Maybe Valera's just settling into some subtle changes, or slowly headed to some grander departure. If so, the seeds for something great are here. But on its own, No Snare doesn't quite hold up.
If there's a been a consistent success for Melanie Valera in her work under the Tender Forever moniker, it's her ability to take the cool metal of drum machines and electronic blips and make them simmer with warmth or, at her very best, course with hot blood. So at first listen, the decidedly darker atmosphere of her new album, No Snare, might seem an all-out departure from the wild-eyed electro-pop she's given us to date.
Really, though, it's merely a retooling of the skills we already know her for. These songs deal in the same elements: rumbling percussion, tangled swirls of keys and atmospherics, and Valera's torn-wide-open voice right up front. On No Snare there's just a new space around it all. These sounds don't tense up into muscular dance beats, but rather, when they succeed, stretch out into haunting soundscapes.
"Like the Snare That's Gone" is perhaps the best example of this tweaked sound. It's danceable, in its way, but much more unassuming than "Doves Vs. Pigeons" from the last record. It's a song much more interested in the sinister clang and clatter of the percussions, while Valera puts together an affecting, metaphor of heartbreak, when she sings, "My heart sounds / sounds baby like the snare that's gone / and the deep sound goes." It's a deeply personal moment on the record, but still surges with Valera's usual energy. While here and all over the record she sings of what's gone, of some lack, you can feel her leaving it behind rather than dwelling on it.
The best parts of the record, no matter how dark that new space in her sound, are resilient in a similar way. The raspy, staccato keys on "Only the Sounds You Made" or the growing thunder of the drums on "Nothing at All" brace Valera's vocals, keeping all the heartache she spills from sounding too self-pitying. Instead, the highlights here show a singer staring head on at what she's lost and waving goodbye to it all.
The trouble Valera runs into on No Snare, though, comes when the tracks don't anchor themselves. On her older, brighter material, she could get away with a track that drifted off on her. Here, songs like "But the Shape Is Wide" and the brief "Day Number" lack the distinct touches and haunting atmosphere of better tracks on the album. Instead, we get something far too close to electro-pop by the numbers. The beats are straight-ahead, and the sounds on top of them are too simple, too unassuming to make any mark. While Valera's voice never loses its emotional heft, it comes off thinner when the music behind it lacks the same strength.
The uneven nature of the album wouldn't be so bad if Valera had left herself a bit more room to stretch out and recover. But with only nine songs and almost 27 minutes, No Snare runs out of ground too quickly for its own good. While there are a few dynamic, beautiful tracks here, they end up getting outnumbered by songs that feel a little too generic. Perhaps Valera is just settling into this new shift, or testing the waters on the way to some grander departure. If so, the seeds for something great are here. On its own, No Snare doesn't quite hold up.