s just as much of a giddy fangirl of his as she is an artist who could amass a following full of giddy fangirls in her own right. On her first album, The Listening, Lights took an arguably more introverted, more openly spiritual, and slightly less bass-heavy approach to synthpop. it was cute at times and also quite catchy, but ultimately a bit undercooked, being notably stronger for a few choice singles than as a satisfying record from beginning to end. At some point she must have decided she wanted to step up her game, because on her new album Siberia, she’s playing with dubstep and grittier elements of electronic music, still creating chirpy synthpop for the most part, but maybe hoping for the end result to play just as well in a club as it does coming out of your iPod speakers while you’re sitting at some coffee shop writing in your blog.

I’m honestly surprised I haven’t heard more jokes about the fact that Lights collaborated with a band called Holy F*ck on this album. Part of me just finds it funny to see Holy F*ck and Jesus thanked in the same liner notes, I guess. The intentional awkwardness of the producer’s moniker aside, this was a good move sonically, since Holy F*ck’s entire M.O. is to make electronic sounds without laptops or squencers. This adds a sort of gritty texture to several of the tracks they produced for Lights, and I couldn’t tell you where half of the warped sounds are coming from, but it’s definitely a step up over the sometimes tinny and childish backdrop of The Listening. Not everything works – there are still a few dull ballads that struggle to say anything cohesive, and the album ends with a God-awful noise experiment that I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. But when it’s successful, Lights ends up with a few potential runaways hits on her hands. Canadian rapper Shad (yep, she’s keeping the entire production north of the border here) even shows up to liven up a few tracks, which has been met with mixed reviews by some fans, but personally I think it was a good move. it’s a way of bringing the gap between club and hip-hop culture and the geeky shyness of a girl alone in her bedroom playing with a dated synthesizer. The odd, anachronistic feel of it is part of the fun.

Lyrically, not too much has changed since The Listening. Several tracks are simple, youthful, lovelorn musings, almost playing like diary entries due to catch-phrases and odd references that aren’t always explained. It’s as if the subject of the song knows what she means, so the rest of us are just getting a glimpse into the language used between two lovers (or potential lovers, or a person and God – much of that is open to interpretation this time). Other songs come across like prayers to strengthen her moral character – not in a judgmental way but just in the sense that she knows how fragile she is and how easily mistakes can be made. All of these concerns may come across as a bit naive to a listener of my age, but to be fair, I’m probably a good decade beyond Lights’ target audience. I’m cool with that, because if she can speak to them while also keeping the ear of an outlier like me, that’s a pretty good success. At fourteen tracks, Siberia can start to wear on a bit towards the end (a problem she still hasn’t quite fixed from The Listening), but there’s still enough good stuff floating about to make it a worthwhile purchase.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. Siberia
Can a song be both icy and bouncy at the same time? (Not counting Lights’ song “Ice”. That’s being a bit too literal.) This song aims to be both, giving us a taste of the new and improved Lights, with Holy F*ck’s aural frost eating away at the otherwise thick, pounding bass that gives this song its driving rhythm. The sweet, innocent girl’s still there under all of the stormy, synthetic haze, reassuring a lover that she’d settle down with him at the four corners of the earth if that was what it took to be together, with the titular land of vast tundra acting as her chosen backdrop for a place she’d be happy to snuggle up with him and make their own warmth. The bright melody contrasts nicely with the stormy exterior of the song, and though the subject matter is perhaps a bit naive, it’s easily forgivable since the contrasting elements make the song quite distinctive. More difficult to forgive is a bit of lyrical shoehorning that forces the accent to land on the wrong syllable right when she drops the song’s title, which brings the awkwardness immediately to the listener’s attention: “Hys-te-RI-a”, “Si-be-RI-a”, “Ca-NA-da”. Does it even make sense to do that if both parts of a rhyme are phrased that way? She’s just begging for a parody that sticks the word “Diarrhea” in there, because that would be a more natural pronunciation.

