Monday, June 17, 2013

Avril Lavinge Manages To Get Under My Skin When I Give Her A Fair Listen.

The Good: Some surprisingly well-written tracks, Good musical diversity, Hints of voice
The Bad: Still some terribly rhymes, Much of voice is still produced over, Short
The Basics: Meet Avril Lavigne, Artist and Performer away from the Image of Avril presented on the radio by picking up this album that will go under your skin.

So, there's a steaming plate of crow somewhere for me that is waiting and it will be served to me by those who read my reviews and have suffered through my fairly continual knocking of Avril Lavigne for the past few years. Lavigne is the current angry pop princess on the pop-rock charts who is basically filling a niche once owned by Alanis Morisette and . . . others. For years, based on the radio singles like "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boi," I've loathed Avril Lavigne for her simplistic rhyme schemes and obvious lyrics. When her second album, Under My Skin, was released, I found her first two singles - "Don't Tell Me" and "My Happy Ending" - to be continuing her pattern of angry young woman and I didn't so much care. When her third single, "Nobody's Home" hit the airwaves with the Lavigne-esque rhyme of "She wants to go home / But nobody's home" I cringed and felt justified for my distaste of this young woman who I had figured was a one-hit wonder who was slowly burning out her time in the spotlight.

Then, something happened (I'll write about that when I review her current album) and I decided to pick up her albums to review them. I was shocked to discover that her debut, Let Go, had some substance to it and there were songs that were not condemned to singsong rhyme hell. Then I gave Under My Skin a number of spins (actually, it became the album I listened to most on a recent drive from New York to Florida and back) and I had to grudgingly admit that while the few singles that have defined the career of Avril Lavigne thus far have left me feeling somewhat sour, this young woman has a lot more going for her and her albums are a lot stronger than her individual singles.

With only twelve tracks sliding in at under forty-one minutes, Under My Skin is knocked down mostly because it is short. All twelve tracks were written or co-written by Lavigne with most of them having music written (or co-written) by her as well. Avril Lavigne provides the vocals (sort of) for all of the songs and she plays guitar on the final song on the album. Lavigne receives no production credit on the album and I suspect that is why much of the album sounds the way that it does.

Under My Skin is a generally well-written, well-developed sophomore album that exhibits a strong sense of growth in the artistry and sound of Avril Lavigne. What it lacks is a sense, still, of Avril Lavigne, the actual performer. After listening to Lavigne's first two albums in high rotation for over a week, I still have not heard a track with her natural voice. Every song on Under My Skin includes moments where Lavigne's voice is robbed of its natural sound to produce and blend it into the music and make it something of an accessory at the mixing board. It turns out Avril Lavigne has the ability to sing, as evidenced in glimpses on virtually every track. But those glimpses are just that. There is not a single track where her voice properly dominates the song and showcases the full range of Lavigne's ability.

So, for example, Lavigne ventures into the higher ranges of her pitch when she sings the chorus to "My Happy Ending," but by the end of the chorus when she is simply repeating "So much for my happy ending," her voice is being mixed into the electric guitars and keyboards. For some reason, the producers of the album insist on forcing the listener to listen to the auditory Frankenstein monster they have created as Avril Lavigne, TM, The Product.

The thing is, that Image of Avril, who appears in the liner with the dark mascara, angry scowl and prohibitive body language, is at odds with Avril Lavigne, writer and artist. The young woman who appears as a doll as a red dress in knee socks and disaffected lonely image, laying on a cot in the liner notes is a fabrication used to sell the idea of Avril the Angry Pop Princess and despite my problem with some of the terribly obvious rhymes, Lavigne can forego that admit who and what she is.

Avril Lavigne is deeply connected to exploring and expressing the angst and desires of the late teen experience. That means Under My Skin is something of an emotional roller coaster, but what it certainly is not is a static, angry album that is lashing out at the establishment. Indeed, Lavigne becomes downright inspirational on "Who Knows," when she declares, "I think there's something more / Life's worth living for . . . So you go and make it happen / Do your best / Just keep on laughing / I'm telling you / There's always a brand new day." She offers hope, insists on not giving up. This is not an artist simply bitching about being a teen and wanting the world to go to hell without caring.

