Rating: 3.25/5Now probably seems like the perfect time for Sophia Knapp to release her solo debut. The former vocalist and guitarist with the Brooklyn indie pop group Lights has a slinky preciousness to her voice and a talent for lush pop that feels simultaneously airy and glossy. The entirety of her album Into the Waves is an endearing come-on, as if she’s backing onto the dance floor, beckoning for a partner with her lithe, undulating arms as her blond bangs fall over her eyes. Forget the Lana Del Rey comparisons; Adele has spent the last year selling records like Napster had never been invented. There’s got to be some demand for different slickly produced, throwback, orchestral pop songs, right?
Into the Waves announces itself as a contender from the very beginning of opening track “Glasses High.” A simple acoustic guitar line intertwines with a plunked, echoing piano part like a whispered promise of elegance to come. The beat kicks in and Knapp sings, “Way too many things/ Happened last year/ Too much cake, too much wine/ Snip the fruit from the vine/ Hopes turn to fear” with a sweet, earthy tone that sounds a little like Stevie Nicks without the rasp of hard living. When she adds, “Don’t let the party bring you down,” it’s clear that this is going to be an especially bright, vibrant ode to the forlorn.
Much of the album sounds like some unearthed diary somehow written with 1970s AM radio pop baubles instead of a pink ink ballpoint. The title cut has the jaunty tempo of a Tom Petty number, but starts with the cheery plea, “Loneliness, make me an offer/ Don’t let me down.” The down-tempo track “Looking Into Another Day” sounds like the kind of ballad ABBA banged out when they were writing directly for the heartbroken. Right after that, “Close to Me” is the song Olivia Newton-John might come up with had she somehow been raised on a steady aural diet of indie pop. I mean that as a compliment. Bill Callahan from Smog shows up for a couple of duets (“Spiderweb” and “Weeping Willow”) with a stark enough contrast between her dulcet vocal caress and his smoky, low baritone to suggest a modern version of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood if music duos were rebooted with the same vigor and frequency as movie franchises.
While there’s an occasional tang of the derivative to Knapp’s music, the more significant issue is that she doesn’t fare as well when she slows down the songs, which happens a fair amount on the record. A track like “Evermore” becomes too precious in its languid pace and densely layered vocals, as if the song is starting to consume itself with its own resplendency. Knapp mounted a successful Kickstarter campaign to bolster her recording budget and at times it seems that she’s trying to hard to make sure that every penny is evident in the final product. The brisker fare has room for that, but it bogs down the more somber material.
As much as Into the Waves can be tied to other musical trends and styles, old and new, it also comes across as a singular, personal expression. Knapp leans on the somewhat familiar only as a means to elevate her own voice. The value of total originality is clear, but sly, sprightly reinvention is nice too.