2. Where the Fence Is Low
This track does an interesting job of splitting the difference between light electronic pop and bass-heavy dance music. The galloping rhythm of the verse keeps things moving at a quick pace, but you don’t quite see the huge, throbbing low-end sounds coming that dominate the chorus. Musically, it’s easy to give this one a pass just for keeping things rhythmically fresh, but this is one of those moments where Lights stumbles a bit on her lyrics. I sort of get what she’s trying to say, that she’s venturing beyond the safe confines of what she knows and taking risks with the aim of broadening her horizons. Always a good thing for a musician to keep in mind at any age. It’s just that her chosen metaphor doesn’t fully make sense – what’s the significance of a fence being low? I get that you can just hop right over it, but couldn’t you just climb a higher fence if you were feeling adventurous anyway? This leads to unintentional humor when I think of video games that have those obnoxious waist-height fences that act as definitive, immovable boundaries even though any reasonable human being wouldn’t even be slowed down by such things. This distracts me. Good metaphors don’t distract me.

3. Toes
The first mega-catchy single from this project is one that Lights can definitely be proud of, despite how daintily it skirts the line between inventive electronica and teenybopper pop. It’s hard to be too cynical when the reverberating pulses of this one start to bounce off of one another, culminating in a declaration of love and devotion (alright, at least incredibly insistent infatuation) for a person whose every move Lights is watching carefully. She delves into books for the metaphors that she uses to describe him here, and any song that starts with “If you were a cliffhanger ending…” is certainly enough to intrigue me. I figure listening and learning all the little details about a person is one of the sincerest forms of flattery – I can say that some of my truest moments of feeling attracted to someone in my lifetime have come from the sense that they pay attention and really “get” me. So this joyous anthem about a guy who keeps her on her toes is an easy win for me.

4. Banner
I’m not sure whether to read this cute little battle anthem (bet you thought you’d never hear those words in the same sentence) as a bit of geeky inspiration (from games like World of Warcraft), or a bit of Biblical inspiration (from the Song of Solomon, of all things). Knowing Lights, neither would be a stretch. She sings of holding steadfast to a cause, of keeping her eyes on a standard raised over the battlefield, and makes no attempt to beat around the bush in declaring she’d die for her love. What makes it cute (other than all the synthesizers bubbling up and the stuttering urban-techno beat, of course) is that she sings of things like sorcerers and roses and mapping oblivion, and basically makes sure she can describe the melee in her own quirky way, which helps to counteract the feeling that we’ve heard this idea of love as a battlefield done to death (pun not intended) already.

5. Everybody Breaks a Glass
One of my absolute favorite songs of the year comes in the form of this highly distorted, yet highly addictive, single that marks Lights’ first foray into hip-hop territory. Most of it is still sung by her, with Shad taking over for a phenomenal rap break during the bridge, but the rapid-fire bass beat that absolutely pummels the verses of this song is what really gives it a character all its own. Apparently Holy F*ck’s M.O. with this one was to over-crank the bass to the point where it sounded all fuzzy and distorted coming out of a huge loudspeaker, then re-record that and use it as the backbeat. Your opinion may very greatly on whether this is a slick move that gives the song its own unique, intentionally glitchy quality, or whether a producer just took a dump all over an otherwise good song. I’m in the former camp, in case you couldn’t tell. This one’s also interesting for having a heavy verse and light chorus, with Lights’ mood changing on a dime from the verse’s insistent, high-pitched monotone, to the chorus with its easy-going, “no worries” attitude. That’s appropriate for a song that addresses a celebrity’s fears of screwing up in front of everyone, only to calm herself and say, “Hey, chill out – it happens to everyone.” Shad really drives this point home, and that’s no small feat considering that Lights is having an out-of-genre experience by bringing him on board. Rap breaks can easily ruin a song if the rapper wastes space by going off topic. But here, with clever internal rhymes and a no-holds-barred glimpse into the boastfulness and addictions we look to in order to hide our weaknesses, he quite nicely giftwraps an already excellent song and hands it back to Lights, having easily doubled its replay value.

6. Heavy Rope
I like the skipping beat to this one – I think it’s in 12/8 time? Lights makes good use of syncopation here. This one backs off a bit on the blatantly catchy melodies as Lights keeps her voice to more of a mellow, almost prayerful tone. This one feels like the antithesis of “Where the Fence Is Low”, with Lights having ventured out beyond the safety of that fence and found herself stuck on a cliff she can’t climb down from. So she’s begging for someone (probably God, if you read between the lines) to throw her a rope and get her out of there. You could read it as a plea for purity, or a return to innocence – my Christian upbringing sort of makes me cringe at the song’s mention of a “slippery slope” since it is so often cited as an absurd leap of logic between seemingly innocuous actions and those that are highly immoral in the eyes of the speaker. Lights isn’t moralizing here. She presumably just wants to be held to the standards she’s established for herself, which I can admire, even if the phrasing is a bit awkward: “Come bail me out of this God-forsaken precipice”. I’m trying not to laugh as I imagine a cliff where the laws of gravity do not apply, and thus it is filling up with water. I really need to stop taking her lyrics so literally.

