In Brief: As much as I may cast a suspicious eye on singing shows such as The Voice, they unearthed an artist who I already knew to be quite talented.
I often fear the worst when I catch wind of a band member going solo. Especially so when they attain a surprisingly large amount of recognition for their solo gig in a relatively short period of time, compared to the attention they got as a band member. This is something that I went into great detail about when I reviewed Meg & Dia‘s Cocoon not long after discovering that lead singer Dia Frampton had placed second in the first season of The Voice. I’m generally dead-set against those shows, because my assumption tends to be that they put more focus on image and on letting the lowest common denominator (i.e. the general public) choose the winner based on momentary whims and petty ballot-box stuffing. I figure every now and then a decent artist like Dia might rise to the top despite these odds, but even then I worry about how the major label bigwigs might try to mold and shape her. It’s because of these factors that I held off on listening to Dia’s debut solo album, Red. I was just getting into Cocoon, anyway. I didn’t want to oversaturate myself and let potential standout tunes on either record suffer for it.
Finally listening to Red a few months ago, I was immediately assured that my fears were almost completely unfounded. Sure, it’s a pop record. Sure, it’s heavily produced compared to anything Meg & Dia did together (outside of their brief swing-and-a-miss at mainstream rock fame on Here, Here and Here, which I still love anyway). Sure, it’s all over the map and more focused on letting a singer try on different hats than it is on making a cohesive artistic statement. But let’s be fair. Cocoon, for all of its stripped down acoustic and indie rock aspirations, was just as all-over-the-place of a record. Outside of a few fleeting moments, the two don’t sound remotely alike, as Red often wanders into territory that might tempt Meg & Dia fans to cry “Sellout!” But for those who can get over their genre biases, Red actually shows itself to be a confident and even adventurous record, sometimes even treading into poignant territory where the lyrics hit harder than they did on a lot of M&D compositions. It’s also worth noting that Meg isn’t completely absent from the proceedings, having contributed a co-write here or an instrumental bit there. Dia didn’t see the fast track to mainstream fame and leave her sister in the dust. She simply took the chance to explore a different side of herself while her band was taking a bit of a break, as far as I can tell.
It actually works in Red‘s favor that the album plays as a series of stylistic experiments rather than an attempt at pinning Dia down to a single genre. Think about some of the more fun-loving tracks on Here, Here and Here (especially “The Last Great Star in Hollywood” and “Agree to Disagree”), and it’s not a massive stretch to hear her pairing off with a hip-hop artist or even attempting a country duet. (Said duet doesn’t really work, but Blake Shelton was her coach on The Voice, so I suppose it was inevitable that he’d end up somewhere on this record.) Elsewhere, there are highly danceable pop songs with unorthodox approaches taken in terms of the production, and sometimes surprising lyrical turns that remind us Dia’s got a lot on her mind. If anything, working with the veritable firm of co-writers who lent a hand here taught Dia a thing or two about communication. It used to be that interesting messages would sometimes get buried in meg & Dia’s songs due to their tendency to cram in too many words. Here, Dia still has her own way of phrasing things, but it feels like the words are given more room to sink and mean something to the listener before she moves on to the next oddball detail. This means that she can tackle tough issues like suicide or child abuse without sounding like a generic Public Service Announcement, and she can also tell weird stories of her own personal experiences with wit and charm. Really, I’m surprised at how consistent this album is from track to track, with one glaring exception. It’s easily as strong of a record as Cocoon, despite seeming to be that album’s polar opposite on the surface.
1. Don’t Kick the Chair
The aforementioned hip-hop pairing happens here, with Kid Cudi‘s strange chanting right at the beginning of the song immediately alerting us that this won’t be anything like your typical Meg & Dia song. Rhythmically speaking, it’s great fun, sort of splitting the difference between a danceable pop beat and the sort of hip-hop/reggae crossover thing you might expect from any number of Caribbean-bred artists. This really shouldn’t work, but instead it bolsters Dia’s urgently optimistic message, urging a person who feels like “the whole damn world is a braided rope in a noose around your neck” to just hang in there, ’cause it’s gonna get better. This could be quite insipid in the hands of your average pop artist, but something about the unusual metaphor grabs me – the forces of the universe might seem to have conspired for your downfall, but you’re the one who chooses to either deliver the death blow (by kicking the chair out from under you, get it now?) or to live to fight another day. Kid Cudi, for his part, stays out of the way until the bridge, when the song shifts its rhythm to give him something to rap to, and he sort of half-sings and half raps a verse that is a bit cliched in its delivery, but is admittedly a lot of fun to bob your head along to. The only thing I’m not sure I like is his odd warble at the end of it: “You could be better all by yourself, WAAAAA.” It’s either “yeah”, or “whoa”. Make up your mind, dude. From there he goes on the play hype man as Dia’s poppy chorus comes back for a rousing victory lap. Mainstream pop music has been toying with this same basic formula for decades now, but what makes it work for me is the fact that I never feel like the guest appearance obliterates Dia’s quirky charm. The result is one of the past year’s catchiest singles that doesn’t feel like a guilty pleasure.
