Carissa’s Wierd alum Jennifer Hays makes her first foray into crowd-pleasing synth pop in an intriguing collaboration with Seattle-based producer SYML.
Allow Jennifer Hays to reintroduce herself. Since releasing 2014’s Cool Choices as S, the former Carissa’s Wierd co-vocalist has made several changes to her music and persona. In 2015, she announced via Facebook that she would no longer go by “Jenn Ghetto” (a moniker that dated back to her Carissa’s Wierd days), apologizing for “the anti-black racism i perpetuate using the word ‘ghetto.’” Now known as Jenn Champion, a more search-friendly moniker than S, she’s started making synth pop. Her third record for Hardly Art, Single Rider, is the result of a collaboration with Seattle-based producer SYML, as well as her realization that, as she put it, “the record I wanted to make was... a cross between Drake and Billy Joel.”
Single Rider doesn’t actually sound like Drake or Billy Joel, but despite the stylistic left turn it represents, Hays laid the groundwork for this new direction on Cool Choices’ drum-machine-led “Tell Me,” as well as on her 2016 single “No One.” While those songs added new instrumental flourishes to her spare, confessional songwriting, Single Rider goes full-bore pop, to the extent that it barely resembles anything in Hays’ back catalog. The album’s sparkling synths and airy atmosphere are reminiscent of a similar transition made by Minneapolis duo Now, Now, who traded emo for more synthetic sounds on this year’s Saved.
Mainstream-leaning synth pop typically emphasizes the kind of melodies that carry the promise of marketability, so it follows that Single Rider is Hays’ most accessible and immediate work yet. (The fact that the opening synth line of “You Knew” recalls the McDonald’s theme song is an unfortunate coincidence.) The dancefloor spangle of single “O.M.G. (I’m All Over It)” and the laid-back, effervescent pop of “Mainline” are representative of the album’s palatability, even as Hays herself seemingly acknowledges her newly sync-friendly approach elsewhere on the record: “We’re all trying to be real/But we need that mass appeal,” she sings on “Holding On,” her voice floating over handclaps and creating night-drive vibes.
Luckily, Hays keeps her sense of perspective intact: Amid lyrics about love and longing that are native to the genre she’s working in, she manages to incorporate some impassioned (if vague) statements that speak to widespread societal frustrations. “They’re gonna push you out/They’re gonna hold you back,” she proclaims on “O.M.G.,” imploring the listener to “fight the things they do.” “You Knew” finds Hays avowing, “We’re all gonna break this shit wide open/And make it clear again/That we don’t owe you anything.”
Single Rider marks a watershed moment for Hays, even if she hasn’t entirely figured out what to do with her new sound. Style sometimes trumps substance here, and now that she and SYML have mastered the former element, establishing a unique lyrical point of view could help her distinguish herself from the ever-growing synth-pop pack if she chooses to keep making this kind of music. But the album shines brightest when Hays returns to her previous, more organic sound: “Bleed” has a Figure 8-esque skip to it that suits Hays” anguished lyrics, while the simple piano of “Hustle” builds to a stirring vocal climax as she reaches into her upper register and repeats, “Hang on.” Hays has been doing that for upwards of two decades now, and she still hasn’t exhausted her range as a songwriter and a stylist.
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