Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: Marla Mase – Speak Deluxe

Marla Mase is a New York City based activist, artist, and musician whose new album Speak Deluxe is a mass conceptual piece which features a live show with dances inspired by the songs and a whole lot of poetry. Amazingly enough, it isn't absolutely pretentious or repulsive. Mase deftly skirts the typical pitfalls artists with such high ambitions fall into and, with the help of guitarist Tomas Doncker, turns in an upbeat pop, funk, and rock infused album that is actually fun, despite its lofty conceptual bias.

You may remember Doncker from my review of his band's Howlin' Wolf covers EP. He's back again playing guitar and co-writing this record with Mase, which may be what lends its weighty expectations with the necessary amount of pop whimsy to keep it entertaining.

Not that Mase doesn't try to stray into big idea artist territory. “Lioness” is marred by poetry delivered in a tone that makes it sound like Mase thinks what she's saying is a much more clever metaphor than it really is. She does the same again on “New Cell Phone.”
Photo by Juan Carlos Hernandez

But where the album really excels is when the band plays a beat or a groove so funky or so catchy that Mase can't help but get into it. Check out when she lets loose with an actual, honest-to-God sensual falsetto performance over the rollicking bass and guitar workout on “She Hooked Him Up,” or her angry Alanis Morissette impression on the admittedly very Morissette like pop rock of “Queen of Imperfection."

Of course, sometimes the pop aspirations don't exactly work out. While Mase is a fine poet, she might not have been meant to write pop hooks, as the chorus to “Piece of Peace” is exactly as annoying as the title would have you guess. “AnnaRexia” is also a pretty poor pun, and the reggae imitation on it completely falls flat.

That pastiche is somewhat indicative of the record in general. Mase, and by extension Doncker, both clearly have a love of a lot of genres, so they run through experiment after experiment through the record. For instance, “Blog” is a slow, simmering ballad with a soaring, shredding guitar solo from Doncker that will truly blow you away. Immediately following it is “Dance the Tango,” which verges on the kind of country-western pastiche that Morrissey is fond of recording. It's a jarring transition, but it is nice to see Mase unafraid to do whatever she wants to. It's that kind of artistic freedom that Speak lives and dies by.

Photo by Juan Carlos Hernandez
Ultimately, Mase's willingness to be completely indulgent and unabashedly free with her art is impressive and it carries the recording through its many twists and turns with amazing agility. However, Mase's restlessness is also at fault for the records many flaws, allowing for weak author interest tracks to make the cut, like the aforementioned “AnnaRexia” and its subsequent remix by Bill Laswell which ends the record with a turgid six minute running time.
Maybe Mase would benefit from an editor, or at least she might better satisfy her pop aspirations with one. However, her music would be by leagues less interesting, so maybe it's better that we take the good with the bad. Either way, Speak succeeds in satisfying all of its creator's goals and makes for a definitively enjoyable, if uneven, record.