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Clairo - Diary 001 EP Music Album Reviews

Clairo - Diary 001 EP Music Album Reviews
The lo-fi pop singer’s first label release is an EP whose careful songwriting and intriguingly flat vocals should quiet naysayers who dismissed her as a one-hit fluke.

Claire Cottrill has been sharing her music online since she was 13. Beginning with acoustic covers of Maroon 5 and Frank Ocean, then evolving into thoughtful, probing guitar songs about the complexities of high school relationships, the 19-year-old musician’s creative coming-of-age took place entirely on the internet. But it wasn't until 2017—when she uploaded the video for “Pretty Girl,” a song originally released on a compilation album from the blog Le Sigh—that Cottrill completed her transformation into Clairo: a web-native, lo-fi pop singer with an ear for playful synth tones and an intriguingly flat vocal affect.

Comprising footage of Clairo dancing awkwardly in front of her webcam in the style of multimedia artist Molly Soda, the “Pretty Girl” video quickly racked up millions of views, catching the ears of Chance the Rapper's manager and The FADER's in-house label. Like any young woman whose music suddenly becomes popular, the Massachusetts-born singer attracted legions of naysayers who dismissed her as a one-hit fluke or an industry plant. But “Pretty Girl” and the other songs on Clairo’s new EP, diary 001, exhibit the kind of subtle charms that only arise after years of careful labor. Listen deeply enough, and you’ll realize there’s more to her overnight success than one lucky hit.

With its over-the-top keyboard tones and limping vocal melody, “Pretty Girl” taps into the same bitter irony wielded by PC Music’s Hannah Diamond and, on certain songs, Drake. Clairo sings gently about modifying herself in service of a male partner: With little emotion in her voice, she pledges to “wear a skirt for you” and “shut up if you want me to.” What scans initially as a lightweight indie-pop song in the vein of Frankie Cosmos or Steve Sobs quickly reveals its barbed underbelly. Clairo exaggerates the easygoing aspects of her sound to better lubricate her indictment of misogynist expectations. There’s power in a woman singing that she won't shut up, but the creeping numbness of Clairo’s forced docility has its own kind of pull.

Other songs on diary 001 see the singer exploring different facets of romantic entanglement in the Tinder age. “You're just one click away/From something real or fake,” she sings on opener “Hello?,” a muted duet with Irish rapper Rejjie Snow. A keyboard tone that approximates the timbre of the human voice dances around her vocals, threatening to dissolve any boundary between the fake and the real. “B.O.M.D.” (which stands for “boy of my dreams”) indulges a childlike giddiness about a new flame. “I wanna stay up forever,” Clairo sings, like a kid at a sleepover, while PC Music's Danny L. Harle saturates the backing track with computer-generated chirps, finger snaps, and whip sounds. Even when she's gushing, Clairo maintains her vocal cool; she's a skilled singer, perfectly on-key but deliberately unshowy, as though she's monitoring her own affect to ensure she doesn't give too much away.

The sound Clairo has been tracing since she swapped out her guitar for GarageBand comes into bloom on diary 001’s clear highlight, “4EVER.” Over a round funk bassline and chintzy synths, she bounces her voice across the EP’s most urgent melody. At the pre-chorus, she jams as many syllables as possible into each line: “Is it ever gonna change?/Am I gonna feel this way forever?/Are you gonna be around for me to count on, yeah?” But by the chorus, she’s stretching out the last syllable of “count on” until it fills a whole measure. The densely packed language mirrors the anxiety of the lyrics, while the shift to a single, languid word offers some reprieve. It's a smart way to cut the tension, and it lends the track an addictive sheen. Clairo may pursue a carefree, low-investment aesthetic on her first label release, but over time, her songs reveal the depth of her craft. She has worked hard to make it sound this easy.

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