Purity Ring, 'Shrines' (4AD)

7
Shrines
Critical Mass
Release Date: July 24, 2012
Label: 4AD

by Jessica Hopper

Purity Ring hit several sweet spots. For starters, consider the coed Canadian duo the pre-dawn antidote to corporate dubstep's calculated thud: softer and girlier, but also sharper and more potent, the other side of the sensual divide created by all the big-dick EDM that remains a mere spray tan away from the purest Ibiza cheese. While it's fine enough to luxuriate in all that sort of decadence for a night, Shrines offers midnight-black disco sustenance. Amid its revving and electro shuddering, ebbing and exploding sub-bass — elements we usually associate with the frosty distance of dubstep and techno — we get frontwoman Megan James daring us to "steal my sweating lips." It's a far cry, too, from the cheap come-ons of do-me pop; it sounds like something utterly private being revealed, but not for purposes of titillation.

Shrines' unambiguous grinding and thumping belie the group's essential twee-ness. These are not clumsy make-out jams for pasty Belle and Sebastian fans with too much body shame to enjoy, say, a Maxwell record (for which we should all be grateful). For far too long, indie rock has been flitting and cross-pollinating with R&B and the I'ma-do-you end of dance music — and not getting it right. As promising as Solange Knowles' flirtation with the Dirty Projectors or Will Oldham's splaying of R. Kelly songs might be, the appeal is still largely ironic novelty. No man or woman among us with any self-respect (or game) is gonna put on Swing Lo Magellan in an amorous situation: too much herky-jerk atonal shimmer, too many solos. Which is where Purity Ring succeed: They're conversant in that indie-darling world, but their vibe is proper freak-you.

The duo's debut album feels especially live and fresh given that its smeary, trenchant wub-wub-wub dubsteppy pulse still works, even though we've been hearing it in forms both subtle (Burial) and unsubtle (Skrillex) for years now. Programmer/producer Corin Roddick drills with this intractable pulse/drop/pulse/drop rhythm, augmenting it with synthetic scrapes and squelching, fluttering, tweaked 303-screech punctuated with a lurching thump. It's the sort of polar-frequency reciprocity that turned us on in those bygone Aciiiieeed days. But both these kids are too young to mind that history or obey the natural law of the post-1 a.m. dance floor. They know what works, and how to rework it.

Roddick ably makes the most out of James' clarion voice. Unadorned, it's high, chipper, and clear, but here it's more seductive and substantial; chopped, sampled, and strewn across a chorus as nothing but a percussive chirp. It is the only thing that ever tilts Shrines towards coming across a bit precious — James occasionally sounding more like a little girl than a woman.

In interviews, Roddick cops to drawing inspiration from contemporary chart R&B and hip-hop; genres he'd someday like to work in. Shrines is a hell of an audition tape. Part of what makes the album so effortlessly listenable is that all the synthetic bump isn't burdened with the patina of indie shame; it isn't scuzzed-up or self-consciously lo-fi. Roddick carefully engages EDM clichés and structures, but doesn't kick them up to neon-alert levels. Nevertheless, his ambition is palpable.

For James, her goals aren't as clear-cut; her contribution to the album's R&B feel is that she's working almost entirely in the corporeal. Every song is lyrically loaded up with body-sense (though Pretty Ricky's "Lay Your Body Down" it’s not). Instead, this is full-tilt Canadian Gothic Amateur Surgery hour, beginning with the thighs, eyes, and lashes of "Crawlersout," and working toward the more oblique "sockets and creases and holes." "Fineshrine" avers that the way to touch a girl's broken heart is by going direct through the sternum. "Grandloves" offers an invitation to drink from her skull (very Mortiis dinner party). Bones, bellies, and all manner of holes gradually pile up; there is also a mention of a "womb stem." Interpret that neologism as you will.

Finally, on "Saltkin" and "Lofticries," James drops the creepy coroner poesy for something a bit closer to humpitude, the sighing of her starving hips, trembling thighs, and various personal liquids set against the clipped bup-bup of her own voice as the beat doubles, then drops. The contrast between Purity Ring's two halves is special and compelling, but Shrines goes over best when Roddick's reverent sound and James' lustful fury synchronize and break you off properly, womb-stem-style.

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