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MS MR – How Does It Feel (Columbia Records)

untitled (240)Perseverance, according to the Oxford Dictionary is; ‘the act of continuing in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.’  Misfortune struck Lizzie Plapinger and Max Hershenow of dramatic alternative pop duo MS MR during the promotion campaign for their first album Secondhand Rapture, when they became the victims of theft. Not only did the New Yorkers lose all of their new lyrics and creative ideas but their faith and confidence in humanity deflated so greatly that the anecdote is now regularly recalled in interviews.

Rather than wallowing in self-pity or breaking up as a consequence – like genre-associates Oh No Ono did in 2011 when the same fate befell them – they dusted themselves off and started again. The theme of determination, moving forward and brushing off obstacles that threaten to derail an ambitious journey is encompassed on their new release.

‘How Does It Feel’ evokes the same emotions of sorrow, confusion, fear and despair – that could be identified by Plapinger’s ever-changing hair colour – from their debut but combats them with an empowering fist. If their first album could be identified in the persona of an awkward lost teenager experimenting with dark make-up and finding comfort in the cult ideologies of David Lynch and World Cinema, their second is a confident and sociable adolescent ready to enter the risk-taking world.

‘All The Things Lost’ is a direct reference to the unfortunate incident. It’s honest and transparent and paints the circumstances of that day with devastating clarity. Although Lizzie Plapinger has always fitted into the same mould as Florence Welch – emotive, strong attention-seeking vocals, undeniable passion and hyperactivity tendencies – this emotional track is unlike any other MS MR composition. Their energy is drained out, replaced by piano footsteps, drops of industrial rain, patient forlorn reflection and notably no chorus for a band who usually follow the standard ABAB structure. “No more apologies need to be exchanged/Treasured moments become lost treasures when you can’t recollect” effectively portrays the anguish of their unfortunate situation. The aim though is to move forward, recycling disappointment as strength rather than completely erasing its significance but despite its position as the final track, it seems like it’s the conceptual catalyst for what precedes.

“If you never break, you’ll never know. It’s all you need to fight a blow“, teaches Plapinger on lead single Painted. You can’t argue with its encouraging message but upon its single release, its genre switch was a little striking and surprising. It adopts a secondhand EDM piano for the first time and the repetition of its core sentence “what did you think would happen when you put me in a natural space?” is begging for a dance remix rather than an indie award. However their crescendo-building theatrics are something fans will be accustomed to and the music video is a colourful explosion of 21st century fantasy; with the repetition possibly being excused as a malfunctioning hologram through the promo. The band have confessed that “so much of this record was written with the stage in mind”, hence why ‘Painted’ is not an anomaly on here, why the album varies less in pace, is less dark and introverted and why the majority of HDIF has impulsive limb-moving magnetism.

The title track of How Does It Feel is the most clear example of their aim to improve interactivity and crowd-chanting in their foreseeable concerts. It’s classical-crossover similarity to Clean Bandit will help build a rapport, as well as two-part call-and-response feature that ditches any ambiguity: “I won’t let you down (how does it feel)” and the act of yelling the title’s name on the record. When you see it like that, MS MR have become viral disciples of their self-discovered perseverance.

‘Tunnels’ also advises on how to overcoe adversity with lyrics such as: “Remember to forget what was left behind”, over the top of euphoric chill-out and a standardized anthemic chorus, despite beginning with curious marimba and alluring synths. This highlights one of the main frustrations with the imbalanced How Does It Feel; the choruses are far inferior to the verses. It’s shame that their compositions aren’t musically persistent. The verses show that MS MR are blessed with imagination. ‘Criminals’ demonstrates Plapinger’s pseudo-rapping over an airy new wave background before entering a one-way ticket to commercial chart jail. ‘No Guilt In Pleasure’ and ‘Tripolar’ both begin with the Purity-Ring technique of a burpy voice bass, the difference is that the former leads to a tiresome synthpop chorus that at it’s best sounds like a bonus track from La Roux. The latter flows smoothly into the chorus with subtle tropical guitar and flustered sonic effects, whilst the clever bridge will make you ponder what happened to the only famous Swiss band Yello and wish for a re-emergence of German electronic genres like Krautrock.

If you’ve persevered, the second half of the album is a big improvement that rewards your dedication. Enlisting the assistance of Swedish pop artist Tove Lo could contribute to its DJ friendly accessibility: but it also gives it a refreshing Swedish production, like on ‘Leave Me Alone’. An ambient atmosphere that belongs to Fever Ray (more specifically ‘Coconut’) develops into a drum-enthusiastic electropop, the kind that has made Kate Boy such a charming prospect. ‘Reckless’ is MS MR at their most multi-coloured. It miraculously blends progressive rock (Mellotron), psychedelic rock (backmasking), 80’s pop (stuttering vibraslap-like percussion) with the alternative dance of Hot Chip via lively keyboards. Cruel is equally fascinating with its jagged Phantogram trip-hop beat leading to harmonic synth R&B – one a few tracks where Plapinger develops new colours to her voice, in this case Banks – and is perfected with cymbal transitions and an element of eeriness. Whilst ‘Pieces‘ merges inventive drumming with fluttering strings, shepherd tone and a mysterious high frequency wail to form a unique form of folk-baroque-pop.

How does the album feel? Energizing and motivational but flawed.

[Rating:3]

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