In Brief: Dia Frampton has proven herself to be adaptable to several different genres during her tenure with Meg & Dia and her brief solo career. Now she’s trying her hand at classical-influenced “soundtrack pop” with composer Joseph Trapanese, and the results are incredibly promising.
That analogy was the first thing that came to mind when I gave a listen to the collaboration between singer/songwriter and former The Voice contestant Dia Frampton and composer Joseph Trapanese. When I first listened to Meg & Dia way back in 2007, they struck me as a feister version of Eisley, what with both bands being fronted by sisters. Meg & Dia have since closed up shop and Dia has forged on as a solo singer with mixed results – I really enjoyed her solo album Red, but I guess it didn’t move the units it was expected to, so she set out to do something different with her follow-up effort, which still puts her voice and songwriting front and center, but which is also so heavily dependent on Trapanese’s dramatic horn and string sections (as well as some darn cool percussion on several tracks) that it made sense to give the duo a distinct moniker and not market it as a solo record. Thus Archis was born, and while it’s not the exact same thing that Eisley singer Stacy DuPree-King has been doing in her side gig Sucré, I enjoy both projects for very similar reasons. (Ironically, I didn’t even realize Sucré was still active and had put out a new EP last year until well after I’d adopted this one as a sort of spiritual successor to it.) There’s just something exhilarating about taking the sort of confessional, ripped-from-the-diary songwriting that Dia excels at, and combining it with cinematic, melodramatic instrumentation – or at least, when the composer has enough of a distinct personality to keep it from all turning to sentimental drivel. Trapanese has the credentials, having worked with artists as diverse as Daft Punk and M83 in the past. Dia seems like a much less exotic artist to pair with by comparison, but even where her lyrics or melodies might suggest a straightforward pop song, he manages to give it that special flair that sets it apart from the norm. Not caring whether the material they came up with was fit for radio play was a key element to their process – there are a few tracks that are catchy as all get-out, but also a few spots where I can imagine label executives bristling and asking the duo to tone down their eccentricities, and I love that they didn’t have to listen to that sort of advice while making this record.
If there’s a downside here, it’s that Dia sometimes forgets what genre she’s working in. Her voice can be sweet and restrained or it can be feisty and even a bit raspy. The latter worked well in some of Meg & Dia’s brattier songs; it doesn’t work as well when she’s belting a chorus at full blast to one of Trapanese’s arrangements. She also has a habit of repeating an odd lyrical phrasing from time to time, making it sounds like she wants it to be way more poetic or profound than it actually is. That hurts small portions of these songs, but the worst it ever does is take a song that could have been excellent and reduce it to “above average”. Three of these six tracks are downright amazing and don’t suffer from any of those flaws. The other three are admirable in their attempt, and still enjoyable and occasionally quite surprising. Archis is simultaneously darker, lighter, more refined, and yet edgier than Dia’s previous efforts, and I like that the project has stretched her in so many ways. As I always say when reviewing a highly promising EP, here’s hoping it leads to a stunning full-length somewhere down the road.
The opening track shows a lot of promise, from the soothing, pastoral feel of its opening instrumental to the grandiose drum march that finishes it off, with Dia’s vocals making the fitting transition from “meek and mild” to “brash and defiant” as the track gets bigger and louder. While this is a bold opening statement for Archis, it originated while Dia was still a solo artist, a bit down on her luck since her label had just dropped her and she was wondering whether to throw in the towel and go back to small-town Utah to start a “normal life”. Though the two artists collaborating have wildly different backgrounds, Trapanese does such a beautiful job of scoring her depression at the beginning of the song and her determination to fight back against everyone who ever said she’d never make it in showbiz throughout the rest of it. I probably overuse the word “cinematic” when describing this kind of music, but her mantra of “Let’s go for blood!” certainly makes this song feel like it could show up at the turning point in a movie, when a wounded fighter rebounds from the dust she’s been kicked down into and comes out swinging. It’s her own personal “Eye of the Tiger” in baroque pop ballad form, is what I guess I’m saying.
2. Black Eye
The most ambitious track is up next – it’s bound to jolt you at some point, whether you’re listening more to the lyrics and her first use of a strong profanity (as far as I can tell, anyway) jumps out at you, or whether you’re listening more to the music and the sudden, unnerving tempo shift that the bridge undergoes gives you the willies. (It’s meant to.) I can easily see an artist getting several “notes from the label” on a song like this, at least if Dia had been trying to record a big-budget follow-up to Red. Left to their own devices, Archis comes up with an intentionally unsettling and lopsided song, which isn’t perfect in its execution, but it’s admirably deranged, and for good reason. Dia wrote it in defense of a younger sister who was being bullied at school, and her visceral response to the bullying was “I know where this f*cker lives”, which pretty much made it into the song. Some of us remember high school bullies the way they’re portrayed in sitcoms – annoying and overbearing, but ultimately harmless. These days, though, we know it’s no joke, and kids are actually killing themselves due to internalizing the harsh words of their peers. So while I’m not the type to condone violence as a response to bullying, I can understand that parental instinct (or older sibling instinct in this case) to track the culprit down and righteously kick some ass, which is basically what Dia fantasizes about doing in the purposefully out-of-control bridge. This is the sort of thing that might have worked better as upstart indie rock than as orchestral pop. The strings certainly add to the dizzying dissonance, but in the final verse of the song, when Dia is belting out the lyric “They’re throwing rocks at our bones, we’ve got rocks of our own” over and over, it just seems like the music needs to be a bit less brainy and more muscular. Though flawed, I’m impressed at how she strikes a balance between tranquil fury and genuine love for the sister being picked on. The chorus continually reminds her, “Do you know how much I love you?”, and even when she’s staring at the bully down the barrel of a gun, we know that this fierce love is her underlying motivation.
