In a world of advancing technological developments and readily-accessible music software, there is still one sound that has the power to impress: silence. Jessy Lanza has built a career on the principles of minimalism, with a catalogue of material that feels stripped-back and spacious. Oh No picks up where 2013’s debut Pull My Hair Back left off: a mix of 80’s r&b grooves, modern electronic sounds and glassy vocals. It’s an economic approach to song-writing that values texture and ambience as highly as lyrical content and performance.
Like its predecessor, Oh No features production contributions from Jeremy Greenspan, one half of gloomy synth-gaze duo Junior Boys and Lanza’s partner. It feels like a logical progression of both acts’ aesthetics: pristine basslines, unusual chords, spiralling arpeggios and breathy vocals – for long-term fans, Oh No will feel very familiar. Except for one crucial difference: where Pull My Hair Back felt cold and remote, Oh No feels warm and inviting. This is mainly down to Lanza’s voice: there’s a new-found playfulness that lends a sense of vitality. Lead single ‘It Means I Love You’ plays with pitch and layers itself in gasps and glitches before falling into a breathlessly bold acapella of the song’s hook, while ‘VV Violence’ takes cues from Glass Candy’s Ida No, with Lanza’s cries and squeaks never toppling from arch into false cuteness. Lanza’s voice is a versatile tool, demonstrating real skill from her instinctive use of acrobatics – able to rush up to high notes with both grace and abandon, poised but breathless, its subtle charms enhancing the surrounding atmospheres. Lanza’s recent collaborations with Caribou, Morgan Geist and DJ Spinn have all excelled for different reasons; Oh No feels like the practice of lessons learned.
But Lanza’s voice, essential as it is to Oh No’s standing against its predecessor, deserves only equal billing alongside the production. Restraint is the key concept, as every chiming chord or brisk drum hit feels like a moment of drama. ‘Begins’ conjures up Chromatics at their most desolate, heartbeat-synched drums building tension over a muted arpeggiated throb, while ‘I Talk BB’ is a bed of sea-sick synths, torch-song piano and gated snare hits. Oh No looks to the period of 80’s pop where disco and r&b weren’t separate, with the industrial tones of legendary production duo Jam & Lewis matching the simple grooves of early house music. The song-writing seems to have stepped into gear, too: the choruses are stronger, with none of the aimless drift that sabotaged Pull My Hair Back.
Lanza has spoken about her love for Janet Jackson in interviews, and drew comparisons to Aaliyah’s work with Timbaland for the sense of subdued elegance in her delivery. But Oh No is more than an exercise in outlier r&b – it comes from the same school of refined performance as Jessie Ware and Roisin Murphy, two of modern alt-pop’s most captivating divas, using space and stillness to service their own strengths. Lanza has stepped up to the level of her peers, not by jostling for room amongst them, but creating a space for herself – and then, leaving it blank.