Listeners will enjoy Keeping You, the new LP of piano-led pop ballads from Julia Mark, but the reasons lead to a cloudiness of thought. As recordings such as this go, Keeping You is an accomplishment. Though presumably recorded on her own, Mark does an excellent job of capturing horn and string accompaniment, and her piano sound is crisp and full without being slickly “produced” or overwrought. The songs, too, are good, particularly the thought-provoking title track, in which Mark’s lyrics breathe life into random objects in her bedroom. But there’s something that gets under the skin of the critical ears of the listener – if the music’s good, the lyrics are good, and the performances are good, why is Keeping You not a tremendous record?
Mark surely will draw comparisons to Regina Spektor, another musician who knows how to wring sincerity out of piano keys. But Mark lacks Spektor’s narrative sweep and her command of color. Listen to a song like “Us”, and you’ll see what I mean. “Cinnamon”, Keeping You‘s effervescent second track, and others seem to buck that trend a little bit, if not in their ambitions, then in their initiation. “They said said / If you say say say / The same same word / It turns back into syllables,” she sings to kick off “Cinnamon” over a playful progression from the piano, bass, and canned drums. “But I’ve been dreaming your name for weeks on repeat / And it still means the world to me.” The coy chorus, though, slips the earworm into your head, trapped in your memory to be repeated later. “You are cinnamon in my throat / Every time I try to change the subject, I choke / I need a synonym to replace you,” Mark sings. “But all I can do, all I can do / Is keep-keep saying / The same-same word.”
Elsewhere, the sometimes-subtle, sometimes-standout variations on the piano ballad are Mark’s most significant accomplishments: the slithery lead organ and backing bass of the almost funky “With Me”, the Ben Folds-ish intro and heart-breaking choruses of “Guide”, the almost-arbitrary meta-ness of “One Minute Song”, which might be one of the most clever things on the whole LP. The latter’s lyrics are worth reprinting in part for the curt monologue directed at a lover, as well as the winking way Mark breaks down the fourth wall: “So you’re wondering why I stopped being with you / It’s because I gave you my album / And you never listened to it,” Mark sings over a simple but blithe little piano sequence. “You could have pretended or just tuned in for a minute / But you didn’t / And so whatever this is, I don’t want to be in it.”
Mark doesn’t write or play with broad and sweeping gestures. She’s not a big performer and this is her greatest gift and the largest obstacle her music needs to mount to reach full maturity. Her piano playing is understated, even muted, and her pop structures echo – even revel in – that sense of lower-case-m minimalism. The pairing works well, but sometimes, as in the record’s second half, it gives off a feeling of slightness, lacking full completion. To that end, there’s “Shadow”, which has some of the record’s most ornate piano progressions but ends Keeping You in more of a whimper than a bang.
The lyrics on Keeping You have a kind of playfulness Mark only periodically lends her oft-wispy designs. There are loads of internal rhymes and fun turns of phrases, leading the listener to approach her relationship stories with a fresh set of eyes and ears. What is there not to love about Mark’s second record? It’s hard to say. But, for whatever reasons, there’s something in the sequencing and the slightness that will keep listeners from fanning the flames on gushing, enthusiastic record reviews. Mark knows how to write a ballad, and the recording techniques on display here sit on terra firma. But, in the end, listening to the record a dozen times front to back doesn’t yield revelations – it strengthens the argument that some of this material needs a more extensive, fuller presentation.