The group MNDR has some tough competition. They’re a female-fronted up and coming group who play poppy tunes dominated by synthesizers. In the last few years, there have been a lot of dominant women making highly effective synth-pop. Robyn, from Sweden, has been releasing powerful and empowering synth-disco borrowing from R&B and hip-hop, alternately untouchably robotic and poignantly vulnerable. The opera-trained Zola Jesus has put out brooding music that rolls in massive waves. The Knife, another set of Swedes, specialize in synthetic darkness (though they haven’t put out anything lately). Even the last Yeah Yeah Yeahs album saw front woman Karen O applying her fearsome charisma to synth-pop tracks. Younger ladies like Charlie XCX or the lead singer of the group Purity Ring have released just a handful of songs (Purity Ring recently put out their debut album), but the promise of these songs show that these singers have already found the land of hefty hooks.
And those artists are mainly classified as “indie”—they’re not even the popular ones. Synth-pop or electro disco or whatever you want to call it is the dominant sound on the radio right now, and it has been the vehicle of some monster hits from the likes of Katy Perry and Rihanna. More recently, there has been Carly Rae Jepsen, whose ubiquitous “Call Me Maybe” builds around just a handful of huge synth notes and a disco guitar.
So it’s a tough time to be doing synth-pop. There are a handful of potent anthems out there, from Rihanna’s “We Found Love” to Robyn’s “Get Myself Together” to anyone’s favorite video of “Call Me Maybe”. If you don’t have a killer track of your own, it’s hard to gain traction next to this bunch.
MNDR is a young duo, composed of singer Amanda Warner and Peter Wade. They’ve released only a few songs to date, but they’ve worked with Mark Ronson for a single, and they’ve opened for Chromeo, another duo that loves synth-pop confections.
MNDR’s debut full-length, Feed Me Diamonds, is filled with choruses of “ooh whoa oohs” and other shots at those easy hooks that you can’t stop whistling. But the material doesn’t connect with the proper force. The album starts with a bang, following the up and down march of “#1 In Heaven”. “Stay” hits a higher, more tragic note, following a similar progression, though with less thud. They’re both about easily identifiable sentiments – “Tell them I’m smiling” and “Wish I could stay in love with you,” – but they don’t grab you.
Two songs later in the album, MNDR makes a play for that special track. “Fall In Love With The Enemy” has a darker, grittier beat, thicker and more ominous. Warner sings about being “an animal in a cage” and not wanting to “fall in love with the enemy,” but there’s not much desperation or fire, you don’t feel that she’s trapped in a corner, struggling with a love that might destroy her. She doesn’t have any of the edge that a singer like Robyn can muster when she needs to. “Burning Hearts” contrasts buzz-saw synths and sweet cooing, a promising formula that brought success to Sleigh Bells. But “Burning Hearts” doesn’t achieve lift-off.
Warner is a fine singer, but stacked up against many of the other women working in this medium, she comes off as pretty tame. Her highs aren’t too high and her lows aren’t too low, there isn’t too much attitude, anger, despair, or theatricality. It feels like not a lot is at stake, but at the same time, she’s not doing a cool, Grace Jones ice-queen either. And the synths working behind Warner never assemble an undeniable riff.
MNDR show glimpses of possibility on their debut, but they don’t yet have the power to blast into the stratosphere. There’s a lot of quality synth-pop out there right now. MNDR have to either do something different with their formula to gain attention, or write the kind of tune that you can’t avoid paying attention too.
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// Notes from the Road
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