On the much more organic end of things, but definitely still very poppy, is this fast-paced ode to a would-be teenage runaway. Dia’s lyrics come rambling out so quickly that it’s hard to catch them all on first listen, over a bumpy bed of acoustic guitar and keyboards and banjo – sort of an alternative, folksy approach to pop music that I wouldn’t have been too terribly surprised to hear on Cocoon. A strong drum beat keeps the rhythm, and the production takes a “wall of sound” approach in general, so while this isn’t conventional enough for mainstream radio to know what to do with it, it’s a good reminder after the first track that the entire album won’t be glossy and synthesized. Like some of the best “storybook character” songs that Meg & Dia came up with, this one’s good about adding specific details to make it feel like it’s not about just anyone. Perhaps due to neglectful parenting, this girl’s only true heroes are found in her record collection. Dia plays the role of an accomplice in her escape, hearing her crying through the walls and telling her, “Your mom and dad are straight-up crazy”, and leaving her some spare cash and a ticket to who knows where. This would probably be a more powerful story if the songs around it gave it greater context – a lot of Meg & Dia’s songs have been like that, in the sense that they’re just a snapshot into a larger story for which we’ll never see the resolution. But that’s OK, because it’s inventive, and not at all the kind of pabulum that the record label machine would put on an album solely to showcase a reality show contestant’s voice (not that her girlish, raspy pipes aren’t in fine working order, but that isn’t really the focus here).
3. The Broken Ones
Now this is the type of song I’d classify as a vocal showcase. Yeah, I could totally picture Dia singing this one, sparkly spotlights shining down on her as the camera angle changes with every dramatic turn that the melody makes. It’s got “award-bait power ballad” written all over it. Surprisingly, it manages to be a solid song despite that. The atmospheric piano, low-key guitar strumming, and humble percussion at the beginning of the song hint at earthier origins, even if the chorus explodes into one of those big, weepy declarations that would play well over the end of a WB drama episode: “I can’t help it, I love the broken ones/The ones who need the most patching up/The one who have never been loved.” What clinches it is how unflinchingly Dia addresses this person’s flirtation with ending it all: “You don’t have to drive with your headlights off/It’s a pocket knife, not a gift from God.” Rather than being a distant, authoritative voice making a Public Service Announcement, she comes across as a sister, a peer, a close friend, someone who sees the hurt and has to say that she’s been there, too. Cliches might still run rampant as she tries to sum it all up in a chorus that drives it home for the rest of us, but once again it’s thanks to those quirky little turns of phrase that the song comes off as genuine rather than calculated.
4. Good Boy
Despite the upbeat, clap-happy chorus, there’s something sinister going on beneath this song. It’s actually pretty obvious from the opening chorus, which tells us right away that we’re dealing with some highly dysfunctional parenting skills, to the point where Charlie, the titular “good boy”, might be better off if social services hauled him away. Dia explores both sides of the effect of this unspecified abuse on Charlie, in the first verse where he’s so desperately trying to do everything he’s told and not understanding why he still gets punished, and then in the second verse, where he starts acting out: “He became a little devil, BB gun to the birds/And he spit out the ‘F’ and the ‘S’ and ‘D’ words.” That may be the most apt use of self-censorship in a song that I’ve ever heard – it’s not like Dia needs to say “The ‘D’ word”, when there’s already a “damn” in the first verse, but it’s exactly the sort of way that a child using adult language to prove how grown-up and tough he is might get snitched on to a parent who feigns shock upon hearing it, despite their own crimes being far worse. Yeah, so parents get kind of a bad rap on this album. But it helps to give some context to more generalized songs like “The Broken Ones”, in terms of the kind of hurt a person might go through to drive them to the brink of questioning whether life is even worth it.
