Marina and The Diamonds, “Froot”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #95 – released March 13, 2015)

Track listing: Happy / Froot / I’m A Ruin / Blue / Forget / Gold / Can’t Pin Me Down / Solitaire / Better Than That / Weeds / Savages / Immortal

If you’ve ever mixed up Marina And The Diamonds with Florence + The Machine, rest assured, you’re not alone: both of these similarly named acts hail from the UK, adhere to a prodigious tradition of alternative-friendly female eccentrics and put out debut albums less than a year apart from each other. At first glance, the most notable difference between the two is that London-based Florence Welch has an actual band she regularly performs and co-writes her material with, whereas Marina Diamandis, who is Welsh and of Greek descent, is more a solo artist, “The Diamonds” a cheeky pseudonym for whatever musicians she happens to be working with at the time—so much so that, in December 2018, she shortened her professional name to just Marina.

On those first albums, one can pinpoint another major distinction: if Welch arrived fully-formed as an artist with a clear sound and vision, Marina, while making a striking first impression, seemed somewhat scattered in comparison. Both her debut The Family Jewels (2010) and its follow-up, Electra Heart (2012) are all over the place tonally and sonically, trying out many styles to varying degrees of success. With her distinct vocals, lower and less agile than Welch’s, she alternately emulates Regina Spektor’s twee quirk-pop (“Are You Satisfied?”), occasionally comes off as Katy Perry’s weird cousin (“Bubblegum Bitch”), and takes a crack at both Fiona Apple-style musical theatre confessional (“Obsessions”) and Michelle Branch-like power pop (“Hypocrates”). Song titles such as “Hermit The Frog”, “Shampain” and “How To Be A Heartbreaker” only further muddy her putative persona; thus, it’s no surprise Lungs broke Welch in the US (albeit more than a year after its release) while these two records left Marina in the margins here.

Fortunately, her third album Froot proved a commercial breakthrough (debuting at number 8 on the Billboard 200) and an artistic one, too (with Marina writing all the songs by herself.) Taking a step back from Electra Heart’s up-to-the-minute big-beat production, it still utilizes a modern, heavily electronic tableau but it sounds more nuanced–timeless, even. Opener “Happy” right away introduces a more mature Marina: the first minute’s just her singing a slow, simple melody over a lone piano. As the song continues, the arrangement gradually blossoms, adding on a layer of backing vocals and percussion. “I’ve found what I was looking for in myself,” she sings in the chorus, and it feels as if any initial tentativeness is melting away bit by bit. Her confidence shines ever brighter with each line to the point where “Happy” feels like a statement of purpose, a declaration of self.

But it is just an introduction. While Froot feels more uniform than its predecessors, it’s far from unvaried or stodgy. Following “Happy”, the title track is an effortlessly bubbly confection (with that whimsically misspelled title, how could it not be?) It cascades along a descendant melody spiced with “la, la, la’s” and a bevy of nature/food/sex metaphors (“Baby I am plump and ripe / I’m pinker than shepherd’s delight”), all sung playfully (stretching out the title to at least four syllables) like a PJ Harvey gone Top 40. “Froot” is divine nonsense pop at the level of up-tempo ABBA, only earthier and more knowing.

From there, Froot unspools one gem after another, beginning with one of its highlights, “I’m A Ruin”. An airy mid-tempo number with guitars and synths stretched across a wide canvas, it starts off softly but dramatically: both wonder and despair permeate the verses before the call-and-answer bridge leads into the triumphant chorus, where everything clicks into place as Marina sings the title repeatedly. However, the best part is series of swooping wordless vocals that follow and the effective pauses in between: “Yea-e-a-e-ah / uh-uh-huh / woo-hoo / yeah-aah!” she sings, not necessarily mimicking Kate Bush but undoubtedly recalling and nearly matching her great progenitor’s transcendent ebullience.

