The extent to which you will enjoy this album depends in great part on your reaction to writing such as this selection from the liner notes:
“To my muses and last but not least my heart for enduring the bleakest of winters and still beating strong turning heart ache into song . . . for you”.
These sophomoric sorts of sentiment abound on Leona Naess’ sophomore effort I Tried to Rock You But You Only Roll. The songwriting is salvaged somewhat by the inconsistent but occasionally creative production of yet another Swedish soundboard jockey, Martin Terefe. The end result is an album that is workmanlike and solid, with the few revelatory moments slightly outweighing the outright silly.
On Naess’ previous album, the London-born stepdaughter of Diana Ross focused on her raw tools as a singer songwriter. Her vocal work was oftentimes not strong enough to carry the endeavor. On I Tried to Rock…, the daring and complex arrangements allow space for her to be a bit more vocally playful. Her instrument is stretched a little thin on several songs, most notably “Sunny Sunday” and “Hurricane”, but for the most part her breathy delivery and creative phrasing are terrific. She deftly navigates the rubbery, syncopating chorus of “Weak Strong Heart”, and she displays a touching, fragile quality on the ambient dreamscape of “Panic Stricken”.
Naess’ songwriting is similarly inconsistent. Many critics have compared her to Beth Orton and Liz Phair, but her writing calls to mind an artist with whom she also shares vocal similarities, Edie Brickell. Like the former New Bohemian, Naess alternates junior high melodrama with contemplative whimsy. Solemn naval-gazing like, “Give myself so easily / never again / I’ll be one of those fake plastic trees / in your den”, alternates with puckish, catchy wordplay like, “I got my high heel boots of steal / My lipstick to kiss and kill / I’m following through on something new / This isn’t about you”. None of her writing is strong enough to elicit comparisons with the elite songwriters of the day. However, it is strong enough to elevate her above the current crop of lightweights passing for serious songwriters, such as David Gray or Dave Matthews.
Musically, I Tried to Rock… is an album that revels in its ‘80s-ness but eschews slavish imitation. The strongest tracks are those in which Naess’ producers have elaborated on a strong core of ‘80s references. “All the Stars” recalls the Eurythmics and a whole host of early-‘80s groups, and even opens with a self-referential lyric. (“You killed the ‘80s with another love song”). “Boys Like You” finds Naess singing in a yearning monotone over a track that sounds like a lost track from Yaz’s Upstairs at Erics before launching into a chorus straight out of an A-Ha b-side. “Blue Eyed Baby” is built around a chiming, Edge-derived guitar sound and lovely synths. The best tracks on the album will be pure bliss for devotees of new wave and other ‘80s styles.
Unfortunately, there are some musical missteps as well. Maybe it is an outgrowth of Martin Terefe’s studio prowess, but many of the tracks have a kitchen-sink vibe about them that does not work empathetically with the songs. There is often too great a dynamic distance between the more introspective, atmospheric songs and the more aggressive and expressive tracks. Those introspective tracks are often marred by an overload of ambient effects and noise. The thoughtful and sober closing track, “Promise to Try” loses much of its impact amid a swirl of silly ambience that sounds as if it has been lifted whole from an Enya album. Naess’ message would have been more powerfully delivered if these tracks were left unadorned.
This album is not an easy one to either summarize or recommend. There are gems sprinkled throughout, particularly for one who is partial to the various musical references in the production. Those who find it troubling that some tracks have “programming” listed next to a phalanx of musicians in the credits will likely find it sterile and overly clean. Naess is unquestionably a promising young singer/songwriter, and she has certainly shown a measure of growth from her first offering. While I Tried to Rock… has its moments, it seems that the clearest message it delivers is that Leona Naess is someone whose finest work may be just ahead of us.
// Notes from the Road
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