From the opening moments of Cranekiss, you realize that Tamaryn’s latest album is new in more ways than one. Gone are the swirling guitars and shoegaze-style rhythms—the defining qualities of her last outing, 2012’s Tender New Signs. In their place are an assemblage of synths and drum machines, all chugging away toward a very different style and sound than her previous work. That breathy, soft-to-sultry voice still anchors the proceedings, but much like Tegan And Sara’s about-face into glossy pop on 2013’s Heartthrob, the whole enterprise feels like an entirely new project.
From the opening beat of “Cranekiss,” which sounds like a distaff alternate-reality version of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?,” the record has clearly fired up the flux capacitor and time traveled all the way back to the mid-’80s heyday of synthpop. And not just in the sense of inspiration, or a stylistic sampling; no, the whole album is a straight-up retro imitation of the music of yesteryear, with almost nothing sounding like it couldn’t have come out of a British studio in the Reagan years. Forget winking homages—Tamaryn and new bandmate Shaun Durkan (Weekend) have crafted a record with no indication that the previous 25 years have passed. It feels like you should be listening to it on a cassette tape.
The biggest surprise is what this music does to Tamaryn’s vocals. Rather than the way her former guitar-based songs emphasized the ethereal nature of her voice, the new tracks reveal just how much Tamaryn sounds like Madonna, only breathier. This isn’t necessarily for the better—with songs as baldly poppy as these, a stronger voice would help to keep the cotton-candy lightness of the proceedings a little more grounded. Instead, her voice is so airy and featherweight that it prevents the tracks from becoming substantive. This can work on songs like “Last,” where the singer’s smoky alto gets pushed to its high-pitch limit as it segues into the refrain (and gets some technologically enhanced assistance), but too often, her melodies ebb into the background, floating away on a cloud of her own making.
There are some stronger musical offerings amid the repetitiveness of many of these old-school synth confections. “Collection” hints at a slightly more distinctive feel, if only because the New Order-echoing rhythms are a shade more complex than the rest of the album’s. “Softcore” also mixes it up by adding a much-needed darker vibe to the proceedings, an uptempo tune that becomes positively Depeche Mode-esque in its minor-key refrain, moody and taunting. Along with “Sugar Fix,” a bouncy track where an arpeggiator keeps time over a simple drum beat, these songs manage to stand out from the pack.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to distinguish the record as a whole. In going for an album that channels the best aspects of ’80s synthpop, Tamaryn ends up with a weightless reworking of things done better the first time around. These songs mimic old structures, melodies, and sounds, but to lesser returns. Moreover, the singer’s voice often seems ill suited to this new style of music. Whereas her previous work played to her strengths, her vocals here sound far too weak when paired with these studio beats. The effect of the droning synths and layers of nonstop effects slathered over everything induces a sense of sameness throughout. Cranekiss is going for hypnotic, but too often ends up narcotizing.