Banks’ ‘The Altar’: Album Review

Any new artist hoping to, as Joni Mitchell once sang, “stoke the starmaker machinery” of the LA music biz would be advised to study the growing career of Jillian Banks, aka BANKS. She first appeared in 2013, releasing a steady drip of songs, each stronger than the last, until she finally unleashed her expansive debut album, Goddess, in 2014.

More:: Banks gives us the lowdown on 'The Altar'

Her sophomore album, The Altar (out today, ), opens with a flawless run of six songs — one side one on the vinyl. Reuniting with, among others, longtime collaborators Christopher SOHN Taylor and Tim Anderson, Banks hones what she began on Goddess, wrapping uninhibited frankness (both loving and rawly sexual) around a sort of self-obsessed vulnerability. The sound has elements of soul, icy electronica, beats… and a whole lot of pop melodies.

The astonishing “Mind Games” distills the pure essence of Banks, weaving subtle wit into her conversational lyrics:  “You’re claiming I’m a handful when you show up all empty handed.” This song belongs on a loop, her misery leading to catharsis as her voice, increasingly pained, wails “Do you see me now?” over and over. Sticky relationships dominate. The Altar’s sleekest pop moment, “Love Sick,” is a study in serious thirst: “I’m lovesick, I ain’t even ashamed / …and I’m hard up for some time in your sheets.” “Trainwreck” finds Banks spewing anger (“There is no fixing to the problem when you’re talking to an idiot”). You keep expecting Nicki Minaj to storm into the track, but Banks doesn’t need her. She has enough sputtering rage to hold her own against the hard production.

Side two is less distinctive, with a suite of songs that seem to repeat familiar Banks vignettes. You hear them and think, “She needs to start looking out for number one!” But she flips the story with “Mother Earth.” Against a bed of acoustic guitar and strings, Banks slips out of her armor into something more nurturing: “Follow me to my bed / because every time you fall, I’ll be holding your head up.” She layers her vocals until they swell into an angelic chorus. It’s warm, enveloping and a welcome change from the f-bombs and darkness.

Banks has never had a hit single, but her label Harvest has encouraged and bankrolled her development in a way few new artists receive in this era. She’s worth the risk. The Altar doesn’t radically rewrite her sound, but it expands and propels her compelling voice forward.

Score: 3.5/5

Stephen Sears

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