Music

Little Scream Combines Easygoing Pop with Serious Lamentations About Politics and Culture on 'Speed Queen'

Photo: Zach Hertzman / Courtesy of Killbeat Music

Montreal's Little Scream offers up reflections on class and poverty disguised as sweet low-key pop songs on her real grower of an album, Speed Queen.

Speed Queen
Little Scream

Merge

25 October 2019

Speed Queen, the third album from Montreal-based musician Little Scream, is a bit of a deceptive record. The music is decidedly low key; many of the songs are relaxed pop tracks featuring gauzy synths, angelic background harmonies, and barely-there guitar and drums. But Little Scream (neé Laurel Sprengelmeyer), has some things on her mind. The music and her equally laid-back vocal delivery belie the genuine anger and concern in her lyrics.

She tips her hand a bit with the album's opening track, "Dear Leader". Without ever mentioning President Trump by name, she proceeds to sweetly excoriate him for roughly six verses, addressing him instead as "Dear Leader", the moniker normally attached to North Korea's Kim Jong Un. As the music recalls a new wave ballad, Little Scream breathily mentions, "Racists who will kill / For their law and order", "Dark money is rising / Like the warming coastal sea", and says "I'm an old fashioned girl / Still believe in democracy." There's a lot more in there, and even though she mentions that love passes every test, it's the unrelenting anger that really comes through. At least once the listener gets past the very pretty music and pays attention to the lyrics.

The title track is just as pointed but on a social level. "Speed Queen" refers to a type of washing machine in a Laundromat, and the lyrics are about struggling mightily just to get by. The chorus shows the level of dream Little Scream's character is at: "Never want to ride around a limousine / I only want to get my own Speed Queen." The music is anchored by a catchy four-chord piano pattern that recurs just enough to stick in the listener's head, and the easy-to-sing chorus makes it simple to ignore the harrowing scenario Sprengelmeyer is laying out.

It's not all doom and gloom covered in a sheen of glistening music, though. "One Lost Time" is a bit of reflection on the nature of love, but mostly it's an upbeat relationship song. A slightly above mid-tempo drumbeat and a low register guitar riff set down the basic groove, while Little Scream's voice floats above it all. "Forces of Spring" is a track that relies almost completely on Sprengelmeyer's singing. For the first verse, the music is sparse, with a snare drum and quiet piano chords serving as the only accompaniment as the words tumble out in a rush about her attraction as well as her caution about how intense those feelings of attraction are. Even as the synths show up and the piano plays more notes and timpanis boom in the background, the focus stays on the vocals and her thoughts on love.

"Switchblade" takes a stranger, darker tack about love. It starts downtempo and bluesy, using what sounds like a talkbox enhanced guitar riff, while the vocals are sultry and full of desire. But the saxophone-backed chorus is jaunty and positive-sounding. She sounds ecstatic to be with this person but also resigned that it might not work out. And the song ends with her repeatedly singing about "the cruel switchblade of happiness".

That same dynamic of entertaining music and dark lyrics returns again and again on the album. The late-night, slightly funky "No More Saturday Night" is about regrets for many weekend evenings lost to drinking. "I wish I could get those years back" is the start of the refrain. "Disco Ball" has the aspirational, positive tone of Springsteen's "Born to Run", albeit with more keyboards and less sax. But like a lot of Springsteen's material, it's lyrically about the downtrodden trying to make a better life for themselves despite ruin all around them. The couplet "I sold myself for the American dream / I got a predatory loan with my spirit on lien" encapsulates the feeling here.

Sprengelmeyer holds back one more fusillade for Speed Queen's closing song, "Privileged Child". Musically it's a bit of a bouncy song, shuffling along with easygoing drums, gently strummed guitar, and upbeat horns. But lyrically, it doesn't hold back on the adult children born into money. "Just another friendly sociopath / Trying to be a gatekeeper in my path" goes one passage, while another admits, "I don't mind burning bridges to gated houses / I don't want to live in." As catchy as it is, though, the song doesn't really even have a chorus, although it does say, "Go hang your head and cry / You privileged child", twice, which pretty much covers it in terms of the song's sentiment.

Speed Queen didn't grab me much at first from a musical standpoint. The songwriting is fine, with a decent amount of variety while staying in its low key, not quite synthpop lane. It wasn't until a few listens in that the lyrical content started to get my attention, and then the record came together much better. Little Scream has some very worthwhile things to say here, and once you're ready to listen, the mild cognitive dissonance between the mostly cheery music and the sad and angry lyrics really pays off. It's a classic grower of an album that is worth the time it takes to sink into your brain.

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