Album Review: Kristin Kontrol – X-Communicate

X-Communicate

These days, it’s a lot easier to sell headlines than it is to sell records. If you write a great pop song, your best bets to sell are either to stack it so chock full of name-drops that you hardly see your own, or to dial the clickbait schtick meter up as high as it will go. But when presented with those two options, where is there room for honesty? Where is there room in the character-driven world of modern pop for the vulnerable, relatable radio songs that have survived the test of time for decades? In the stunning light of such a backdrop, Kristin Welchez, the actress, is retiring. Done playing by a script, she now enters the next chapter of her career, here embodying the most complex and rewarding character she has given us yet: herself. She brings along two producers, both close friends and established collaborators, and she gives us Kristin Kontrol, a shimmering new pop star you can fall in love with, not for her schtick or her projected identity, but for exactly who she is. X-Communicate is her introduction, and it’s the kind of first impression that puts others to shame. Kristin gives us one of 2016’s best pop records with no clickbait, no features, and no nonsense. It’s going to be a hard one to beat.

Contrary to pretty much all of her contemporaries, Kristin Welchez has yet to have a character flop. We loved her down and dirty drum and vocal spit of Kristin Gundred in San Diego rock band Grand Ole Party. Even more, we loved her transformation into the sunglassed indie rock siren Dee Dee, who led the Dum Dum Girls through seven amazing years of dreamy, melancholy magic. Along the way, we got a couple hints of what was going on outside Dum Dum world. Welchez gave us her take on married life with Haunted Horses, an excellent collection of sensual shoegaze alongside Crocodiles frontman and husband Brandon Welchez. Dee Dee hopped to a very different segment of in the indie sphere when she showed up on “Play For Today” off of the latest Belle & Sebastian. And finally, eight months ahead of the Kristin Kontrol reveal, we got to see a completely different side of her with her song with X-Communicate producer Andrew Miller as HUNI, “Is There Any Other One?“, which put Kristin over a sultry collection of R&B textures, altogether unlike anything we’d heard from her prior. Truly, traveling from “Look Out Young Son” to “Lord Knows” to “Is There Any One?”, we have quite the gauntlet of work to tackle. But characters can be suffocating. Take Carlos Dengler, for example, who realized that Interpol’s stunning bassist Carlos D had taken on a life unto himself that wasn’t Dengler at all. But thankfully, Kristin’s self-excommunication from the character world won’t result in exile. Rather, it will embody her most honest and vulnerable expression yet.

For long-time Dum Dum Girls listeners, one facet of X-Communicate may surprise you more than any other: this is truly and entirely a debut album. Even with Dee Dee moving into ever-expanding and blooming territory with the last Dum Dum Girls record Too True, X-Communicate is not a rebrand of an existing product. Rather, it is an entirely new beast, and (rightfully so) Kristin treats it as such. X-Communicate has all the ingredients of every great debut record.

First, there are the influences – the cloud of witnesses from which Kristin calls down her power. She lists at least two of them off on “Skin Shed”, a tribute to the great sirens of the radio. Stevie is the stylistic influence, showing up the most on “What Is Love”, a ballad so timeless you’ll almost scratch your head and check Bella Donna to see if its a cover. “It’s just a balance of holding on and letting go”, Kristin sings – such is the love we give ourselves. This love was so often denied by the melancholy stalwart who was Dee Dee – perhaps Kristin Kontrol is a bit more willing. Nina Simone, she is the spirit, giving solidarity to “Face 2 Face” and demanding a similar vulnerability of others on “Show Me”. Where Kristin repeatedly embodies her true ego, she asks the same honest of others. And as the title track would infer, should that honesty not be present, perhaps it should be banished.

Second, Kristin shows off a unique persona with a unique sound. Sure, the adoration of 70s, 80s, and even 90s pop does bleed through X-Communicate throughout, but with the help of producers Andrew Miller and Kurt Feldman, Kristin successfully de-identifies from the source material and gives everything a really timeless feel. What’s even more refreshing about the sound of X-Communicate is that nothing here sounds like anything we’ve heard from Welchez, Feldman, or Miller. Feldman’s neon-drenched faux-80s work as Ice Choir sounds nothing like the 80s he helps Welchez present on “X-Communicate” and “(Don’t) Wannabe” (probably has something to do with the lack of fretless bass). Similarly, Andrew Miller’s work as HUNI and as UUV is a much more subverted electronic effort. Kristin helps him show his feathers a bit more with the colorful dance magic of “Skin Shed” and “Face 2 Face”. Kristin’s choice of collaborators feels intentional and intimate. This is unquestionably the sonic identity she wanted to put forward. You can hear it in every second of the recording.

Finally, the best aspect of Kristin Kontrol’s debut is that its a persona you want more from. X-Communicate flies by, and by the end of it, you are begging for another episode. Truly, this is due to Kristin’s incredible knack for songwriting, but it’s also because X-Communicate has almost a singular goal. She tells it the best on “Face 2 Face”. “I’m tired of hiding”, she says, not exasperated, but inspired, “Don’t waste another day”. One post-Internet facet playing heavily into Kristin’s hand is that of immediacy. In this light, her decision to abandon Dee Dee for herself doesn’t feel half-baked. Rather, she embraces the spontaneity and the freedom of it, the freedom to roam and to exist outside a perpetual dark cloud. “My unhappiness offends me” she sings on “(Don’t) Wannabe”, “your unhappiness offends me too”. What good is discontent if its more brand than conviction? What good is a membership in the “Lost Girls & Boys Club” if you never try to find yourself? X-Communicate spends its duration making this reintroduction very clear. This is not a side project. This is not a litmus test. This is Kristin Welchez and her next gift to you. Take it and show her what you’re made of.

X-Communicate is out now on Sub Pop Records! Grab it at your local record store on CD or vinyl. Kristin plays her first few dates with the new material mid-June, then hits the road with Garbage starting in July! No Northwest dates are listed yet, but check back to her Facebook for emerging dates.

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