The frontman of Daphne Loves Derby does a solo album of romantic pop. But where's the heart?
There were reasons to dislike Wolftron before I even listened to the album. Reason number one: Kenny Choi, the man responsible for everything on the album besides the drums, named his act "Wolftron". Choi is the frontman of an established indie band, Daphne Loves Derby, so he must be aware of the plethora of indie bands with the word "wolf" in their names:Wolf Parade, Wolfmother, Wolf Eyes, Patrick Wolf. And yet he's forcing us all to deal with yet another wolf-themed name, furthering the lupine confusion. Reason number two: The liner notes tell us that the album was recorded in "Kenny's bedroom AKA Mos Eisley" while Jason Edwards' drums and percussion were recorded in "Jason's bedroom AKA Death Star." Ugh. Star Wars references are more than a little aggravating and overdone at this point.
But putting on the album, it's actually a pretty good effort. Flesh & Fears is a straightforward romantic pop album, alternating between piano and guitar-based songs built around Choi's solid singing voice. The disc opens with "Crystal Skulls", an airy song with several different guitar lines augmented by subtle strings and strong drums and percussion. It has no real chorus or recurring hook, but it's well-written and nicely establishes the sound of the album. "Ms. Luna Grim" comes next, riding a darker, minor-key pop groove. The strings of the previous song are replaced with harmony backing vocals, a jazzy soprano saxophone sound, and a bit of warbly synth. The strings return for "Blueberry Waves", but Edwards' drumming once again stands out, driving Choi's melody and giving the song a groove.
The rest of the album goes along in the same vein. The songs are well-written and layered without being overproduced. They're all between 2 1/2- 4 minutes long, which emphasizes the pop aesthetic on display. The tunes are creative enough so that they don't sound similar to each other, but nothing particularly stands out, either. At least not until "Defeat of Starman" and its companion, "Provocations of Starman Jr", show up late on the disc. Musically, the songs aren't much different from what came before. The former is a piano-driven minor-key piece anchored by Edwards' drumming; the latter is more driving and upbeat. Even the lyrics aren't particularly noteworthy, but somehow Choi's vocal performance feels more heartfelt than on the rest of the album.
And that's when it hits me. Amidst all this well-written, nicely arranged pop music, there's been a missing element. Kenny Choi has the voice to pull off this type of music, but it sounds like he's writing romantic pop from an outsider's perspective, without the heart. When I think of pop music and/or love songs that have really clicked with me over the past decade or so, a few examples jump to mind. Early Badly Drawn Boy, before he lost that heart and descended into treacle. Ben Folds when he's being serious. Hell, even that first Maroon 5 album. Sure it was overplayed to death, but Adam Levine sounded like he had really experienced the romance and the heartbreak he was singing about. Choi's lyrics are more ethereal and his music doesn't have much, if any, grit, but that doesn't matter. What really makes or breaks this kind of album is the vocal performance, and Choi isn't convincing enough for me. Flesh & Fears is solid in every other aspect, and Jason Edwards does a great job throughout with the drums and percussion. But just a little more heart could have made this album a standout instead of merely solid.