7. Timing Is Everything
Goofiness abounds in this rubbery, mid-tempo track which sounds like it woke up on the wrong side of an Owl City recording session. (I like Owl City. But this sounds dorky enough to rival some of OC’s more embarrassing offerings, most notably “Kamikaze”.) What starts as an innocently charming enough song about the serendipitous events that led to two lovers meeting (complete with a “princess is in another castle” reference, just to let you know she’s the umpteenth person to think quoting that line from Super Mario Bros. is still clever) takes a wrong turn into the land of vagueness, saying little other than to tell you that you’ve gotta trust your gut and your hunches. I’m fine with the notion of the universe or God or whatever you want to call it orchestrating things for good, and us just needing to trust that it will all work out, but it’s kind of embarrassing when songs try to prove or demonstrate this, especially in this case where ascribing it to “timing” makes it sound like a big random chance that could have just as easily been missed. Another case of emphasis on the wrong syllable doesn’t help – when she stutters the phrase “Who’d have thought we’d be right here”, there’s an unnatural emphasis on “have”, and it’s pronounced “of”, which makes me peek at my lyric sheet just to make sure she wasn’t dumb enough to actually write “who’d of thought”. Fortunately she’d not. It still sounds awkward, though. The little chipmunk voice echoing the song title also doesn’t help.

8. Peace Sign
A similarly upbeat dance track follows here – a little too heavy on the sugary side of synthpop and not quite as heavy on the experimental elements. It’s about finding absolutes in a world of grey, so I guess I can understand why Lights would play it extremely straight here, but unfortunately isn’t isn’t the most interesting approach for the song to take. The lyrics find her concerned with supposed friends who take her hand one minute and then stab her in the back the next, which leaves her turning to the “you” addressed in the song as her only constant. You can pretty easily read between the lines on this one (hint: some would write “you” with a capital Y). It’s OK, but a bit too CCM-ey for an artist that doesn’t specifically market herself to a Christian audience.

9. Cactus in the Valley
In stark contrast to most of the album, this song tiptoes on by without making much of an impression. One could say it’s the most vulnerable, sensitive moment on the album, since Lights has reverted to her quietest, most introverted tone of voice, and she’s singing about herself as a dry cactus in need of the rain. (Embarrassing admission: I’m getting flashbacks to when I was a teenager and I had a celebrity crush on Jaci Velasquez after hearing her “Flower in the Rain” song. This wouldn’t have quite had the same effect on me even at that age, I’m afraid.) Part of my problem is the barely-there backdrop of very light keyboard work and overly minimal electric guitar (I’m assuming), which seems so foamy that it’s about 10% texture and 90% air. There’s a rhythm track but it’s more melody than percussion, leaving little to anchor the song. Lights has done quite well in stark ballad mode in the past – see “Pretend” for a good example on her previous album. She just needs a little more ambiance – and a better grasp on the metaphor that she deviates from all too easily (a cactus can’t have a “mark of sadness” on its face when it doesn’t even have a face to begin with) – to really sell this one.

10. Suspension
Now we’re back to about the same pace as “Peace Sign”, but with better results. Rather smartly given the subject of the song, the verses maintain a four-on-the-floor backbeat but keep most of the action in “suspended animation” until the chorus hits. That’s when the beat gets hot and heavy, and I guess I prefer that to some of the more airy, rubbery beats used in other songs. No idea what this song is really about other than floating in space and being at peace about it, but I like the warping and twisting of the bass line that gives this song its own distinct personality.

