MS MR’s ‘Secondhand Rapture’: Album Review

Carl Williott | May 14, 2013 5:45 am
MS MR singer Lizzy Plapinger is exactly what you want in a frontman/woman. She has pink hair, or sometimes blue. She has an unconventional voice, husky and noir-ish. Most importantly, she has a keen ear for pop: as co-founder of Neon Gold Records, she released early singles from acts like Passion Pit, Ellie Goulding and Icona Pop. But that cool factor looms large over her project with Max Hershenow, giving skeptics a ready-made argument: that MS MR’s success is built on blind faith from a Neon Gold-loving Web.

The most effective way to dispense with any potential buzz-economy bullshit, though, is to put together a debut album as strong as Secondhand Rapture (out today, ). With this full-length, MS MR have crafted a collection of glossy dirges and high-drama doom-dances that operate in the pop world, but aren’t entirely of that world. Rather than neon synths and guitar crunch buttressing the melodies, it’s strings and pianos — but not in the Lana Del Way. Instead, MS MR opt for beauty through weirdness, constructing a record full of spectral echoes, wobbling organs and orchestral maneuvers in the dark.

Producer-instrumentalist Max Hershenow constructed a darkly entrancing universe and the songs feature plenty of moving parts, but they never sound busy or muddled. This is best illustrated on “Hurricane,” where the droning bass line could’ve smothered everything, yet each metallic clang and string pluck slices through. This stunning sonic balance slyly obfuscates the album’s anthemic aspirations, as the largeness of songs like “Think of You” or “Head Is Not My Home” is not immediately apparent. It’s a risky gambit in these MIDI-mashing, all-crescendo-everything times, but the arrangements shine using efficiency and tension instead of bombast.

The other part of the album’s appeal comes, of course, from Plapinger herself. The Siouxsie Sioux comparisons have been made before, and they’re unavoidable (after all, Plapinger did sing on an EP of Siouxsie and the Banshees covers). But where Siouxsie sounded like she was trying to awaken dark spirits in some ritual, Lizzy sounds like she has been put into a trance by those spirits (even intoning, “Let me be your singing corpse” on “Twenty Seven”).

Her gauzy timbre is unmistakable among the layered arrangements, and this works to the album’s disadvantage in one respect: there’s a strange preponderance of whoas and oohs that leads to some fatigue for the listener. These wordless chants are used effectively on early cuts like “Ash Tree Lane,” but by the album’s midpoint, they’ve piled up and begin sounding like temporary placeholders that were never actually replaced. It’s an odd thing, because when there are lyrics, they’re fascinating, and even Michael Stipe-like in their nonsensical Mad Lib feel (see: “candy bar creep show,” “big teeth small kiss”).

Lizzy sings about things skeletal, miserable, lovable and fantastical, and combined with all the warped murder mystery strings and cavernous drums, Secondhand Rapture could’ve blurred into a monotonous slog of fatalism. But the sequencing deftly peppers in a few oddball tracks to keep listeners on their toes. The first one is the absolutely gorgeous “Dark Doo Wop.” There’s a bed of coos and organs as Plapinger sings about being with her lover as the world burns, and the track patiently escalates to a squall. The next departure is “Salty Sweet,” a meta commentary on pop star insecurity over a reggae rhythm, followed later by closer “This Isn’t Control,” which starts like a melting music box before launching into a trap-lite beat.

These are the sounds of a band that was firmly entrenched in the alt-pop world and aimed to create a new take on the form, without sacrificing accessibility. And MS MR largely succeeded in that goal: Secondhand Rapture is a beautiful dark twisted fantasy that you’d hear wafting out of a haunted house in Katy Perry‘s Candyland. It’s nice when buzz actually swarms to the right places.

Best Headphones Song: “Dark Doo Wop”

Best Listened To: While kissing your partner as the world crumbles around you in slow motion.

Idolator Score: 4/5

Carl Williott

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