5. I Will
OK, so the mood’s a bit heavy right now; we could use a bit of encouragement. Unfortunately, a sappy country-pop duet wasn’t quite what I was looking for. It will certainly placate fans of The Voice who just want to hear big voices chewing the scenery together, and Dia herself seems quite excited at the opportunity to be singing with her team captain from the show, Blake Shelton. The fact that the two voices mix like oil and water is the least of our problems here, because collaborating with Shelton has reduced Dia to a pile of interminable cliches. Seriously, there is not one single unpredictable moment about this song. It’s textbook, middle-of-the-road pop balladry (and even though I’ve tagged it as “country”, there’s really no twang to it aside from Shelton’s humungous voice, nor much of anything organic, just the typical dramatic piano and fake string flourishes and stuff). I suppose when you’ve got a celebrity who knows the ins and outs of working his crossover appeal for maximum chart success, and you’re a fledgling songwriter trying to get some traction in the business, you can’t be blamed for just shutting up and taking the lesson for what it’s worth. But the thing is, while Shelton may be a bigger hit-maker, taking a backseat to him leaves Dia’s song bereft of her actual personality. She may as well be playing the love interest in a live-action, straight-to-video Disney film, for all the depth that this hopelessly cheesy song has. I mean shoot, that big soaring chorus can’t even rhyme effectively: “Who’s gonna always have your back?/Who’s gonna be your friend like that?” WEAK. I’ll be fair and say that this could have been far worse. The melody is actually somewhat compelling, I can understand why so many are moved by the power of a voice like Shelton’s, and hey, this is just the one speedbump on an album that I would have honestly expected to be packed with nothing but glurge all the way through. I’m relieved that The Powers That Be were able to get it all out of their system in just this one song.
6. Billy the Kid
Quite ironically, Dia follows up the duet by changing gears completely and delivering a deliciously danceable little tune about an outlaw terrorizing the Old West, and a determined bounty hunter trying to track him down. Something like this would be a perfect excuse to bring in a country singer, I guess, though once again I should point out that this is not a country song at all. It’s actually the most programmed number on the album (other than maybe “Don’t Kick the Chair”), which is fine by mine because the rhythm of it and the way that the melody bounces unapologetically all over the place is about as bad@$$ as a pop song has the right to be. You could take the song at face value as a simple tall tale about a larger-than-life thug, or you could take it as a metaphor for… I don’t know, some kid who grew up down the street from Dia who was a real troublemaker. Given the themes that “Isabella” and “Good Boy” dealt with, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Anyway, this is another great example of Dia putting a stranglehold on pop music and making it do her bidding, as opposed to the other way around. (In the interest of full disclosure, she had some help from a few members of Foster the People, who also know their way around catchy songs about quick-draw gunslingers. But I’ll take this over “Pumped Up Kicks” any day.)
Next up, Dia goes into coffeehouse mode, hearkening back to the days when Meg and Dia were the entire band on Our Home Is Gone. This one has some neat little bass runs that make the acoustic guitar geek in me excited – it plays like a gentler version of Something Real‘s lone acoustic track, “Cardigan Weather”. One gets the feeling that it’s more of a personal story than some of the fanciful fiction Dia is known for making up – she’s writing to an old flame, perhaps a friend from childhood who got left behind when she set out to start her career in music, saying that he should have tried harder to convince her to stay. Her voice is at its meekest and most innocent here, and either she’s double-tracked during the chorus or else Meg is singing harmonies – I can’t tell which. Either way, it’s a tragic and yet comforting moment that reminds us she hasn’t forgotten her origins.
8. Walk Away
This one’s similar to “Good Boy” in terms of its big, happy rhythm that defies a troubled set of lyrics. And this time there’s whistling! Clearly Dia’s a fan of lyrical dissonance. I tend to imagine this song as sort of a companion to that one, about a dysfunctional marriage perhaps, instead of dysfunctional parenting. A woman who is still somewhat caught up in her idealistic, romantic dreams apparently hasn’t quite come to grips with the rough treatment she’s getting in a relationship, and Dia’s urging her to get the heck out of there before she discovers that he is “A bullet with your name, a ticking time grenade”. There’s an ominous bass line that sort of hints at something more sinister going on beneath the chirpy melody, and the bridge is downright chilling, insinuating that the guy had better watch his back: “Yeah you better not sleep/Because she’s waiting, waiting/She knows all about you/You’re in her aim.” In that context, I almost have to wonder which spouse she’s addressing when she advises, “You better run away!”
