Nataly Dawn, ‘How I Knew Her’ (Nonesuch)
Release Date: February 12, 2013
Employing social networking and cheap audio-visual editing software to bum rush the music industry, the California YouTube sensation Pomplamoose have become so widely adored and passionately hated that they’re basically the soft-rock analogue to Odd Future. The duo of singer Nataly Dawn and multi-instrumentalist Jack Conte became one of the hottest technology stories around when their folky cover videos of Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” and Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” went mega, but people who don’t fall for the “acoustic guitar = authenticity” idiom noticed that something was amiss.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a young act learning the ropes by starting with cover songs (seemed to work out pretty well for the Beatles), and there’s nothing inherently rockist about guitar people covering Top 40 (see Ted Leo), but the condescending stink on these covers recalled that South Park episode where everyone almost choked to death on a roaming cloud of smug. To people who take pop music seriously, Dawn’s “Single Ladies” lyrical substitutions (“Don’t make me sing this part of the song / The lyrics are so bad / So we’re going to skip ahead / To the ‘Single Ladies’ part instead”) was as offensive as anything Tyler, the Creator might say. But those covers were a hit with an oddly lucrative audience that would potentially enjoy Lady Gaga and Beyoncé songs if they weren’t so, you know, Top 40 and fake and all that. Pretty soon the absurd trend pieces (the SF Weekly called them “radically independent” and “revolutionary” with what appeared to be a straight face) and advertising placements started rolling in.
But you know what? In 30 years’ time, every presidential candidate will have a sex tape to explain away, so we might as well get used to forgiving young people their early Internet indulgences. It’s perfectly understandable that Dawn would want to establish herself as something more than a viral gimmick. Too bad her solo debut, How I Knew Her, is so painfully tasteful.
With Conte producing, Dawn works hard to convince you how sophisticated and smart this all is. The arrangements are spacious, and all the well-qualified session musicians are recorded with a lived-in, naturalistic feel. There are mournful cellos on the title track, gospel organ and an ersatz Booker T. strut on “Please Don’t Scream,” and delicately plucked guitar all over the damn place. What’s lacking is a single decent hook or anything remotely resembling fun. Which is a shame, because you’d think that after singing Queen Bey and so many other hitmakers, one might pick up a few tricks. Dawn’s voice is sturdy, but all her phrasings feel like wan approximations of Regina Spektor and Zooey Deschanel, two singers that, for better or worse, are never sheepish about their quirks.
Pomplamoose might be equally hated and adored, but at least those are both strong reactions. How I Knew Her glides by in 40 minutes without making any kind of impression at all, other than giving you a vague desire to hit up Starbucks. Dawn and Conte might have thought they were better than the pop they made their name on, but those songs had a personality that could not be scrubbed away and hooks that could flatten cities. Gaga and Beyoncé don’t need to be watered down by “real musicians” to be appreciated, and neither one of those stars would ever make an album that plays it so safe it makes Sarah Brightman look like Earl Sweatshirt.