If at first you don’t succeed, reinvent. Kyla La Grange‘s debut album Ashes wasn’t a bad record (especially for a first attempt) but just felt a bit ordinary. The songs were good, but there was nothing there to distinguish her from the already overcrowded market of ‘folky, quirky female singer-songwriters’.
Two years on, and she’s unrecognisable, both in image terms and with respect to her music. For La Grange has teamed up with respected electro producer Jakwob, and his minimalist style meshes nicely with La Grange’s powerful voice. The 10 songs gathered on Cut Your Teeth are dramatic, synth-laden affairs, with hints of Lana Del Rey and Grimes, but most importantly, this time stamped with La Grange’s own personality.
It’s a sound that suits her precisely because of that dark element to her music, which was too often subsumed last time around. This is slow-burning pop music, dramatic and orchestral, which owes more to the likes of Jessie Ware or The xx than her often-cited contemporary Florence Welch. The stark, austere style of Jakwob has helped La Grange rein in any vocal excesses, and it works a treat.
That restraint is on display in the gorgeously sleek title track which opens the album, and continues through the more successful tracks. I Don’t Hate You sounds like a dark cousin of Del Rey’s Summertime Sadness, and Cannibals is a stripped-back, eerie delight with La Grange’s voice swooping and soaring on the chorus.
White Doves is another highlight, with La Grange’s voice cut up and multi-tracked against a percussive-heavy backdrop, while Jamie xx’s influence is clear on the brilliant The Knife, which adds steel drums to the mix to create of the album’s more danceable tracks – albeit in a melancholic, lovelorn fashion.
While this stripped-back minimalism is to be applauded, it’s possible to wear thin over the course of the album. While Jessie Ware and Grimes employed a similarly subtle sound, they also had the nous to mix some anthems like Wildest Moments or Oblivion in there as well. For that’s the main issue with Cut Your Teeth – it’s almost too polite and quiet, as if there’s a reluctance for La Grange to scream “I’m a proper pop star”. There are exceptions to this though, such as the aforementioned I Don’t Hate You and the fizzing, bubbly synths of the closing Get It.
So what we have is stuck between two poles – not full on commercial, accessible pop but not maverick experimentation a la Karin Dreijer Andersson’s Fever Ray (another notice influence on La Grange). That doesn’t make Cut Your Teeth a bad album – in fact, at times it veers close to excellence – but just a bit uncertain.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing though: La Grange is still young and developing her sound, after all. There are enough high points on Cut Your Teeth – the floaty majesty of The Knife, the reflective wistfulness of Fly and the African-inspired Never That Young – to confirm La Grange as a real talent. Fans of her debut may be a bit bemused, but this is a new direction that could lead to great things. In fact, this could be the record that we look back on as planting the seeds of any future success.