Grand rock operas, tantalising synth-pop passages, and big ballads - Whitney Tai transcends her own pop horizons despite some comfort zones.
RELEASE DATE: 5 JUNE 2020 GENRE:
POP ROCK/ STADIUM ROCK/ DREAM POP/ POWER BALLAD / SYNTH-POP
New York-born/LA-based artist Whitney Tai’s sophomore album, ‘Apogee’ has a knack for creating an atmosphere that makes it an atypical pop album. In it, you have grand rock operas, tantalising synth-pop passages, big ballads, and one spot of Latin pop. ‘Apogee’ is an inspired record where massive moments of immersions are common; situated, and enhanced by Whitney Tai's powerful vocal performances. However, Apogee has one recurring flaw; it sounds like she’s found a formula of some kind and decides to stick to it throughout the tracklist - with varying results.
Still, even when the album hits a plateau, Apogee’s sense of drama is unmistakable. You get that thrill from the very first track ‘Starfish’, with spacey synth passages, cool drum pads, and a production that gradually builds upon itself into this impeccable dream pop song. Whitney Tai’s lyricism is easy to love because of its visual nature. In ‘Starfish’ she sings: “I guess I like the twisted plot we’ve created/I sacrifice shit so you know I can make it/ I wrote the script so that we both can lay naked/ like two starfish on a planet that’s been invaded”. It’s this type of writing that takes something that could easily fall into a generic love song sinkhole and turn it into a left-field, quasi-apocalyptic, and exciting experience. (“The sky could swallow us/But you couldn’t care less”)
‘Not Have Each Other’ is a great retro-futuristic New Wave pop song with a strong hook. The little details in the production, like static sounds and digital shimmers, create an extra layer of ambiance. Then you have this great saxophone fill piercing through the track's atmosphere like a comet. The song is also a good example of some of the amazing vocal productions on the whole album that accentuates Whitney Tai’s beautiful voice and embellish with theme-appropriate effects. In the case of ‘Not Have Each Other’, it plays well as a cyberpunk-themed romance.
With ‘The Cure’, Whitney Tai serves us some daunting piano ballad that explodes into a stadium-sized rock song. It’s this formula that I’m talking about which is sort of repeated in ‘Righteous’ and ‘Not Without Love’, where a slower-paced pop structure is concluded with high-octane rock punctuation. The first time around, this arrangement is absolutely satisfying - occasionally cinematic. But sometimes it doesn’t really do anything, either overstaying its welcome or coming off as derivative. The craftsmanship in ‘Apogee’ is most blatant when it combines the familiar with a dose of thrill, but this familiarity walks on a tightrope, dangerously risking some falls into the uninspired. All that considered, the first time I heard ‘The Cure’ transition into that genre shift midway through the song, it blew my mind, which makes this one of my favourite tracks.
Another great aspect of ‘Apogee’ is Tai’s ability to deliver her vocals with such emotional acuity. In ‘Surrender’, you get an epic that revolves around these orchestral strings and percussive instrumentations that make you feel like you’re being washed up onto an empty shore. All while being soundtracked by her emotional declarations of submission - dissolving into particles and debris.
As mentioned before, ‘Righteous’ is one of the more formulaic tracks. In no way is it ‘bad’. It’s just a pretty nondescript alt-rock cut in comparison to the more fully-fleshed out songs like ‘The Cure’ or ‘Starfish’. At best, the badass vocal harmonies and effects make for a good anthem; at worst, it’s a tad cheesy, with lyrics like “Am I righteous to believe in a love that divides us?” which sounds like the type of derivative drivel you find in early 2000s alt-rock bands like AFI. Catchy and sometimes emotive, but overall stale. ‘Scolded’ is where the album reaches its cinematic apogee (I’m sorry). As splendid and magnificent the orchestra is, the song is also beautiful because it doesn’t overuse its grandness. The right amount of pop sensibility is slipped in between the large musical movements. There is an undertone of serenity that makes me think of wading my hands into a pool of another dimension. The line “scolded by the light” resonates so much with me in terms of the visual impact it leaves, as it walks the listener through this hard-earned ascend into a version of sonic heaven. It’s not heaven without imperfections, because ‘Scolded’ strongest quality is its ability to drag you into the resplendent while still maintaining some very human groundedness in its arrangement.
‘Meet Me On Melrose’ is an awkward Frankenstein monster of ideas anchored by a sanitised Latin pop production. Among all the tracks in Apogee, this is the most cumbersome to me. Although it has a solid musicianship and contains more of Whitney Tai’s trademark visual lyricism (“Where board shorts are the morning prayer/Nosferatu, driving dads coupe/A film noir ending in despair” is such a great description of a disillusioned Los Angeles nostalgia) it sticks out like an emotional sore thumb. Like someone tried to shoehorn a whimsical love story into a heavy, nocturnal album.
The rest of the album is uneventful, with a good song that carries on the synth-pop soundscape in ‘Electrified’ and a competent stadium pop-rock opera in ‘Not Without Love’. The latter is the better of the two, with a cool chorus and badass aura altogether. ‘Electrified’ has an ethereal ending that slightly makes up for the song’s otherwise flatness. The end of ‘Incantation’ though is a gratifying conclusion with sorrowful string sections and other orchestral elements to wrap ‘Apogee’ up with a beautiful bow.
Asking for a pop-rock album to be innovative seems oxymoronic. There should be merits given to musicians who succeed in creating earworms that aren’t groundbreaking, but still gives you a great feeling of joy, sadness or melancholy, anything of the ilk. But my small yet indelible disappointment with ‘Apogee’ is that it has transcended a lot of expectations one can get from a pop record. It’s reached peaks of atmospheric composition that can make it unique but unfortunately is bogged down by its less adventurous moments.
There are a lot of good things to be said about the talent involved in instrumentation and production . Not to mention, Whitney Tai’s performance throughout that leaves me unsurprised that she and her band have been called as one of the Top Live Bands in Los Angeles. Most of these songs will translate wonderfully onto a live set. ‘Apogee’ hints at the limitless potential that an album within the pop-rock genre can achieve, despite itself not always hitting the right marks.
3.5 / 5
Scolded, The Cure, Starfish, Not Have Each Other
LEAST FAV TRACKS:
Meet Me On Melrose