Based in Montreal, Arbutus Records has over the past couple of years been releasing a steady stream of especially ethereal ambient synth-pop. Even without Claire Boucher, the label’s roster is impressive enough, including Blue Hawaii (a boy-girl duo featuring Raphaelle Standell-Preston, who, speaking of indie weirdo pop, also serves as Braids’ lead singer), Pop Winds, and the sometimes-rather-folksy Sean Nicholas Savage.
But Ms. Boucher, who records under the name Grimes, is the label’s crown jewel. Following the solid 2010 releases Geidi Primes and Halfaxa, it was “Vanessa,” off the 2011 Darkbloom split with fellow electronic whiz-kid D’Eon, cemented her status as one of the indie pop world’s most exciting young voices. In this context, Visions seems more like a buzz band’s eagerly-awaited debut than a (relatively) seasoned artist’s fourth release in half as many years. With recent write-ups from the likes of the New York Times and the UK’s The Guardian, it’s clear that more eyes (or perhaps ears) are on her than ever before. So, has Grimes delivered with her latest effort?
Well, the answer depends on what you’re looking for from this album. If you want catchy leftfield pop with dizzyingly reverbed and self-harmonized vocals, danceable rhythms, and innovatively sparse synth arrangements, well then Visions ought to be right up your alley. Though Boucher’s babyish delivery and accompanying lisp don’t do much for me, it’s precisely this quality that allows her to sell the sing-songy opener “Infinite ♡ Without Fulfillment” and the lightly industrial “Oblivion.” And she isn’t shy with the hooks, either; the most ear-pleasing moments occur during album’s middle stretch — from “Circumambient” through “Be a Body” — as well as in the James-Ferraro-piano moves of “Genesis” and the tender balladry of “Skin.”
More importantly, they show that good contemporary pop need not include an embarrassment of synthetic riches; most of these tracks depend on little more than a ramshackle drumbeat, the simplest applications of bass, and one or two electronic keyboards that pull double-duty as melody carriers and mood setters. Boucher’s echoing voice often provides as much instrumentation as any piece of analog equipment here.
Still, for all its quirky charms, Visions ultimately feels a bit lacking. It lingers almost as often as it progresses, and its eccentricity can grow tiresome. Boucher’s ricocheting vocal sometimes seem to provide tepid life support when she’s run out of ways to develop a particular track instead of helping to shape the mood or melody of numbers like “Symphonia IX” and “Nightmusic.” And that’s just when there’s something worth developing at all; “Colour of Moonlight,” on the other hand, is dead on arrival.
I’ve heard this album compared to cotton candy, and I think that’s an apt comparison: delicious yet uncomplicated, satisfying but hardly filling, Visions showcases an artist with clear talent and potential. But where I was expecting a great album, I’ve instead encountered one that’s merely very good. Earlier in this review, I asked whether Grimes’ latest album delivered. Everyone loves cotton candy, but while Visions contains plenty of sweets, I was expecting more of a meal than it has to offer.