Similarly, for someone who became famous angrily lamenting the loss of her dreams on "My Happy Ending," she presents a remarkably dependent and emotive persona on "Fall To Pieces." I mean, who would have thought that pissed-off young woman who shouted out "It's nice to know that you were there / Thanks for acting like you care . . . All this time you were pretending" ("My Happy Ending") would be singing about how "I don't want to fall to pieces / I just want to sit and stare at you . . . I just want to cry in front of you" ("Fall To Pieces")?!

And Avril Lavigne actually has the ability to write some lyrics that can be described as clever. So, for example, on "My Happy Ending," one of the lines I grudgingly enjoyed even from my first listen was when Lavigne sings "You've got your dumb friends / I know what they say / They tell you I'm difficult / But so are they." I like this line because it's insightful and actually says something different from what most young people say. Here, Lavigne tacitly acknowledges that she is difficult, she is the angry pop princess and does not deny that, but she pushes the issue further; she's not the only one. As the narrator in "My Happy Ending," Lavigne takes responsibility for being herself, but she calls the object's friends out for being just as much of a pain in the butt. I like that a lot.

Which is not to say that this is a flawless album by far. Despite rhyming "home" with "home" on "Nobody's Home," most of the lyrics have better rhymes than on Lavigne's first album, though many are still too obvious for my tastes. The worst come on "Freak Out," a guitar and percussion-driven rock anthem that is probably the archetypal angry teen song to be yourself and thumb your nose at authority. The problem is, it also suffers from the most juvenile poetics of any track on the album, foregoing reason and making a statement for stupid rhymes. So, for example, Lavigne insists her listeners, "Stand up for yourself / And put up a fight / Walk around with your hands up in the air / Like you don't care" ("Freak Out"). Call me out of touch, but I've not seen any movement where walking around with your hands above your head makes a statement of indifference. I mean, yeah, protesters pump those fists of rage, but just wandering around with your hands up is more ridiculous than sensible. Lavigne sacrifices the sensibility for the rhyme.

What's worse, is she repeats it. A lot.

Which brings me to a track that grew on me quite a bit. One of the instantly most repetitive tracks is "How Does It Feel," a track that repeats "How does it feel to be / Different from me / Are we the same . . ." over and over again. This should have been, by my standards, a loathsome track. Instead, it's a close second to the best track on the album. Why? While Lavigne plaintively repeats the line over and over again, the instrumentation accompanying it becomes more and more dissonant. This is a powerful song of lost identity and existential questioning and as Lavigne desperately repeats the title against a background of violins, viola, and cellos the effect is astonishing. I'd love to hear a version where the production elements are eliminated and she is simply presented against the music with her natural voice.

But, it's enough to impress me. In fact, the music throughout the album is fairly impressive. While Lavigne might be presented as a female version of Blink 182 or Green Day on tracks like "Don't Tell Me," Under My Skin is a lot more diverse than that. On the opening track, "Take Me Away," Lavigne sounds more like Amy Lee of Evanescence on The Open Door (reviewed here!)! And "He Wasn't," an exhortation to young women to not settle and have standards for a guy, sounds more like an public service abstinence jingle than an angry pop princess.

Ironically for all of this, the track that stood out most on Under My Skin is also the one that falls most in line with the Image of Avril that I've so not enjoyed on the radio. "Together" is an angry breakup song wherein the protagonist realizes a relationship is dead. Lavigne laments, "I'm living a lie / When I'm alone / I feel so much better / And when I'm around you / I don't feel / Together. . ." ("Together"). She has predictable rhymes, like all/wall and she annoyingly rhymes fall with itself. But, the song rocks and it's the one that stuck with me most. So, even though the dissonant, lonely presentation of "How Does It Feel" haunts me, "Together" is the deserved hit that never was from Under My Skin.

She might not be as angry as she presents herself on her radio tracks, but she certainly is a budding pop princess. Despite the musical diversity, most of these songs are solidly, conventional pop-rock of the guitar-bass-drums bent. Lavigne's vocals are often blended in in a way that loses some of their natural resonance, but there are hints of her potential.

The best track is "Together" and the low point is the abysmal "Freak Out."

For other Avril Lavigne works, please visit my reviews of:
Let Go
Live Acoustic
The Best Damn Thing
Goodbye Lullaby


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission
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