While careful listeners can still easily play spot-the-influence throughout Froot (“Savages” is not far off from “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”-era Eurythmics; “Better Than That” nails the coolly observed cattiness of early 90s duo Shakespeare’s Sister), it’s unique enough to feel less like a series of pastiches than an artist discovering her own true sound and genre. “Blue” is far more caffeinated than its title would suggest: weaving synths and Marina’s vocals into a shimmering whole (along with a bit of harp, further blurring distinctions between herself and Florence), it turns positively anthemic in its chorus while still carrying a slight, melancholic aftertaste. “Forget” slyly defies expectations with its power-pop flourishes, while “Gold” sounds simultaneously old (handclaps, Farfisa organ) and new (that weird, watery synth hook) as Marina dreamily trills self-referential lyrics like, “You can’t take away the Midas’ touch / So you better make way for a Greek gold rush.”

She blatantly acknowledges/promotes this individuality in “Can’t Pin Me Down”, honing it to a fine, barbed point: “You might think I am one thing, but I am another / You can’t call my bluff, time to back off, motherfucker,” she proclaims; luckily, she has a defiant wit (rhyming “feminist anthem” with “cooking dinner in the kitchen for my husband”), not to mention a catchy-as-fuck chorus to back her up. Both attributes carry over to “Savages”, whose nervy, driving synth-pop perfectly buttresses such observations as “I’m not afraid of God / I am afraid of Man,” and “Are you killing for yourself, or killing for your savior?” Also note how she incorporates and rhymes the title (“Underneath it all, we’re just savages / Hidden behind shirts, ties and marriages”) or the irresistible robotic staccato she deploys for such lyrics as, “You can see it on the NEWWWS / you can watch it on tee-VEEE.”

Froot’s second half has its share of gorgeous, contemplative ballads like “Solitaire”, which allows for some much needed space (usually, the vocals and melodies carry the entire song) and “Weeds”, which blends a sense of momentum in its robust, major-key choruses with instances of breathtaking etherealness (the “bay-be-eee” that follows them.) Closer “Immortal” serves as a near-matching bookend to opener “Happy”: much fuller in sound, but just as delicate and searching, concluding, “I’m forever chasing after time, but everybody dies.” Like all good albums, it completes a thematic and emotional journey of sorts, considering ideas and notions expressed and left behind while looking towards what’s to come.

Although none of Froot’s singles were hits in any traditional sense, it achieved the seemingly impossible task of solidifying a path for an artist often prone to wandering and experimentation. At this writing, we are a little over a month away from its long-awaited follow-up, a sixteen track double LP called Love + Fear. First singles “Superstar” and especially “Handmade Heaven” could easily slot into Froot, but Marina herself has noted listeners might be surprised when they hear the album in full; given her track record, I don’t doubt her.

Up next: A return, a revelation.

“I’m A Ruin”:

“Froot”:

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2. Marina and The Diamonds, “Froot”

marina-diamonds-froot-cover

One of my favorite things about being a music obsessive is occasionally stumbling upon either a great album that I had no expectations for or something initially unassuming that only reveals its greatness over time. I first came to this Welsh artist via my friend Howard, who posted about her third album early on (it’s his #1 of this year); I was familiar with the name but not the music. My initial impression was that of an agreeable listen and nothing much more. Still, the bubbly title track soon became an irresistible earworm and before long, “I’m A Ruin”, with its dynamic shift from verse to chorus and rather Kate Bush-like wordless vocals on the latter part broke me down. The rest of Froot gradually fell into place, beginning with its stripped-down opener, “Happy”, where Marina Diamandis lovingly sings, “I found what I’d been looking for in myself,” with the force of a sheet of ice rapidly melting, revealing a warmth so open and powerful that it hurts. Checking out her previous records, I was startled to discover how much of a departure this one is from them. Eschewing up-to-the-minute (over)production for a more nuanced, timeless sound, Froot continues to resonate more with each passing month: it’s now almost my favorite album of the year.

Favorite tracks: “Happy”, “Froot”, “I’m A Ruin”, “Blue”, “Savages”

“I’m A Ruin”:

 

“Savages”: