It has been interesting to track Skylar Grey’s (real name: Holly Brook Hafermann) career over the years. She first rose to “prominence” by featuring on Fort Minor’s hit single, “Where’d You Go” along with Jonah Matranga. Of course, that didn’t exactly catapult her into fame. (Same goes for Matranga). So, a few years later, in 2006, she released Like Blood Like Honey, an album of bland, forgettable, but competent piano pop under the name Holly Brook, dropping her surname (to sound more like a porn star, apparently). It didn’t catapult her into fame either. After that, she kind of disappeared, not known as much more than “that girl who sang on Mike Shinoda’s vanity rap project.”
Then, towards the end of last year, she resurfaced as Skylar Grey (to sound even more like a porn star, apparently), releasing a single with Eminem, “C’mon Let Me Ride.” She dropped a steady string of singles until the release of Don’t Look Down this month. These singles pointed towards a completely new style for Hafermann: glossy, R&B-inflected radio pop. It was certainly a departure from the soft piano pop of her first album. And now that her sophomore effort is out, we can answer the question: does the new style fit? The answer: no, not at all.
I know that when I talk about music on this blog, I mainly discuss rock music. But I’m in no way hardwired to hate pop. In fact, I put albums by Santigold, Miike Snow, and The Prize Fighter Inferno in my top five albums of 2012. But pop music is notoriously difficult to produce. For a rock album, you don’t have to mess too much with arrangements: beef up a guitar part here; request a different drum beat there. However, production is the heart and soul of a pop album, and Hafermann’s producers utterly fail her here.
I mean, seriously, what the fuck were they thinking? There are so many boneheaded production decisions on this album, it’s mind-boggling. Overly heavy programmed drum beats, an utter neglect of bass lines, substituting in other instruments when guitar or piano would have been more suitable – these are just a few of the producers’ sins. That’s not to mention that the mixing and mastering are absolutely atrocious. The bass is totally buried. Sometimes, the percussion overpowers Hafermann’s voice. And “C’mon Let Me Ride” sounds like a low-quality mp3 from Napster’s heyday.
The problem is that I don’t think any of this is Hafermann’s fault. Instinctively, it sounds to me like she should be a cross between Sarah Slean and Kimbra, with a breathy, warbling voice reminiscent of Dia Frampton. When she’s allowed to get soulful, she really pulls it off. “Wear Me Out” is an excellent song, and “Final Warning” ain’t half-bad either. But R&B-inflected electropop really isn’t her thing. “Glow in the Dark” and “Ticking Time Bomb” don’t work at all. However, if they were piano-driven tracks with live drums, they could probably be something decent, if a little typical. Instead, they’re held back by heavy programmed beats, turning what could be light, nimble songs into clumsy, lumbering slogs.
These heavy beats mar nearly the entire experience. It’s as if somebody tried to make Hafermann’s music club-worthy but completely forgot to up the tempo. The percussion-free “Love the Way You Lie Part III” and “White Suburban” almost feel like a relief after listening to electronic thud after electronic thud, despite the fact that the latter song is kind of boring. Even worse, these beats completely overshadow any instrumental lines, which makes the album seem strangely nonmelodious, and juxtaposed against Hafermann’s fragile voice, they sound almost comical.
I think Hafermann is capable of putting out a great album, but she needs to work with the right producers, like Kimbra did on her debut record, Vows, putting her music in the competent hands of François Tétaz and Michael Tayler. They were able to gloss up her sound without removing what made it special and soulful. On the other hand, J.R. Rotem and Alex da Kid, a pair of hip-hop producers, probably weren’t the best bets for a singer whose inclinations seem to lean more towards pop, soul, and folk. Hafermann needs to work with a more suitable team next time, lest she disappear into irrelevance again and be forced to reinvent herself as yet another porn star.