Marla Mase - Speak Deluxe
Release Date: February 28, 2013
Record Label: True Groove
Press play on Marla Mase’s latest full-length release, titled Speak Deluxe, and you probably won’t feel like you’re listening to something that was written and recorded over the course of the last few years. That’s because Mase, a rising star and buzzed-about new figure within New York’s underground rock ‘n’ roll scene, isn’t the kind of female artist we’ve gotten used to hearing in the post-millennial music circuit. In an age where two of the biggest stars on the planet are female artists who take inspiration from classic singer/songwriter traditions (Taylor Swift, who borrows from ‘70s folk and pop, and Adele, who adds her soul and R&B records into the equation), Mase goes unapologetically in the other direction. Her lyrical style, for one, veers toward political statement and women’s rights activism, taking more cues from 1950s and ‘60s beat poetry than traditional singer-songwriters.
But it’s the music that sets Mase apart: her songs are dark, atmospheric, and gritty, and almost primal or elemental in execution. The songs on Speak are led by a voice that is harsh and rough around the edges, ornamented with loud guitars, and littered with shades of punk rock history. Loud is Mase’s comfort zone, and at her best, she mixes Janis Joplin’s gruff vocal styling with the torrid musical arrangements of 1990s grunge and alternative rock. Case-in-point is “Piece of Peace,” an early stand-out that positions Mase’s political lyrics around a killer shout-along refrain. And since Speak (originally released in 2011, but reissued here in a longer, re-imagined format) will soon be transformed into a multimedia stage show, a solid shout-along commencement is probably precisely what Mase needs.
The songwriter’s other styles run the gamut a little more. Mase is a versatile and eclectic artist, and it shows here as her works flit between straightforward rock songs and experimental spoken word pieces, between bizarre forays into funk territory (the surprisingly-competent “She Hooked Him Up,” complete with a wonky slow-jam synth line) and rollicking country songs (“Dance the Tango,” which builds from a Johnny Cash-esque bass-line into a solid pop melody). The spoken word bits, on the other hand, are largely take-it-or-leave-it. On one hand, the slow-burning “Open Up My Heart” is one of the album's more successful ventures into verbal poetry, landing somewhere between the experimental songwriting of U2’s last record and the theme song that Garbage (a grungy female-fronted act not unlike Mase) delivered for a James Bond film in the late ‘90s. The song's conversational, storytelling mid-section—a broken princess fairytale that symbolizes the album’s core theme of female confinement—feels like a match with the uneasy sonic territory that surrounds it, and the song resonates even more as a result. Mase lulls us into a daze, gives the song its message, and then brings everything together in the final minute. Here at least, Mase's indulgences pay dividends.
Elsewhere though, the spoken word sections feel more jarring. Late album inclusion “Blog” begins like a piece of ‘80s dream pop, but morphs into a trippy, cosmic mess when Mase’s nonsensical poetry enters the picture. The writing isn’t bad—though the delicate nature of the song is certainly something of which I would have liked to hear more—but Mase’s delivery of the spoken word section is too brash, and it gets in the way of the song. For less than a minute of its runtime, “Blog” is a luminescent triumph, recalling some of Blondie’s more subtle moments, or destined to sit alongside Kavinsky, a modern artist whose electro-pop symphonies scored pieces of the 2011 film Drive, on a hipster chill-out playlist. The spoken word segment breaks the spell and takes listeners out of their reverie, something that happens, unfortunately, on numerous occasions throughout Speak Deluxe.
But Marla Mase isn’t the kind of artist who basks in genre nostalgia or pays tribute to favorite artists; she’s not someone who writes songs we can instantly relate to our personal lives or picks up an acoustic guitar to set our ears at ease every once in awhile; and she’s certainly not someone whose music could be classified as comfortable. In fact, Mase’s spoken word delivery, which frequently blends insistent political activism with blistering erotic tension, is the antithesis of comfortable, and it’s that consistent sense of disquiet that gradually muddles the impact of the record. At 15 tracks and over an hour in length, Speak Deluxe is simply too long for its own good, and while those extra songs may add worlds of continuity and power to the stage show (set to premiere at New York City’s Summerstage 2013 later this year), they make the album listening experience a bit of a chore. Still though, Mase is an interesting artist (to say the least), and listeners whose tastes tilt further away from conventional songwriting than my own will probably find a lot to enjoy here; either that, or Mase needs to be seen live to be understood; one of the two.