Greetings, Glancers! For any fans of this series or those who want to know my thoughts on 2020’s best releases, I apologise for the lack of posts so far. In the real world family and work have taken priority, while in the Blogging world my Marillion posts have been my most frequent commitment. I’ve no idea how many Marillion albums are left, but given the last album I covered was released in 1998, we’re surely closer to the end than the beginning – Watch my face drop as I find out Marillion went on to release 1 album every year since 1999.
But we’re not here to talk about Marillion, for a change. We’re here to talk about Chloe X Halle. I have no idea what that is or what that means or even how to say it. Is it literally ‘Chloe ex Halle’, is it ‘Chloe cross Halle’, ‘Chloe times Halle, Chloe and Halle’ etc. And how do you pronounce ‘Halle’? Is it ‘hally’ or ‘Halley’, or ‘Haley’ or is it meant to rhyme with Chloe? Does it matter? Is it a band, is it one vocalist, is it two vocalists? I don’t know and I don’t believe I’d even heard whatever this is mentioned anywhere before putting together this list, not in YouTube comments, not in passing, not anywhere. Perhaps the album cover will give me an idea.
Right, we have two women, with two arses (one each), and two sets of wings which I assume are supposed to look sleek and heavenly, but kind of look like swimming pool inflatables. Are these the singers, or is this just some random image by a rock band? Lets go with these being the singers, which would fit with the name. Angels, Ungodly, are we going for lots of religious iconography and ideas? Oh Lordy, it’s not a Christian music album is it? The cover seems too sexy for that, but then every dick and their associated arse and cleavage identify as Christian these days, so who the hell knows. I would prefer garbage pop over Christian garbage. Actually, as long as the music is good I probably won’t care what the genre is, as long as they’re not trying to force some Creationist agenda down my gullet. I get enough of that as it is, thankee-sai.
Lets get on with it. I’m not sure what I was expecting from this given my complete lack of knowledge, but I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, it’s my favourite of all of the 2020 albums I’ve listened to as part of this journey so far. For anyone not aware, it’s a Pop R’n’B album entrenched in the past as much as the present. There’s a retro 90s, early Noughties feel, a pre-Destiny’s Child vibe calling up the likes of TLC… All Saints…. it’s not my area of expertise. Mostly I imagined it as an X-Rated version of Sister Sister. While it is undoubtedly a modern Pop album, meaning it suffers from many of the main negative trappings of current Pop (weak and inconsequential drum sounds, surface simplicity, copy paste pronunciation, slightly compressed sound, overly digital), there is enough of the Disco influenced late era Motown to keep me happy. While I do have issues, on the whole I could overlook those thanks to the album’s strengths – melody and authenticity. It feels like the girls love music; listening, making, and performing it. You can hear their influences. There are genuine hooks. They have genuine voices and don’t rely heavily on autotune to make them sound good or use it as a stylistic choice, at least until we get to the lowlight of the album – Catching Up.
The album eased me in and allowed me to relax into the journey without worrying that I was going to hate the entire experience. The appropriately named Intro sets up the album’s qualities – the vocal melodies and harmonies – and the angelic, subtly epic tone is a world away from most of the manufactured junk I hear whenever I dip in and out of the Top 40. Those qualities lead directly in to Forgive Me, the first of many supremely infectious songs which is let down by some vocal choices more to do with my preferences than any real show or lack of skill. This, the title track, Baby Girl and others feel like they could be Club or Radio hits and crucially also work as something to chill to at home.
The album manages to subvert one of the biggest issues which has plagued modern pop for at least a decade, and which has plagued Dance music since Day One – those songs are designed purely for a huge audio system and to be danced to in a group setting with no care given for those of us who actually want to appreciate the thing on our own, to appreciate the thing as a piece of art. Having not seen any videos or live performances by the pair, I did have difficulty distinguishing between the two vocal parts. I’m not as close to their individual voices. That doesn’t mean the girls sound the same – their voices obviously work wonderfully together and in certain songs it is clear when one takes over from the other – I Wonder What She Thinks Of Me being a great example of them seemingly trying to one-up each other. I don’t know enough to say that x part was Chloe and y part was Halle. I don’t even know if those are their real names. Even with the vocal quality, the girls add in their own humour and twists – it’s one thing to sing badly because you can’t do better, or to use Autotune because, well because everyone else does, but it’s a different class to write a song called Tipsy, a song about getting drunk and murdering your boyfriend, and sound like you’re drunk while singing it. It’s not exactly big or unique, but it is funny and a sign of the creative balls the girls have.