For a while, this was the one song on the album that I didn’t really notice, which is funny, because percussion-heavy songs usually stand out to me right away. I guess that says something about the diversity of the album, where even a unique song like this took a while to stand out from the other unique songs in its midst. Like “Isabella”, it’s got a strong rhythm built out of organic elements – and in this case that means banging on everything they can think of, from kettle drums to picture frames, which actually doesn’t create quite the huge ruckus that it sounds like it would, but it makes for a fun breakdown near the end of the song nonetheless. The acoustic melody is minor key, and the rhythm pushes it along fast enough that it sounds like it’s desperately in pursuit of someone or something. As far as lyrics go, it’s one of the more cryptic entries on the album, which is perhaps why it didn’t connect as quickly as some of the other songs that were an instant punch in the gut. “Baby, it’s the chain reaction, you’ll see”, she sighs coyly in the chorus. “It’s a lonely, lonely world, at a crazy, crazy speed.” I actually like that there’s something on the album that perhaps only makes total sense to the artist who wrote it.
The album concludes on an acoustic song that I appreciate somewhat for the oblique approach that it takes (and for its brisk pace and breezy melody), but that also vexes me a bit, keeping me mostly on the outside of whatever it’s talking about, specifically because Dia keeps referencing things that she doesn’t want to be specific about. “I’ll never tell you what I saw” is basically the entire point of the song, so she’s painting little thumbnail sketches of experiences that changed her, but we’re not really clear on what exactly the effects of these experiences were. It starts to become clear in the bridge, where she clarifies the one thing that she will tell us: “All my mistakes have shaped me into who I am/And who I am just wants to make you home.” But as this segues into the final verse, with notes from the glockenspiel to guide the sweet, homespun melody and a few hits on the kettle drum to add dramatic oomph as we speed toward the finish line, we’re back to vaguely hinting at stories of her hometown and other things that are inaccessible to us, the listener. It’s paradoxical; I’m intrigued by “Bullseye” for the very same reason that I’m a bit put off by “Trapeze”. Thankfully, since I have a few bonus tracks to enjoy, I can just pretend that the album doesn’t end here.
Here’s the part where you get to be baffled at what makes the cut for an album (especially one that’s stylistically all over the map), and what the record label decides to save for the good folks at iTunes. I see no reason why this jaunty little tune about city life, which is actually one of Dia’s more optimistic compositions, couldn’t have fit into its varied and often whimsical surroundings on Red. The little Beatles-inspired horn fanfare is probably something that every pop artist aspires to play around with at least once (it’s about the only way you can get away with a chorus that declares “Love is all we need”), and once you throw in the banjo and some other idiosyncratic acoustic instruments, it would fit quite nicely alongside “Isabella”. Even more baffling is that its description of the traffic lights – “Red, yellow, red, green” – essentially gives the album its title drop. Dia gets away with a song that might otherwise be insipid (since the message is basically, “I don’t need a home so long as I’ve got you”) by once again infusing it with a busload of personality.
12. Hearts Out to Dry
This one’s an even more baffling oversight in the main track listing, because Dia has stated that it’s one of her favorites, and I’m pretty sure it was a collaboration with Meg. Exactly the kind of thing that could have shown up as a temporary breather mid-album (stick it in place of “I Will” for maximum quality) before walloping you with its powerful instrumental drama. While it starts as a barely-there acoustic sketch, you can tell it’s weighed down with anticipation, as Dia’s soft mourning of a relationship whose bitter end she couldn’t see coming suddenly reaches its onslaught of a chorus, drums hammering away on every eighth note, giving it a dramatic flair similar to Cocoon‘s standout track “Separate” as the melody helplessly sways about in the wind. Dia’s voice, while bolstered by backing vocals, almost feels like it’s had the body ripped out of it by that cold wind – it’s a raspy skeleton of itself rather than the conventional “belt it out with all of your lung power” type approach that your average singing show judges would prefer. That may be the reason that some record executive balked at it. But who cares? With 10 tracks of Dia trying anything and everything once, surely there was still room for one or two more oddballs? That’s what makes Red such an oddly appealing album – and I prefer to think of this track as its impromptu finale.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Don’t Kick the Chair $1.75
The Broken Ones $1.75
Good Boy $1.75
I Will -$.25
Billy the Kid $1.75
Walk Away $1.25
Hearts Out to Dry $1.50
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACKS: $13.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.