[13 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
There’s not a lot out there on the Interwebs about the fourth release, an EP, from Portland-by-way-of-France one-woman electronica act Tender Forever. There weren’t any other reviews in mainstream publications that I could find of the latest offering from Melanie Valera’s project, Where Are We From, and blogs were remarkably silent on the matter. What’s more, it seems that Valera’s record label, K, isn’t really doing much in terms of promotion—there’s no YouTube clip that accompanies the release. The only thing of significance out there is a slight blurb in advance of the EP’s release from Canada’s Exclaim magazine online. Is this a sign that people feel that an EP from a somewhat well regarded artist isn’t enough of an artistic statement to be worth mentioning? Or, more aptly, do people care about Tender Forever at all?
If it’s the latter, that would be a shame because, while the Where Are We From EP is by no stretch of the imagination an essential release, there is stuff to be found on the short player that is worthy of some level of examination. Valera’s sound is one that is essentially one of her own, worthy of scoring some bonus points of some sort, sounding not quite like anything out there that I have heard of. In some ways, the music of Tender Forever is deconstructed rhythm ‘n’ blues filtered through a laptop, and offers a great deal of sonic adventurousness. It may not be in Radiohead territory, but Tender Forever is an unique entity and one worth checking out—and an EP is a good, bite-sized morsel for those who don’t want to commit fully to one of Valera’s three previous proper albums. And, if anything, buying this EP might help Valera pay some legal bills she’s racked up in reapplying for an American work visa. But that’s another matter entirely. Let’s stick to the music, shall we?
The EP opens up with the title track, which starts off starkly with Valera’s vocals superimposed on top of minimal drums and handclaps, before introducing a throbbing synthesizer in the mix for the chorus. It’s probably the most memorable thing to be found on the extended play, which is probably why it is so named, though there is a bit of a glitch, a hiccup, at around 0:54 of the track, and I don’t know if that’s just an error that occurred on my digital download of the disc, or is a production defect that’s on all copies. It’s a tiny blemish, but, if the latter holds true, it’s one that shows the shoestring that Velera might be working on. “The Road Was Unkind” follows and is a little bit of a musically silly ditty that stops and starts in fits and spurts, as though the artist was trying to dab her fingertips into finger paint here and there. However, the song lyrics, which appear to depict child abuse, are stark and intriguingly rubs against the lightness offered by the synth driven song: “You got hit ‘cause you were free / You got hit just more than me / You felt daddy’s knuckles dive / in your face like they were knives.” It’s dark and punishing, and juxtaposes itself nicely against the sonic backdrop.
“Blue” – no, not a cover of the Joni Mitchell track – has the aura of an ‘80s synth pop offering, sort of the thing Mr. Mister or Wang Chung might have offered up during their heydays. It is also the longest song of the EP by eclipsing the four-minute mark, and, production-wise, it feels like the most complete and lush track on the seven-song offering. And there’s a level of sexual frankness on final track “You Have the Woods” with a line, sung through clenched teeth, like “We say come or we say fuck / We have never given up,” which goes to further Valera’s reputation as potentially one tough chick. In the past, Valera had a reputation for being upfront about subjects of a sexual nature—her debut album has a song about taking a post-coital shower—and, here, this topicality furthers the strange union between the electro-pop trappings of the music and the candid, perhaps autobiographical nature of the words that accompany them.
However, Where Are We From does stumble in some areas. “You Get Into My Face” is a 37-second song that, as a piece of cabaret pop, tries to feel complete by cramming in as many lyrics as possible within that space of brevity, but still comes off as feeling like misplaced filler. It’s more of a snippet than an actual song, and feels really strange considering the full-bodied nature of the tracks surrounding it. And, overall, the EP feels like tossed-off ideas without a great deal of coherence in terms of sound, as though these are merely songs that didn’t make it onto a bona-fide full-length release. Or maybe Valeria was feeling rushed in lieu of her apparent visa problems? I don’t know. Still, Where Are We From does offer an interest portrait of an artist trying to work out her muscularity in minimalist, low fidelity synthesized sounds. Individually, most of the material here is strong and worthy of repeated listens, and the sound envelops you as a listener—try as you might, you simply cannot look (or turn your ears) away, and you feel drawn in. This isn’t merely background music, you have to actually pay attention. As a possible taster for what’s to come, Where Are We From is a welcome addition to Valeria’s catalogue. It’s alternately sunny and bleak, and straddles the line between vulnerability and frankness. It’s just a shame that most people seemingly can’t be bothered to write about it. At least, online. Where Are We From, though far from perfect, is definitely worth talking about: a puzzling enigma of a release that has the listener digging deeply into to make some level of sense through the contradictions in sound and words.