If you happen to be in the market for a new, hyper-hip iteration of slow-burning electronica, music that lands somewhere between Adele’s open-hearted confessionalism and Drake’s unhurried R&B, then Jillian Banks is your girl. Just 26 and releasing her first full-length LP this week, the artist officially known as Banks is entering a somewhat crowded field of female-fronted electro-pop outfits. She’s working hard to distinguish herself from the pack.
For better or for worse, depending on how highly you value stand-alone vocal talent, the most distinctive feature of Banks’s debut is the colorful array of studio-produced shadings that swirl around her voice throughout the album’s 14-song duration. It’s a favorable time for downtempo electronica: this year’s South By Southwest festival served up a steady stream of bands that dabble in the genre (Wet, London Grammar, Haerts), and British trip-hop songstress FKA Twigs is everyone’s new favorite artist.
Enter Banks: a sultry vocal presence who knows how to circle the right wagons around a crack team of co-writers and producers.
Foremost among Banks’s collaborators here would be Justin Parker, who cut his teeth working with Lana Del Ray, Ellie Goulding, and Rihanna, and seasoned DJs like Jesse Rogg (aka. Golden Touch), Schlohmo, and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, whose collective assistance occasionally makes a Banks track sound like it’s already been remixed. To some extent, Parker is essentially replicating what he accomplished on Lana Del Ray’s early records: rendering the offerings of a capable yet unexceptional vocalist into cutting-edge sonic emissions from a complex female psyche.
With the exception of the nearly unlistenable album-closer, “Under the Table”, which finds Banks’s voice cracking on ambitious attempts at belting, Goddess allows her to settle into a comfortable middle register, which works because of how lush the production remains, but it pales in comparison to the operatic range of London Grammar’s Hannah Reid or the crystalline precision of Wet’s Kelly Zutrau.
Like Lana Del Ray, Banks is canny about the ways in which sexual encounters can not only cause pain but also strip one’s agency away altogether. Unlike her peer, however, Banks is not content to wallow in or create debate-provoking performance art out of that vulnerability. Rather, there’s a noteworthy dose of girl power simmering beneath Banks’s slow-pulse arrangements and her blasé vocal delivery.
In the title track “Goddess”, for example, the singer tells a badly behaving suitor what’s what about the way he treated another woman: “You put her down, you liked her hopeless / To walk around, feeling unnoticed / You shoulda crowned her, cause she’s a goddess”. Out there in the wilderness of courtship and casual sex, the struggle is real, but Banks isn’t one to let entitled jerks off the hook, consistently choosing assertive real talk over passive self-pity.
That said, the game is never totally straightforward, and Banks is at her best when roiling in the uncertainty that accompanies desire both thwarted and fulfilled. Standout tracks “Waiting Game” and “Beggin for Thread” navigate the turbulent waters that one inevitably faces between enjoying a fleeting, titillating encounter and locking down some form of stability or commitment.
“Waiting Game” simmers and smolders, gaining synthy steam as harmonized breath sounds and understated piano chords keep a steady beat, while “Beggin for Thread” rides a comparatively giddy tempo underpinned by a sharp trap-like drum pattern. The latter song is the closest on the album to a dance track, though moves inspired by “Beggin for Thread” would most likely work better in the bedroom than in the club.
On the whole, Goddess sounds like baby-making music for the Tinder generation, when options abound yet meaningful connection seems as elusive as ever. Thankfully, with Banks at the microphone and her ace production team in the studio, getting down—however complicated that act continues to be—would sound pretty damn good with this record playing in the background.