ALBUM REVIEW: Rina Sawayama, Hold The Girl
In my review for the newest album from The Garden, I spoke about this concept of streamlining one’s musical influences. I gave props to Blood Orange and Yves Tumor for doing this particularly well. It’s this keen ability that certain artists have to carefully imitate and curate previous eras of sound while simultaneously doing something very original that I admire. Rina Sawayama is an artist who I felt was in a creative cocoon on her debut, mixing ‘90s pop, arena rock, hyperpop, and more together with singular vocal acrobatics. She was this powerful and rare pop beast in the making, ready to burst out like a beautiful Monarch butterfly at any moment. Her sophomore effort, Hold The Girl, was her time to take her quirks, strengths and big name collaborations with Elton John and Lady Gaga and combine them for a breakout moment. The line between a success or a flop can be razor thin in modern pop, especially in the niche orbits that Sawayama operates in. Some fans are saying that Charli XCX and Mitski dropped mid this year, and these are two artists that are on the alt-pop Mt. Rushmore. Pop standom is a constant pendulum swing between brutal honesty and cap that can get really dizzying and make it difficult for an artist to live up to the people’s lofty standards. However, getting perfect tens on a strict rubric is possible and leads to records like FKA twigs’ MAGDALENE or Arca’s Kick iii that can unequivocally be considered classics. Hold The Girl is not one of those records, not by a long shot.
The streamlining is unsuccessful, unfortunately. We’re looking for Robert Pattinson on the cover of GQ, but what we’re getting is Harry Styles on the cover of Dazed. I mean just look at that album cover, what story does this tell? I think the key issue here is that rather than fine-tune her personal style, she offers another buffet-style track listing that feels incohesive and this time around. The title track has a really interesting initial buildup that’s like a cross between Lady Gaga and Angel Olsen, but breaks out into this generic piano house beat that does nothing for me. “Hurricanes” goes for more of a pop-punk vibe, but is too clean and overproduced to satisfy pop or punk fans. The charm or talent hasn’t run dry for Rina, it just isn’t being directed toward an interesting end goal. While SAWAYAMA was an autobiographical tour of childhood experiences, musical idols and hereditary sadness, Hold The Girl feels impersonal in comparison. That’s not to say it’s emotionless, the opener “Minor Feelings” certainly shines in that department. There are also great choruses and moments like “Catch Me In The Air” and the power ballad “Phantom”. It’s not horrible! It just feels like Rina’s star is being dimmed by some overbearing production and underwritten verses.
I truly don’t have much more to say about this record. Rina is clearly a talented and commanding vocal presence with a great team of creative designers around her, I don’t think this speedbump of an album will tank her whole career. I just feel as though producers like Clarence Clarity, who only appears on a third of this record, should’ve been more involved. Tracks like “Frankenstein” and the aforementioned “Phantom” shine brighter with Clarence's presence. It’s when a traditional pop producer is given Rina’s voice that some of this borders on Gaga karaoke. While I am pretty disappointed with Hold The Girl, I hope that some of its better elements stay in her repertoire for future endeavors.