Strange Fire Records / 2015
For anyone paying attention, it's always been apparent that Audrey Assad has something of a pop star inside of her. Her first two singer-songwriter albums for Sparrow Records (before she ejected mid-flight from the major-label imprint and founded an indie label with her husband in 2013) were peppered with pleasant, crowd-pleasing hooks that pointed to an affection for the sounds of popular music. They disappeared from Assad's subsequent Kickstarted albums, though, which each refined a refreshingly contemplative "church music" aesthetic. But her pop inclinations never went away, and with the release of Strange Fire, the debut EP from LEVV, a collaboration with LA producer Seth Jones, we hear the singer finally make a foray into that arena.
With LEVV (which takes its name from Konstantin Levin's starlight conversion at the end of Anna Karenina), Assad and Jones are stepping into 2015's seething ocean of synth pop, and for the most part they distinguish themselves with aplomb. Assad's gossamer voice hovers perfectly in the new sonic environment, and Jones' lush electronics echo Grimes and Purity Ring, though they're seasoned with flecks of conventional rock instrumentation.
Opener "Darkness" finds Assad with the metaphysical rug pulled out from under her, reflecting, "I never knew how much you meant to me/You were the ground I stood on". The song's tinkling piano is interrupted by the drop of a roaring buzz-saw synth as she longs for light in the inky blackness caused by a misbegotten war against "what I thought you were." The next song, "Heartbreaker", is an anthemic highlight where Assad celebrates the shattering power of divine love, even as it leaves her momentarily desolated: "I never felt less broken than when you left me there." There's a high-powered punch to the pistoning basslines, and a shameless '80s guitar solo is the cherry on top of the maximalist pop pearl. Those '80s touches aren't anomalies - "I Feel Good" has a piano solo that echoes Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is", and the track is also one of the few places on the album the singer plays with vocal effects, chopping her voice into percussive tracers.
"Arrow" is Strange Fire's resounding highlight, a foretaste of what LEVV is really capable of both lyrically and musically. Here, Assad casts herself as quarry in a forest, running for her life because she's literally being hunted by God Almighty. He's inescapable, of course, and when the titular arrow pierces her heart, she finds she doesn't "mind it at all". It's the only track on the EP that completely eschews the verse-chorus-verse-chorus schematic, with the initial ambient, bubbling keyboards giving way to a spaced-out bridge and then a cataract of swooping drone that backgrounds a volley of huge, room-filling drums.
The record's final track, "Learning to Let Go", despite being wrapped in beautifully pillowy synths, never finds emotional purchase thanks to nebulous lyrics on one hand but especially because of Assad's predictable delivery. It's actually the primary weakness of Strange Fire as a whole - while she's knocked it out of the park with her breathy, minor-key affect on albums like Fortunate Fall, LEVV calls for a different, more experimental tack, and Assad is still relying on her old tricks. Most of the vocals on Strange Fire could be ripped and repurposed for a more conventional "church music" record and no one would be the wiser. Though she's releasing a more traditional solo album of hymns next year, LEVV seems to be much more than a one-off, and that is extremely exciting. We can only hope that as LEVV continue to push themselves in the future, we can hear Assad more fully assume that pop star mantle.