By: Tommy “T-Rod” Rodriguez
New York songstress Alexa Ray is bridging the gap.
What do I mean by this? Simply put, Ray has her feet planted between both worlds of pop music: the world of yesteryear, an era dominated by maximalist sounds and volume, and the pop world of today, dominated by introspection and vulnerability. Her vocals hit harder than a freight train, but her writing has enough emotion to strike a chord with the heart, the best of both worlds when it comes to quality pop tunes. If you love music that speaks to both the ear and the heart, Ray’s newest release, Fearless, may just satisfy your needs.
One of the most unique aspects of Fearless is its use of progression. Each of the album’s eight songs is always changing in volume to build tension, crashing against the speakers like a tsunami when that same tension is released. The opening notes of its introduction, “Begin Again” are tense: icy keys, splashes of reverb, and haunting tones linger on the background. Then, Ray’s beautiful vocals ring amidst the hollow void: “I’m alive, I’m alive, but I’m barely breathing.” The passion is palpable, the emotion heavy, and the melody perfectly suited to a stark musical landscape…And then the drums kick in. Instantly, the cold mood of the song rises in temperature, becoming fiery in a matter of seconds as Ray pleads for a redo, anything to overcome the hardships of today and yesterday. In a year as turbulent as 2020, it’s hard not to agree with this sentiment; we could all use a redo. The song, beyond being an example of Fearless’s more complex structuring, is a great introduction to the inspiration Ray brings to the table, as well as her songwriting abilities, which are further explored on the shadowy electro-pop of “Fearless.” Her hook here is one of the best on the record, imploring the listener to be brave in the face of danger. Ray’s husky inflections sell the hook perfectly, gliding over the swift hi-hats with the grace of a ballet dancer.
One of the ways that Ray bridges the past and present of pop is through taking the influence of each era, and refining them with her own brand of passion. “Father Can You Hear Me” is one of the album’s most dark moments, with the plinking pianos and humming orchestration reminiscent of the emo that dominated the 2000’s. Rather than being surface level with her emotions, like many emo outfits of that era did, Ray showcases the depths of her mood with one of the best vocal performances on the album. “Breathe” is similar in its atmospheric use of pianos, but the use of tasteful vocal manipulation adds a twist of modern production into the mix that helps elevate the song to a new level of introspection. Every voice seems like one that Ray has in her own head, arguing with one another as she copes with the hardships she encounters. The engineering here is claustrophobic, making it difficult for not just the music to breathe, but for Ray herself to gasp for air. The sounds of this album are equally immense and quiet, thanks to Randall Jermaine. Having had worked on several compositions for television, movies, and trailers, Jermaine brought the perfect level of cinematic energy to help accentuate Ray’s songwriting and singing, particularly stealing the show on songs like “World in Colour,” where the steady electronics, orchestral mix of horns and strings, and crashing snares sound like both the end and birth of a new reality.
Ray’s been nothing if not consistent throughout Fearless, and that continues into its final moments as well. “On My Own” is the definition of poetic: Ray’s soaring vocals match with the rising strings to perfectly sell her rebirth as a new person. She seeks to move forward in life, pushing through the struggles she has encountered throughout the album; while one of the album’s flaws is the lack of specificity on what Ray goes through, I think that the use of a hopeful conviction still allows the conflict to be understandable. This song’s message, combined with her dazzling singing, allows the track to become one of my personal favorites on the album. The closer, “We Are Infinite,” is a fitting ending to the album’s progression. As time ticks on throughout the song, Ray comes to terms with the fact that she may have to face the “storm in the distance.” “We are infinite, we are limitless” she sings amidst pounding percussion, staring chaos down with a determined perspective. It’s a song to go to war to, a song that will soundtrack not just her fight, but all of our fights, our struggles to keep moving in a hazardous environment.
I think Fearless is a great album. While it may be a bit lacking in the specifics of what Alexa Ray struggles with, I think its grandiose presentation and wonderful performances make it an engaging and hard-hitting listen. It sure as hell inspired me to get ready for any challenges coming my way, and brings out the best of today’s pop songwriting and the past’s grand aesthetics. I think if you give it a spin, you’ll be inspired too!
Essential Tracks: “Begin Again,” “Fearless,” “Father Can You Hear Me,” “World in Colour,” “On My Own,” “We Are Infinite”
Special thanks to Alexa Ray, Gramophone Media, and all other parties involved for giving us a chance to preview this great record! Listen to Fearless below!
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