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London Grammar: Californian Soil

Californian Soil, London Grammar’s third studio album, peaks in the middle, unlike California itself, where mountain ranges cuddle a broad Central Valley rich with agriculture. The album finds its feet around the fourth track; it loses its way again by the ninth. What could have been a powerful EP has been stretched and worked into a rougher full-length LP. While the “extra” tracks are not the group’s most effective, some of them show a band in the process of experimenting and growing.

Hannah Reid’s expansive voice still forms the emotional touchpoint of the music, while Reid, Dominic “Dot” Major and Dan Rothman weave a masterful tapestry of sound behind and around that voice. The three, who have worked together for more than a decade, share synth duties, with Rothman also on guitar. Notably, Californian Soil adds a string section and a few additional musicians. Tones, percussion and riffs are handed off from one to another, constantly shifting and developing; the music on this album is more complex and comes further to the front of the stage. Reid matches the complexity, bending her voice from a rich contralto to an ethereal soprano to a high-speed rhythmic alto within the span of a single song.

Reid’s lyrics are, as a rule, achingly personal. On their first album, If You Wait, she wove a resonating story of passionate and ultimately betrayed love. On Californian Soil, Reid has said, the dominant theme is that of “gaining possession of [her] own life.” The songs roam over the experience of being a female professional, of trying to mold herself to expectations, over realizing she needs to embrace her power. These are familiar themes in modern pop music, but they don’t yield Reid’s strongest songs. “There is a whisper that our God is a she/ She sits on high over the land and the sea…/Tell all the shrinks and haters…” she sings in “I Need the Night,” leaning heavily on repetitive notes, forceful delivery, and an imitation-Taylor-Swift vibe that feels forced. In “Californian Soil,” it’s “I never had a willing hand/ And I never had a plan…/ They keep trying it on/ and they will keep trying it on.” In “America,” “But all of our time chasing America/ But she never had a home for me/ All of our time chasing a dream/ A dream that meant nothing to me.” Heartfelt, perhaps, but hackneyed. We’ve heard all this before, and more expertly.

Though the lyrics on “Lose Your Head,” the album’s second single, are less dense, they dive directly for the heart. “I need to learn when this thing called love/ When it’s a mirror, baby/ Can you see all those parts of me broken across the world.” The song also throbs with a toe-tapping sense of movement, and sparkling countermelodies on the chorus. It employs subdued electronic horns effectively with the complex background to evoke the nighttime obsession the song describes.

“Lord It’s a Feeling,” the album’s strongest track, starts with gentle music-box tones and cinematic strings, then hits the jugular with its lyrics: “I saw the way you made her feel like she should be somebody else/ I saw the way she tried to hold you when your heart was just a shell/ I saw the words she wrote that broke my heart, it was a living hell/ I saw the way you laughed behind her back when you fucked somebody else.” Reid keeps the verses mostly to two vocal notes, constrained pitch and inflection making the hard-hitting words maximally agonizing, then bursts up on the chorus. The impact sits with London Grammar’s best, and the music—building gradually to more and more complex synth riffs, and then, just when it’s about to peak, shifting directions—complements the lyrical landscape.

There’s a siren-laden, city-noise sound to “Baby It’s You” that, unexpectedly, evokes The Blue Nile’s classic Hats. London Grammar’s city is set against a Latin pulse and a joy-filled lyric. It’s a delightful, danceable break, leading naturally to the quieter celebration of “Call Your Friends.” Reid is still remembering difficult relationships here: “Every time I tried/ To make myself seem small/ In the arms of others/ Who never loved me better…/ It never made them stay/ And I can’t love me like this.” But this time, “the ones before me never loved me like you do.” The use of percussion all over Californian Soil is a step up from London Grammar’s previous work, possibly the work of guest artist Chris Laws, and it’s evocative here, wrapping a sense of the past and the present into a drum patch.

It’s easy to forget that London Grammar is essentially a synthesizer band; they often blend guitar sounds into an electronic fabric. But towards the latter third of the album, there are a few instances of strummed or plucked guitar, notably on “All My Love” and “America.” The timbre is startling when it appears, and the instrument stands awkwardly at the front of the mix. It’s particularly disconcerting in “All My Love,” where it comes in almost three and a half minutes into the track, at the close of a more typically London Grammaresque song. At the same time, the vocal is pulled further back in the mix, heavily reverbed and less focal, lending a blues-bar feel. In “America,” the guitar leads the song. Reid’s ethereal and over-reverbed vocals war with the grungy feel of the guitar. On “Talking,” piano and guitar come to the fore, better mixed on this track than on the other two. The song has a bit too much melodic repetition, in a way that’s less effective than on “Lord It’s a Feeling.”

It doesn’t quite come together, but it’s trying something different. It’s a flaw of too many bands to keep pressing the same “Play” button album after album. It may be what the fans think they want and what the labels encourage, but you can’t simultaneously stand still and innovate, and sometimes the road forward is a little rocky. Some of the finest bands and artists are the ones who disappointed their fans a little here and there, but ultimately went on to higher heights by taking new musical paths. If this is a bump on the way to a new road, so be it: we’ll be listening hard, going forward, to see if London Grammar finds their way to a strong new direction. They’re not quite there yet.

Summary
If London Grammar’s third album is a bump on the way to a new road, so be it: we’ll be listening hard, going forward, to see if they find their way to a strong new direction.
60 %
Inconsistent; occasionally luminous
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