This track is more of a mellow, abstract piece, taking its time to build up momentum on a bed of plucked harps and keyboards, which gives it a sort of retro “modern classical” feel as if this were the 80s and composers were just starting to embrace the synthesizer. Dia’s lyrics quite nearly epitomize the word “bittersweet”, as her mood here gives us the sense that she’s finally found a place of peace and relaxation after years of turmoil. The chorus, though it could well be the flotsam and jetsam from a decade’s worth of psuedo-spiritual love ballads, certainly sets the mood it needs to: “Take these tired wings/Home is calling you to sleep/Love so bittersweet/All the happy tears it brings/Winter wind will fly you back to me.” Trapanese leans heavily on the snare drums as the song comes to its stunning apex, and the effect is similar to the climax of “Blood”, but with a purposefully lopsided rhythm that finds him emphasizing the beat in different places from where Dia emphasizes it in her lyrics, like gears turning at different speeds until they finally click and everything syncs up breathtakingly. I love how the song hits an emotional plateau and then gives us a final, peaceful chorus and a brief instrumental outro, right before the drums come back for one final exclamation mark.
4. I Need You
After pointing out how the classical/soundtrack arrangements differentiate Archis from Dia’s more pop/rock friendly past endeavors, it might seem hypocritical for me to call out the most immediate, radio-friendly song on the EP as my personal favorite… but I can’t help it, it just works. Putting the bouncy keyboards side-by-side with the harps and strings, and having the majestic horns punch up one of the most vivid and melodic choruses she’s ever written was a genius move – it’s one of those rare moments of clarity when I’m reminded that artistic aspirations and pop sensibility don’t have to live in constant conflict with each other. Dia has claimed this as the most autobiographical song on the project, which is saying a lot given how much of her personal conversations and journal entries seem to make their way into bits and pieces of all the other songs. She’s remembering her humble beginnings in that small town in Utah, the family and friends back home rooting for her, and perhaps even a long lost lover who got away from her in the ensuing hubbub of trying to get a music career off the ground, and she’s calling out to all of these folks, saying that though she may look and act different nowadays, she’s still that simple small town girl and she still needs all of them. (I want to say it’s her own personal “Jenny From the Block”, but a comparison to such a ridiculous song would do this wonderful tune a great disservice.)
5. Good Love Lingers On
This song is the quietest of the bunch – it seems to flip through a mental log book of secret, shared memories between Dia and an old friend, perhaps moments that were hidden from parents or other prying eyes, when two young people could just be their true selves with each other. It has some of that “teenage journal” charm, and her premise is that even though the two grew apart over time, the love they shared remains as its own sort of monument to itself. Or something. I’m not quite clear on it, because as her repeated mantra – “If eternity is true, they will carve it out of you” – inexorably approaches a whisper as the song calmly dies down at the end, I don’t think it comes across quite as profoundly as she meant it to. it’s a pretty song regardless, but it isn’t quite as climactic as the others – and I get that the restraint is intentional, but because of that, it’s a lot less attention-grabbing to my ears.
6. Let Me Love
Speaking of things that grab my attention, I’m a total sucker for the huge fanfare of horns and drums that both opens and closes this song. It tells us we’re in for something quite dramatic, and we don’t forget that even when it backs away to more of a chilled-out, but still percussive, verse and another beautiful arrangement based around harps and keyboards. Trapanese goes back to a lot of the same instruments to achieve this soft-versus-loud dynamic, I’ve noticed, which is the sort of thing that might get old over the course of an album, but there’s just enough of it on this EP that I find it works well in every instance. Dia’s also in top form here – I’ve noticed that I often can’t gauge what her songs are about specifically due to her habit of jumping from topic to related topic as a sort of random walk through the corners of her mind. But here, she’s focused, and I was able to nail that her plea of “Love is all that I have, so let me love who I want” was an attempt to empathize with someone struggling with feelings of same-sex attraction and the sort of backlash you might expect such a person to get in a small Utah town. Part of the song seems to be from the point of view of her “sisiter” – whether that’s a flesh-and-blood sister or just a sister in spirit is something I can only guess at, but either way, there’s a close bond there that becomes tragic when the point of view seems to shift back to Dia’s own at the end of the song, when she’s belting at the top of her lungs, horns all a-blaring, begging for forgiveness from this person whose struggle she had perhaps marginalized or kept at a distance in the past. It leads to quite the cliffhanger ending, and as I always do when a really good EP comes to an end, I like to imagine this as the point where, if this were a full-length album and you had it on vinyl (or in the case of my much younger self, cassette), you’d flip it over for another twenty minutes plus of sheer musical goodness. I hope that the missing half of this record I’m imagining also exists in the mind’s eye of the people who made it.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Black Eye $1
I Need You $2
Good Love Lingers On $.75
Let Me Love $1.75
Dia Frampton: Vocals, keyboards
Joseph Trapanese: Arrangements, backing vocals
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: