Jenn Champion Combines '80s Synths and Minimalist Arrangements Into Great Pop Music
Jenn Champion's Single Rider is a strong, fascinating album that's exceedingly well written. No matter what instruments are being used, Champion puts the song first.
13 July 2018
Jenn Champion has had an interesting career. She was a friend of future Band of Horses founding members Ben Bridwell and Mat Brooke in Tucson, Arizona, back in the mid-90s. The three moved to Seattle and created a band called Carissa's Wierd. When that band broke up and Bridwell created Band of Horses, Champion, then known as Jenn Ghetto, went on to record solo albums under the name S. Between the release of her last album, Cool Choices, in 2014, and this new one, Single Rider, Jenn announced that she was dropping the surname "Ghetto" because of its problematic connotations and adopting "Champion" instead. At this point, she's also apparently dropped the stage name S and is just going as Jenn Champion.
Which brings us to Single Rider, which is simultaneously Jenn Champion's debut record and her fifth solo album. After mostly making guitar-based indie pop and rock, Cool Choices found Champion experimenting with synths here and there. Single Rider drops any pretense of experimentation and is essentially a low-key '80s-style synthpop album. Well, at least until the final three tracks. And here's the thing: she's really good at '80s-style synthpop.
Opener "O.M.G. (I'm All Over It)" nails that vibe instantly. It starts with a simple, slightly tinny drumbeat, which is overlaid by a bed of long synth chords and an understated syncopated electric guitar providing rhythm on the backbeat. Champion lets this introduction sit for about 45 seconds before starting to sing. The chorus is subdued but catchy and great for the late-night vibe the song is going for: "Ah ah / Ah / I'm all over it / We're gonna dance all night / Maybe." The verses are only slightly different from the chorus, there's no bridge, and the little synth solo lasts for maybe two measures, but at three minutes and 45 seconds, the song lasts just long enough for its groove to lodge in the listener's head without wearing out its welcome.
That turns out to be the case for the vast majority of songs on Single Rider. Champion is an experienced enough songwriter and producer and co-writer Brian Fennell is an ace with the synths and equipment, so the change in instrumentation is remarkably smooth. "Coming For You" rides a darker vibe but simultaneously has a simple earworm of a synth hook and a vocal melody that's equally compelling and catchy. "You Knew" features a pulsing, burbling synth loop and a confrontational refrain: "We're all gonna break this shit wide open / And make it clear again / 'Cause we don't owe you anything." The minor key groove and echoey drums again add to an early '80s late-night vibe, and then Champion and Fennell add in a pair of saxophones to enhance that vibe.
"The Move" uses simple synth chords and an equally simple steady thumping kick drum beat. It enhances this with an interesting little guitar figure and heavy, low piano notes, but it's mostly the beat and Champion's singing that sells the song. "Never Giving In" uses some synthy-vocoder stuff to robotify Champion's harmony vocals, and very effectively stays away from steady dancefloor beats. It comes off as a ballad, even though tempo-wise it's about the same speed as most of the other songs here. The lack of drums makes all the difference. It's also one of the few songs here with an explicitly modern reference, "Choking on my own newsfeed."
The album's highlight comes with the fourth song, "Holding On". This is another one that nails the '80s groove, sounding almost like a lost single from the Human League. The drums, the disco-style rhythm guitar, the cutting synth chords, it's all here. Even the pre-chorus that changes lyrically with each iteration is strong. But the actual chorus, where everything drops out except the synth chords, finger snaps, and a shaker (and gradually adds more instruments back in), is where Champion's vocal chops pay dividends. With so little accompaniment, "You've got me thinking about you / You've got me thinking of hoooolding on" stands out as a great moment, particularly the note she holds on the word "holding".
If there's a moment where Single Rider falls off, it's just past the halfway point. "Mainline" hits similar moments as several other songs here, even with a killer little synth riff that reminded me of Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It?" "Time to Regulate" thumps along pleasantly, but it might be the only song without a strong chorus hook. So it's refreshing when track nine, "Bleed" turns out to be a piano ballad.
The final three songs on the album feature Champion, a piano, and very little other instrumental accompaniment. It's a totally different feel and at first, I questioned sticking all three of these songs back to back at the end of the record. After spending some time with the album, though, it seems like a good call to keep the synthpop vibe going through the first eight tracks without breaking it up to insert piano songs. "Bleed" has a really sweet piano melody and simple left-hand accompaniment that nicely underpins Champion's vocal melody. "Hustle" comes next, with a slightly more elaborate piano part that is just as sweet and catchy. Lyrically, it sticks a little better with its refrain, "It's all a hustle / It's all just running uphill" and its rising, soaring chorus, "Hang on / Hang on / Hang oooooooon." This is effective, plaintive piano balladry of the same type that made women like Sarah McLachlan, Vanessa Carlton, and even Christina Perri pop radio mainstays.
The album ends with "Going Nowhere", which starts with more verve than the previous two songs. This song has a tougher attitude and low piano chords. Finger snaps, synth flutters, and a kick drum all pop up here and there as Champion sings convincingly about frustration. "Late night / Sex drive / Keepin' it tight / All day / Always / Still isn't right / Backroads / Freeways / Staying all alone / Bad shows / Worse shows / And nobody goes." These are just a few of the lyrics of the middle section of the song and they are very effective. This is also where listeners have been conditioned to expect the song to explode into a full band rock out. But Champion pulls back and returns to the song's earlier feel, leaving the album to fade on a lingering, slightly incomplete note. Considering the song is about frustration, not giving the listener that cathartic finish is a great way to close out the record; it's unusual and unexpected and I kind of love it.
As of this writing, it's the middle of October 2018. Single Rider came out all the way back in July and I feel bad that I slept on it for this long. This is a strong, fascinating album that's exceedingly well written. No matter what instruments are being used, Champion puts the song first, which allows her and Fennell to create effective grooves around rock-solid core songwriting. It's a bit strange that this album is both borderline minimalist and heavily '80s synthpop influenced simultaneously, but Champion makes it work wonderfully. This is still pop music with great hooks, and the songs are so tightly constructed that they don't wear out their welcome.