Continuing with the creativity on display, I did love the little transitions between many of the tracks – seamless and give the album the impression of a journey through the mind (or minds) of these women as they move from relationship to relationship via guilt, forgiveness, jealousy, warnings, joy, and a fair old dose of the horn (as we say over here). This isn’t a Concept album, but there are concepts tying the ends together, and while there are clear and potent messages approaching Feminism, it’s not some man-hating tome or purely a show of solidarity for women. The attacks on men are tongue in cheek, even if there is genuine vitriol, but they poke fun at themselves and admit their own flaws in equal measure. It’s an album not afraid to say that we’re all messy, we’re all beautiful, and we’re all capable of fucking up. No matter if the song is about keying someone’s car or receiving dick pics from some player, it’s all done with humour not usually heard in the Top 40. While other artists go all in on the graphic detail in their attempts to be shocking or amusing (cough cough Minaj), those flat attempts at bravado are laughable only because they’re so bad. Chloe X Halle strike the right balance between truth and humour.
We do need to talk about Catch Up. As mentioned, it’s the low point of the album. It’s the stock .feat song of the album. Some bloke, who I won’t dignify by finding out his name and adding it here, guest performs on the song and it’s the usual heavily autotuned, incredibly whiney vocal. There must be a hell of a lot of people out there who like this type of singer, this type of accent, but I just don’t get it. The girls are not entirely immune from odd decisions – while some of the accents and affectations pay off, they are less successful in the likes of royl. Those moments are few and far between and a misstep like Catch Up (and even that would be a good song without the shitty vocals) sounds like a completely different artist from the one who crafted the pop excellence of Don’t Make It Harder On Me and Wonder What She Thinks Of Me. Those two tracks in particular I will happily stick on my personal playlist – the pure Motown joy of the former, complete with funky bass and jangling guitars, and the exquisite emotional anguish of the latter.
Returning to the lyrics – often the most blatant bane of modern Pop – it’s the humour, emotion, and authenticity which allows what are not the most poetic or fierce rhymes to stand out. Like the majority of your Top 40, where almost every song is about love (or ostensibly, sex), the girls explore what it’s like to be a young woman keeping your head above water amidst the torrential storms of modern romance. Baby Girl is an anthem for girls everywhere expected to live up to society’s expectations and sacrificing their spirit simply to survive in a world beyond their control, while Royl could be a lyrical extension which pleads for the listener, boy or girl, to ‘live tonight’. It wouldn’t be a Pop album without the junk party lyrics about turning up late with a crew, and both ‘boo’ and ‘bae’ used liberally, and annoyingly. We’ve reached the point (we reached it long ago) in Pop that lyrics are basically meaningless, certainly artless, so while I don’t feel the need to comment much on them, these are at least more honest, less shitty, than what I typically hear sludging out of iTunes.
This is the first album in my list of Best 2020 albums that I will listen to again beyond the publishing of this post. While I didn’t know what I was getting into, I had an inkling it would be some overhyped standard chart balls, but the triple threat strengths of the vocals, melodies, and conviction was enough to shred any of the bias I may normally have against this sort of music. It’s enough to put the girls on my radar and to make me want to check out anything else they’ve done and will do in the future.
Sales: 3. I would have assumed this one set the charts and sales alight, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case. It sold better than their debut, but it warranted a quick re-release. Sometimes that’s a positive because the album or a single did so well so it raises awareness of the thing again, or it can be a negative to try to scrape out a few additional sales due to underperforming. I would go a 2 here, but a few of the singles performed well enough to push me into giving a 3.
Chart: 2. It did well enough upon release, in the US at least, but the fact that it didn’t reach the Top 10, and didn’t even reach the Top 70 in the UK, means we have to mark this down. You can’t go higher than a 3 with this, but by all accounts this was not a chart hit.
Critical: 4. I might allow a 5 here, but I don’t think you can go lower than a 4. The album received three Grammy nominations (didn’t win) and appeared in many Best Of Year lists, including a few notable Number 1 finishes. For me it doesn’t quite reach the heights of a five, but I understand if you think it does.
Originality: 3. Not my wheelhouse but it felt fresh enough to me, different enough from what I normally hear in the Top 40. Nothing startling in the music or lyrics or production, but sometimes simply getting back to basics and nailing your melody and sense of self makes you stand out from the so called trend setters and followers. A flat three for me.
