ALBUM REVIEW: Penfriend - Exotic Monsters

8/10

Penfriend

Proudly released independently and with a good chance of breaking into the UK Top 40 comes the hugely enjoyable debut album from Penfriend. The latest alias of Bristol-based multi-instrumentalist Laura Kidd is something of a reinvention and continued evolution of the artist formerly known as She Makes War.

Across four fine and consistently strong albums made during Kidd's previous incarnation, there was a great deal of confessional realism, powerful yet effortless, candidly open songwriting, balancing the very deep with colourful sonic touches of brightness, calm and energy. Always staying true, the move to a new moniker signals a new chapter for a songwriter who has gradually evolved as a person and as a creator to the point where a definitive marker for change and evolution became the natural thing to do.

At a time of social disconnection, the name Penfriend harks back to simpler times when relationships weren't as warped by the modern world. Written and recorded largely before the lockdowns of 2020, with a couple of songs emerging post-Covid, the debut Penfriend album and fifth overall from Kidd is probably one of the best things anybody could hold up when asked, "what did you do with yourself during the pandemic?". Time well spent is undoubtedly becoming a cliché when talking about lockdown albums. Yet, ultimately this is true on several levels when lyrically, these songs make for such great encapsulations of this confusing era in human history, as well as some being weirdly prophetic considering half the record was recorded pre-Covid.

It would be a disservice to the fine string of She Makes War albums to describe Kidd's transformation into Penfriend as like a caterpillar becoming a full-fledged butterfly. It's more like that of a tree shedding old leaves to grow new ones that are more vivid in colour, bigger in size and grown from a set of newly developed branches that formed during the previous seasons. The tree has also stood through stormy weather and continued to grow taller.

Eventually, it's hope, and self strength that wins over by the end of the LP, but alienation and seeking a way out is also a theme that threads through 'Exotic Monsters'. Framed by the buzz and hum of angular synth-pop, the title track opens the record, expressive vocals projecting the anxieties of modern-day life and the negative effects of social media, consumerism and the need for approval. Forgetting priorities and how to live intolerance healthily, and the many other uncertainties spring to mind when addressed in such an insightful way. Ultimately, human emotions and instincts are not suited to the nature of the digital world, and this is something often revisited over the course of this album.

Lockdown has given much time to dig through the past and confront things that couldn't be dealt with fully until life was put on pause. Lyrically, several songs here seem like they could be a creative outlet for a clearout. Heaving with prime alt-rock riffage and the squeal of harmonious, exciting guitars, 'Seventeen' is something of a reflection and a moment of closure on the complications of being a teenager during difficult times and how life often doesn't hold the answers until years later. The slightly Beatles-like psychedelic piano outro is a totally unexpected treat. Wrapped up in a knockout chorus, it delivers just the punch the LP needed within the early stages, before the elegantly moody, steady-paced 'Hell Together' deals with dark days of the more recent past as well as evoking troubled states of mind with shifting time signatures developing into an ominously brisk climax.

Sparse and eerie electro with more than a hint of Vince Clarke about it, the superb 'I Used To Know Everything' has a chorus which surprises with its stabs of grungy guitar. At the same time, the dreamlike 'Dispensible Body' radiates upwards beautifully, in a manner that gives the song and surrounding album plenty of room to breathe. Brought to life with a balance of soft electronics and refreshing, palette-cleansing organic sounds, 'Seashaken' is another gentle delight that yearns for escape from the madness and despair of the 21st century, providing a wondrous centrepiece. Again, lyrics far beyond surface-level stuff are a distinguishing feature in Penfriend songs.

Off-kilter keys fall in all the right places across a backdrop of irresistible beats and the record's finest chorus during the excellent 'Loving Echoes', while the defiant surge of 'I'll Start A Fire' steers the album's second half slightly closer to the vibrant alt-rock of previous days, proving that those Nirvana and Pixies influences from the She Makes War years will never quite disappear altogether from Kidd's musical range. 'Cancel Your Hopes' is very much a fitting soundtrack to the chaos and devastation of recent times and certainly a terrific racket that conjures up the image of desperately trying to grip onto a world that is spinning wildly out of control. While punky guitar hooks thrash out an intense dissonance, it's not just the keys but the very necessary touch of swearing that provides its most essential and defining features.

Following the ghostly late-era Blur atmospherics of 'Long Shadows' and the heavenly chorus of voices on the gorgeous 'Out Of The Blue', the closing 'Black Car' takes a good hard look at finding the strength to deal with isolation, the knock-on effects, the resulting feelings, as well as how others are treating the larger scale situation. Putting into words feelings, so many of us have had during this time, and perhaps during other periods, it captures the mood of regret and dreams of hopeful escape. Gentle chimes of guitar gradually build beautifully decayed notes, as mournful tones build into something oddly uplifting that finds resolution. It's a perfect closer with a highly accomplished sound that acts as a way to underline the qualities of this LP and wrap its approach up in a nutshell.

The melodies flow prominently, and the lyrics often catch the ear and the mind, but it's the production and the atmospheric use of the instrumentation that proves to be the most striking development. As before, pushing and taking on new challenges sees successful steps out of any comfort zones for Kidd. Dabbling in electronics was done well as She Makes War, but the alt-synthpop of Penfriend serves as a more fully realised entity.

There's a lot less anger too, and a great deal more wisdom in its place, as well as a larger sense of mindfulness when tackling the pitfalls of life. Maturity it isn't; that would be boring. This is still very much music with an edge, a fire in its belly and a boundless vitality shaped by Kidd's inspired way of looking at the world and transforming feelings and experiences into fantastic songs. With a broader range of sounds and life lessons to draw from, every album seems to be a step up, with the debut of the Penfriend alias marking the broadest step yet.

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