Album Review: Maria Minerva – Bless EP

[100% Silk; 2013]

Estonian bedroom pop diva Maria Minerva’s first release of 2013 comes to us on 100% Silk, the Not Not Fun sublabel that specializes in especially lysergic dancefloor almost-anthems. Much like 2011’s Noble Savage (put out on the same imprint), what we have here is a small collection of tracks that feature eerily detuned and hazily reverbed synths, ramshackle uptempo beats, and coquettish lyrics delivered with the sort of hypnagogic, in-and-out-of-key nonchalance that has become a trademark of not just Minerva but indeed much of NNF’s roster as a whole.

Opening track “Black Magick” stands out for featuring one of Minerva’s most straightforward vocal deliveries to date, akin to Debbie Harry’s seriously playful (playfully serious?) speak-singing circa “Rapture.” The lyrics are typically lovelorn: “You’re a riddle. / Every day’s a struggle,” goes the chorus, along with accompanying 808 handclaps and flanger-filtered harmonies. But unlike, say, Sally Shapiro and her unrequited melancholy, Minerva has always seemed to revel in her romantic loneliness, using it to propel a sort of Lolita’s-Myspace-page posturing that’s been her stock-in-trade since Tallinn At Dawn.

The problem is not that there’s anything wrong with this kind of posturing or this kind of music–a weird, sleepy mix of 90s R&B and cosmic trance–but rather with the fact that it seems to be the only gun in Minerva’s arsenal. I worried about this last year when I reviewed her Will Happiness Find Me? LP: “It would be all too easy for Minerva to stick to what she knows, and she could carve out a reasonably successful career for herself treading the same retro-futurist synthwave waters for a while; but there are signs here that she’s interested in moving beyond that aesthetic.” Well, it turns out that she’s still treading those waters, delaying her voice just so and introducing enough cheesy genre signifiers–check that cowbell groove on “Symbol of my Pleasure”–to make me wonder if at least some of Minerva’s work is in fact supposed to be as ironic as it first seems. I mean, if you’ve heard Noble Savage or Will Happiness Find Me? then you’ve heard this, you know?

I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt with respect to aesthetic progression, and I still am to some degree, but little on the Bless EP rises above the generally pleasant haze. The rollicking funk-guitar sample on “Symbol” rings out with delightfully organic clarity; it’s something we haven’t heard from Minerva before. But by the time we reach “Soul Searchin,” with its bongos, swallowed bassline, fucked-lullaby vocals, and cut-and-pasted sample (George Carlin, of all people), it’s like we’ve spent too long in a hookah bar: what was originally appealing in a smoky, flavorful, and perhaps exotic way has now grown wearisome and vaguely nauseating. “I hope you find what you’re looking for,” she chants towards the track’s end. Ditto, Miss Minerva. Actually, scratch that: I hope you’re still looking for something in the first place.