Review: Hazel English – Wake Up!
National Music Reviews
Hazel English = Alvvays + Carly Rae Jepsen
If someone thought to reboot the Austin Powers franchise in 2020 as an indie film with way less jokes, but way more panoramic shots of people looking at each other, emotionless, in an empty field, this would be a pretty good soundtrack for it. Hazel English is really into the ’60s aesthetic, and her debut album Wake UP! takes that and runs with it. Along with producers Justin Raisen and Ben H. Allen, she’s put together a collection of songs that harness the spirit of the ’60s and marries this to current pop trends. Part of the excitement within this record is derived from coming dangerously close to losing that balance, riding the line without falling.
Starting up with a Motown-style bass line alongside vocals and guitar tracks dripping in spring reverb, the album’s opener, “Born Like,” makes clear the influence of the flower-power era on the album. When the chorus hits, the song flourishes, introducing Wall-of-Sound production techniques complete with synth, organ and Mellotron pads. However, the nonchalant vocal delivery tips the scales towards Kevin Parker and away from Phil Spector. I had a feeling going into this album that I would find some Tame Impala influences. The good news is that, other than that chorus, not much else on the album is that close to Parker.
The opening guitar riff to the album’s first single, “Shaking,” hits on some Tom Fogerty vibes. If I had to guess, I would say English is probably closing shows with this—the chorus is just too good. From there, we proceed to the titular “Wake UP!,” yet another up-beat pop tune, complete with a Vox Farfisa pad and all-you-can-eat floor-tom. This song is also the first clear revelation of the album’s weakest point: the lyrics. In the first verse, English states, “Do you trust what you see? / Is it just another scheme / To get you to buy all of the things you don’t need?” In turn, the chorus calls out, “Tell me what you’re gonna do / How will you react when you find out what they hid from you?”
The song strives for some sort of commentary on hyper-commercialism, the attention economy and the concept of living in the moment, attempting to wrap it up in less than four minutes. In promo materials for the album’s singles, English has commented on how she seeks to find herself, or at least a clearer idea of what that may be—what she believes, what she values and what she’s currently questioning. The track’s subject matter is just more complex than what the confines of a song allow for. There are too many reflections packed into one song, offering no answers or novel takes, risking coming across as hollow and preachy.
After a while, the album’s sound really pushes the boundary of fatiguing the listener. The production—in keeping with its ’60s-era goals—is pretty heavy in the high frequencies. There is also reverb on everything. It’s good on speakers, but with earbuds in, I found myself turning the volume down a couple of times. I do think English was aware of this, and after four upbeat songs full of reverbed-out cymbals and upper-octave organ stabs, she gives you a break with “Combat,” a song about a couple arguing. Lyrically, it’s the strongest song on here, mostly because it feels authentic and close to her. The slow tempo (slowest on the album) seems to suggest that she’s just so tired of the bickering but refuses to walk away. It is impossible to listen to the chorus without swaying. The vocal delivery on here is more modern, with some tasteful vibrato and quick, short runs here and there. This is the song that made the album click for me. It strikes the most pleasant balance of the ’60s thing meshing with—what the Spotify algorithms have determined is—the current pop sound.
From here, the production on Wake UP! tightens up a little bit. It’s less abrasive on the high end, the chord progressions travel ahead a couple of decades and the vocals are closer to the front in the mix. Four upbeat songs later, we get the second breather of the album, “Work It Out.” This is the second song on the album which blatantly deals with issues within a romantic relationship. Yet on this one, English seeks to resolve these problems. It comes in at a slow tempo that I found perfect for hugging someone you like a lot. The hook is also a total earworm. Beautifully simple and fun to sing, she repeats it six times in the song and you’re still left wanting more. It’s a great song to close on, so she does just that.
Wake UP! pairs well with activities such as getting ready to go out, having a pool party or walking your dog. It’s feel-good music, and English accomplishes this elegantly. As long as she provides that, I’m happy to sing along while she muses on about half-baked ideas that might require an entire album to be fully fleshed out. Perhaps she’s preparing for that. –Arcadio Rodriguez