Comparisons to Carina Round’s 2004 album The Disconnection seemed to lead inexorably to the music of one Polly Jean Harvey. Although the Wolverhampton native drew from a wide musical palette, from the confrontational intensity of Patti Smith, to the nocturnal brooding of Nick Cave, to the borderline trip hop of the brilliant “Sit Tight”, to the cabaret of “Lacuna”, when you have a young dark-haired female singer-songwriter letting loose such feral, primitive blues-based rock music that hearkens back to PJ’s Albini days, the temptation to lump the album with a classic like Dry is always there. Plus, when you couple that with the fact that The Disconnection was a better album than Uh Huh Her, allowing longtime PJ fans to get their PJ fix from a younger, saucier, and slightly watered-down model, the timing just seemed too perfect. It was a fitting example of how we sometimes tend to prefer the freshness of a new artist over the sound of a seasoned performer aging gracefully; Carina might have been spewing lyrics that were better suited to the private journal of a pretentious coffeehouse denizen, but the raw passion she conveyed, be it angry or subdued, made it impossible not to fall for it all.
After seducing us two years ago, where to go from there? In Ms. Round’s case, the strategy appears to try to shed the PJ comparisons, and make a serious bid for mainstream success. Producer Glen Ballard (you know, the guy behind a certain Alanis Morissette album) has been recruited to add a nice corporate rock sheen to the music, Round’s compositions tread carefully between taut post punk and anthemic crowd-pleasers, and there seems to be less a sense of daring, and one of complacency, a willingness to go for the short, snappy singles, as opposed to the six-minute, genre-straddling album tracks. The overall effect of Slow Motion Addict is not unlike Tegan and Sara’s modest breakthrough album So jealous: catchy and enjoyable, and delivered with something that resembles conviction, true… but where’s the edginess?
The album gets off to an upbeat start, its first 24 minutes locked in a politely insistent groove, with several songs dominated by coy, girlish vocal melodies by Round. Double-tracked vocals add an effective mirror-image feel to the splendid “Stolen Car”, as Ballard lacquers on choppy guitars that bring to mind Interpol, Bloc Party, and Metric, but the post punk shtick starts to wear thin by the time we get to “Ready to Confess”, “Want More”, and Take the Money”, a trio of songs that, while certainly slick enough, go through the motions, milking a trend that appears to have gone past its expiration date. Thankfully, we get glimpses of Round in fine form on the snarky, sneering “How Many Times” (just listen to her razzing us during that chorus), while “Gravity Lies” roars with a Jawbox-like jaggedness, melding beautifully with her charismatic singing.
The understated, sultry, strange “Downslow” marks the album’s sudden shift from light to dark, as if storm clouds are settling in, and it’s here where Round really starts to gain some musical momentum. The title track is unsettling, layered vocals commingling with thrumming bass, cresting waves of guitar, and subtle electronic effects, and is followed by the murky “January Heart”, which bears an eerie resemblance to ‘80s art pop, not to mention a chorus so deceptively simple, it might as well have come from Carole King. “The City” is just plain pretty, a shamelessly maudlin slice of bombastic overproduction that, despite such ludicrous lines as, “The city / A heartbeat / It moves on / Despite me,” is sold by a schizophrenic performance by Round, who switches from Bjork-like coquettishness to husky world-weariness from verse to chorus. It’s on “Come to You” that the combination of Round’s listener-friendly eccentricity and Ballard’s lacquer of a mix works surprisingly well, as a seemingly formless opening verse suddenly bursts into the kind of soaring chorus that Doves has perfected in the last five years.
Ballard certainly knows what he’s doing, as the album’s better tracks sound perfectly suited for commercial modern rock, but the CD almost derailed by songs that stress style over anything resembling substance. Carina Round continues to slowly come into her own on Slow Motion Addict, but as much as she’d like to shed the “young PJ Harvey” tag, she might want to look at the great Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea to see how a truly great artist records a commercial-sounding record while completely retaining her artistic integrity in the process.