Influence: 3. I’m torn between a 2 and a 3 here. I don’t think it was a big enough success that others will jump on the bandwagon and say ‘hey, maybe not singing like a twat and not singing about bullshit is a good idea’. I hold out hope that the critical success of the album, and its quality, might rub off on some younger listeners instead of the wide array of crap out there. It’s a 2 or a 3, but lets be positive.
Musical Ability: 3. A tricky one because I don’t believe the girls actually play any instruments or display any traditional musical ability. Their melody and vocals we can discount because they have their own section and score. Any pop album, even as mass produced and digital as they are now, will be lifted up by a team of musicians. Those guys do their job adequately here, without standing out or delivering any wow moments.
Lyrics: 3. It’s better than your standard pop, but your standard pop is at best a 2 in this category.
Melody: 4. I thought there would have been a 4 before this category, but nope. This is one of the hallmarks of the album, and of the things I respect most in music. Even ignoring how bad their contemporaries are in this category, it’s a showcase of how to do melody right.
Emotion: 4. Another highlight, even while only a small number of songs hit any real heights. Elsewhere those heights are not needed and the emotion is often bubbling under the surface, visibly, audibly. In addition, the enjoyment of singing and of music comes across.
Lastibility: 3. I worry that this won’t have any real staying power because it wasn’t a hit. Time will tell if its quality will see it outlast the more immediate success of its contemporaries. It could be a 2, but the fact that I’ll continue to listen to it over and above and beyond those contemporaries is enough to earn a 3.
Vocals: 4. A few dubious decisions and guests aside, this is a great vocal effort. Shedding those and we could be talking a 5. It’s not the vocals on their own, but the dual attack, the expression, the harmonies, and the wit creatively employed.
Coherence: 4. It feels like a journey or a day in the life. Thematically and musically it ties together, and plenty of the songs bleed into one another due to
Mood: 3. I’m tempted to give a 4 here, based on what I’ve already mentioned about the album feeling like a collection of club hits and a journey through someone’s mind. I’m not sure it quite nails enough of either mood or tone to earn a 4 from me, so I’m going with a 3.
Production: 4. I was going to go 3 here, but I should remove as much of my own bias as possible. While I don’t personally like some of the choices, arrangement, and sounds used, there is no doubt that the producers are at the top of their game, everything is levelled well, and it does strike that balance between home listening at blasting out of a club’s sound system.
Effort: 4. Without knowing in detail the story behind the writing and recording of the album it is difficult to accurately score this one. What seems to be true is that the girls raised their game from their debut – often the most difficult task for an artist is to improve upon their first album and overcome any hype it may have had. It seems like while their original album wasn’t huge, this has built upon its foundations. It is a short album, sometimes that hints at a lack of ideas or effort, but I don’t believe that is the case here.
Relationship: 3. As a thirty something married white bloke from Northern Ireland whose partying days are over, and were never something I cared much for anyway, I’m not exactly who this album is designed for. I don’t need to worry about most of the issues raised in the album and it’s not a sub genre of Pop I’ve ever been invested in. Still, the music made me interested in the artist and what they were talking about – at least to the point that I’m curious to hear their debut.
Genre Relation: 3. I’m not best placed to answer this given the complete lack of knowledge I have around this sort of music. In the wider genre of ‘Whatever Is On The Charts’ it certainly relates in terms of style, tone, and theme and with a lot of the same positives and negatives I ascribe to the type of music. Whether it’s better or worse, whether it is a game-changer I don’t know. I know I liked it more than most crap in the charts.
Authenticity: 4. The overall impression I had from the album – the voices, the lyrics, the production, was of a home-grown talent rather than something manufactured and showered with money. The people involved have a love of music past and present, and that shone through.
Personal: 4. I could go a 3 here, but I think that would be playing into my bias too much. I enjoyed this quite a lot, and it surprised me (by not being shit). Given the fact that I wasn’t expecting much, that 90% of it didn’t annoy me, and that I’ve been humming many of the songs to myself over the past few weeks… I think it deserves a Personal score of 4.
Miscellaneous: 3. Not much to say – music videos are fine, artwork is fine, girls seem cool. A standard positive 3.
I think that’s the highest score so far in my 2020 albums. Not by much, mind you. This is a decent score – thinking how difficult it would be to get a 5 in any of the categories. I’m hoping we’ll get one or two albums passing the 70 mark but I doubt we’ll get anything in the 80s. I care less about the score than my feelings about the album and how many of the songs I plan on listening to after publishing this post. Let us know in the comments what you think of Ungodly Hours!