Marla Mase - Half-Life
Release Date: February 25, 2014
Record Label: True Groove
Last fall, when I reviewed Marla Mase’s Speak Deluxe for AbsolutePunk, I must confess that I wasn’t a big fan of the activist singer/songwriter’s sound. On Speak, Mase – who lands somewhere between Patti Smith and Garbage on the music landscape – wrote music that was just a bit too out there for me, personally. Part of the issue was the structure of the album of itself, which was less an actual LP and more of a soundtrack for a stage show of the same name. Removed from their theatrical roots, the songs on Speak often came across as formless, trippy, and strange. Another problem – also due to the stage show origins of Speak – was that the album simply went on for way too long. Several of the songs showed a lot of promise and were enjoyable as standalones, but as a whole, the record was frankly a chore to get through.
On Half-Life, the follow-up to Speak, Mase corrects most of the problems that made her previous musical endeavor such a mixed bag. Here, the songwriter embraces concision and largely goes for more upbeat grooves that allow her charismatic frontwoman chops to show. The 15-track excess of Speak is trimmed to nine tracks, three of which are under three minutes in length. The shorter runtime makes Half-Life a much more manageable and immediate musical enterprise, which allows the best songs – the dynamic opener “Drown in Blue,” for instance – to thrive better than they would have on the last record.
The other big improvement this time around comes in the musical department, where members of Mase’s True Groove soul up the ante with explosive instrumental arrangements that stand as the album’s biggest accomplishments. Guitar duty is shared throughout the record by producers Tomás Doncker and James Dellatacoma, both of whom provide absolute MVP work on nearly ever song. Case in point, once more, is “Drown in Blue,” which bursts with dirty guitar and a propulsive drum beat. On a reprise later in the album, the guitars are unplugged and the song is repurposed as an acoustic jazz club strummer, which frankly might work even better. Gaping Hole” is another highlight, built upon a southern rock guitar riff and a few splashes of color provided by a backing vocal choir. Even honky tonk harmonica joins the mix on the spunky “Bitch in Heat,” which works well enough on record, but which sounds like it would have much more impact in a live setting.
Unfortunately, as was the case on Speak, the “these songs would be better live” thought is very much alive on Half-Life. For all of Doncker and Dellatacoma’s attempts to turn this album into a true studio marvel, the biggest issue with Half-Life is that Mase doesn’t usually sound like she belongs on the same record as their vibrant, incendiary guitar solos. Quite simply, this is a singer/songwriter who just doesn’t have the greatest recording voice. On spoken word sections – which are employed on numerous occasions throughout the album – Mase sounds positively alive and exuberant, an infectious feeling that makes those sections enjoyable even if they are a bit idiosyncratic (see the sing-shouting excitement of “Things That Scare Me”).
When Mase starts singing, however, all of her charisma and all of what makes her interesting fades away. I don’t know if it’s just how her voice is produced in the context of the instrumental arrangements or if her focus on hitting the right notes results in drawbacks elsewhere, but the fact is that Mase’s more traditional sung sections are largely a snooze. Take the whispered album closer, “Hold Fast Your Dreams,” where Mase jumps from one note to another in a disconnected fashion that sounds more mathematical than passionate. Especially on ballads like this, Mase’s voice sounds thin and unremarkable, an alto instrument that would work well enough in an ensemble, but which can't really hold attention on its own. And while an artist doesn’t have to hack knock-out pipes to deliver a knock-out album, a few of the songs on Half-Life simply have an air of trying to hard instead of going with the flow and passion of the song. On upbeat numbers, Mase doesn’t have a problem; on downbeat songs, her weaknesses as a vocalist are on full display, a fact that makes Half-Life an album that, while still an improvement over Speak, probably doesn’t fully display the reach of this woman’s talents.