[Partisan; 2021]

With her second album, Try Harder, Brooklyn-based songwriter Aerial East embraces streamlined compositional and performative approaches, shifting away from the more textural and stylistically diverse tracks of 2016’s Rooms. As with her debut, however, silky vocals take center stage, floating atop gossamer soundscapes, each song touching on themes of longing, disillusionment, and the tension of wanting to commit to a relationship or community while remaining fundamentally free (the uber-Romantic/Keatsian dilemma).

The album launches with the hook-y “Try Harder”, East showcasing her vocal range, with steamy and alto-ish verses contrasted with the shimmering high notes of the chorus. “The Things We Build” is an elegantly crafted tune, East’s unadorned take on Americana; the country-ish steel guitar and folkish mandolin parts are notably complementary. “Katharine” is an eloquent and well-limned narrative about two young friends with different backgrounds who met at a critical time for both of them, eventually drifting apart: “I haven’t seen you / since Times Square was a zoo / years ago.” The instrumentation, including what sound like mutedly staccato flute parts, is classically inflected and notably nuanced.

As the album progresses, beginning around track four ,“Doin’ Something”, or five, the hilariously dubbed “I Love Dick” (a reference to Chris Kraus’ novel), the listener may begin to experience a disconnect of sorts, encountering over the course of the album a cumulative predictability. Part of the issue is that the more potent melodies are found in the first three songs, and the ensuing tracks are noticeably less hook-driven. Also, East’s vocal, while distinct, grows a bit repetitive. From a production standpoint, it may have been helpful had East’s vocals been more texturally treated, as they intermittently were on Rooms (reverb, echo, chorus, and/or more layering). On the other hand, they could have been stripped down and presented in a lo-fi context. Perhaps some experimentation with both modes would have given the project more sonic depth.

Seventh track “Blue” re-energizes the sequence; a nostalgic piece melodically reminiscent of Neil Young circa After the Goldrush. “I thought about you when I was away / my boyfriend made me laugh / and I went out into the waves / … it always makes me sad / when I feel you inside of me,” East sings, her voice backed by a casually strummed acoustic guitar. Later, “Jonas Said” offers a short and ear-catching statement re patriarchal realities: “When I was just a girl / wasn’t aware but now I’m a woman / and now I see how they hold us down.” The album closes with “Be Leavin’”, a dreamy take on relational impermanence, the seeming inevitability of loss, and the ageless issue of faith (“I want something to believe in”).

Aerial East is a talented songwriter with a signature voice, and Try Harder certainly includes its stellar moments. However, the project as a whole would have benefited from more melodic, tonal, and atmospheric variation, issues which could in part have been addressed via a greater use of recording options and a more hands-on production approach.

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