11. Flux and Flow
Tough to tell whether Lights edges closest to hip-hop/R&B with “Everybody Breaks a Glass” or with this one. Either way, I like what I’m hearing. The beat is minimal, the tempo is casual, yet it packs a punch all the same, having that same sort of economic quality as a lot of modern-day “Let’s see how much we can remove and still get away with making it insanely catchy” rhythms heard in the genre. I’m not really sure what Lights is on about this time other than the very general notion that you win some, you lose some, and you shouldn’t let it get you down. In some ways she’s being as much of a Captain Obvious here as she was in “Timing Is Everything”, though she wins back some points with me just for being nerdy enough to use the word “flux” in a song. Shad’s rap break, though well executed, doesn’t add a whole heck of a lot more meaning to it as far as I can tell. (“Epilepsy with that Etch-a-Sketch scene” is a killer rhyme, but it’s more style than substance.) Ultimately I like this one just for sounding cool, but it could use a little more thought in the lyrics department.

12. Fourth Dimension
Unfortunately we’re on a bit of a downhill slide from here until the end. Nerd cred can’t save the song this time, as Lights wants to sound cool singing about outer space and the fourth dimension and such, but the lyrics are so packed with dated technobabble that I’m left feeling completely locked out of knowing or caring what this neat-o “invention” actually is. Is this about time travel, or at least reminiscing about the past? Well, that’d be fun to sing about, but inject some emotion into it so that we know why it’s worth singing about. The impenetrable silliness of the words isn’t helped at all by a rather turgid beat, which wants to sound cool in that same distorted way as other rhythms on this album do, but can’t quite get there as it just sort of half-heartedly putters along. It’s not so silly as to be aurally offensive – it’s just one of those songs where you slowly realize it’s all flash and no precious metal.

13. And Counting…
There’s something naively charming about the very old-school R&B synth tone that permeates this track. It’s a sleepy ballad about falling asleep, and is that sort of hazy vibe that perfectly compliments a lyric about wanting to get through those last few lonely days until you get to see a loved one again. Unfortunately, there’s extremely little to the lyric beyond that simple counting of days, to the point where Lights’ sleepy repetition of her bone-headedly obvious observations threatens to put me to sleep. It’s like the most boring version of “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” imaginable: “Forty days and counting/I’m going to sleep, when/I wake up, there will be/Thirty-nine days left”. Second verse, the same as the first, but subtract ten days. (I guess I should be grateful that she spared us the days in between.) A chorus could tie this all together, put some emotion behind the counting, make it clearer what sort of elation she’s anticipating when he returns. As it repeats “When I fall asleep and you are with me” three times, building up anticipation for what that feeling of being with him is actually like, the chorus disappointingly concludes with a run-on sentence – “‘Til I fall asleep and you are with me”. It’s a truly frustrating waste of a simple but beautiful ambient backdrop. And as much as I’d like to pretend that the album ends here on this lackluster note and what’s left is just a bonus track, I’m not even allowed to do that due to the crossfade that bridges the two.

14. Day One
In case I didn’t make my point clear enough, and you’re still listening, I’ll advise you more plainly: TURN THE CD OFF NOW. Unless you’re eccentric enough to get turned on by formless, noisy, avant-garde electronica, you will only emerge from this hellacious composition nine minutes later thoroughly bewildered, annoyed, and possibly nursing a headache. You will want those nine minutes of your life back. Basically this is one of those “Leave the tape running” moments where the first day of Lights’ sonic experimentation with Holy F*ck has been captured for posterity, as four helpless synth chords play over and over and over and over AND OVER AND OVER AND – *smack* sorry, had to slap myself out of it – as seemingly every knob on the sound board is tweaked and twisted and otherwise abused, resulting in what must be the sound of a robot vomiting, being sped up and slowed down to all sorts of different pitches and lengths. You’d expect that maybe after a few minutes that this would come together and some sort of order would emerge, but it just carries on for the entire pointless duration of the track. Hearing the first minute or so tells you all you’ll need to hear. I won’t hold this one against the album’s score because it’s not an obstruction between the actual songs on the album and I can, in fact, ignore its presence from now on. But sheesh, some things need to be left as super-duper-bonus-hidden-Easter-egg material for only the most devoted members of the fan club to dig up on in some obscure link posted to your Twitter feed, y’know?

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Siberia $1.50
Where the Fence Is Low $.50
Toes $2
Banner $1
Everybody Breaks a Glass $2
Heavy Rope $1
Timing Is Everything $.50
Peace Sign $.50
Cactus in the Valley $0
Suspension $1
Flux and Flow $1.50
Fourth Dimension $0
And Counting… $0
Day One $0
TOTAL: $11.50

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:


WEBSITES:
http://www.iamlights.com/
http://www.myspace.com/lights

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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