After Girl Ray finished touring behind their debut album, Earl Grey, the trio's leader Poppy Hankin tried crafting more lovely, sometimes haunting indie folk ballads that were like Sandy Denny fronting a classic Sarah Records band. It didn't come together; instead, after ingesting a steady diet of Ariana Grande and other R&B-friendly pop singers, she put down the guitar and got behind a keyboard and a computer screen. She and the rest of the trio got to work making music that paired their bewitching vocal harmonies with slick, slightly homemade-sounding pop for their sophomore album, Girl. Fans of Earl Grey are likely to be totally put off by this stylistic shift, and it's hard to blame them. By shifting to a smoothed-out, radio-friendly approach, they sacrifice the homey idiosyncratic warmth of their debut for something cooler, more measured, and most importantly, less original. On the other hand, it's easy to understand why the trio attempted such a radical change. Their musical interests had shifted dramatically, and sticking with indie pop wasn't an option. Did they do a good job of making a modern pop record Girl Ray-style? The answer is complicated. Hankin hasn't lost her gift for coming up with melancholy melodies that cut deep, there are some fine ballads (especially the album-ending "Like the Stars"), and quite a few of the songs seamlessly integrate their magical vocal harmonies with good tunes and fun instrumentation. Some, like the smoothly flowing "Just Down the Hall" or the twitchy electro jam "Because," almost rise to the level of their inspirations.
The problem with Girl is the trio's general lack of a unique musical identity. Artists like Ariana or Christine push boundaries by mashing up eras and sounds in striking new ways. With its reliance on out-of-the box synth sounds and timid beats, Girl comes across as overly polite; it feels like they're playacting instead of fully committing. The genre hopping -- from uptight '90s R&B ("Keep It Tight") to overcooked reggae ("Beautiful") to vacuous hip-hop ("Takes Time") -- doesn't help in that regard. The lack of lyrical focus is also problematic. Thanks to the cuttingly honest words and the deeply felt beauty of Hankin's voice, Earl Grey connected on an emotional level; in comparison, Girl sounds surfacy and occasionally cringingly bad. The best pop music, whether it's by Robyn or Carly Rae Jepsen, doesn't deal in clichés or skate over real feelings -- it digs in and delivers something meaningful. It almost feels like Hankin decided that she couldn't be as honest and true as she was in the past if the band was going to go "Pop." It doesn't work like that, and ultimately, Girl doesn't work either. There are quite a few moments where they come close to a meaningful hybrid of their past and present, some that are truly wonderful. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of these, and it's just as easy to remember Girl's misfires, questionable choices, and half-baked lyrics as its successes.