3 Feb 2023
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Alisa Xayalith - EP Review: Superpowers

08 Dec 2022 // A review by Nicholas Clark

Alisa Xayalith is one half of New Zealand’s most successful synth-pop acts of the 2010’s; The Naked and Famous. With Thom Powers, they dominated the early part of the decade with wonderfully produced, catchy and clever pop songs you could dance in a club or a bedroom to. Now, Alisa has released her first 5 song EP, Superpowers and it is through this lens of her former band most people will receive and process this new body of work.

It is a collection of highly personal songs, achingly beautiful throughout, produced to a shiny pop polish that catches the light as it sparkles. What comes to mind are acts like Hazel English, Mallrat, Beauty Queen, Bleach Lab and occasionally The 1975. If you like those acts you’ll dig this. Actually, if you like music that sounds good, (I apologize for being so simplistic here, but it is the truth) you’re going to love it. Raw it is not, but real and rich it is. Here we go.

High Fidelity starts the EP off with some nice soft synths, then a beautiful and bouncy bass comes in at same time as Alisa’s breathy, sweet voice. Already you can tell the EP is amazingly produced and the mix is absolutely in equilibrium. Vocal echoes overlap and trip over one other when the band pauses for a moment, making you realize how many subtle effects are at play. Her high voice allows the bass to push forward and propel the song. An overly processed and distorted guitar hangs on to some notes, making a haunting sound and reminding me of some of the more experimental sounds from the Naked and Famous. The lyrics are easy to hear, but the vocals are not pushed forward too much in the mix.

Alisa sings: “I keep hanging on, like a love song... I wanna cover my eyes lay down in your high fidelity” with the word 'high' being especially, well, high. The track is pure pop dreaminess and it ends ironically with “something in the way you leave me always wanting more”.. I’m disappointed it ended too soon! The song left me wanting more. Just as well it is the first track.

Next up, I’ll Be There begins with a cool, quirky generation loss guitar pedal effect. The heavily, warbly sound is at odds with the sweet, layered vocals that follow, reminiscent of a Pet Sounds era Beach Boys forgotten tune.

“We don’t have to talk, if you don’t want to talk, I know you had a bad day, left you in the worst way...when it all goes wrong, I’ll be there,” she sings in perfectly layered vocals. There is an intimacy to the lyrics that brings the mundane and personal to light for inspection, and perhaps celebration. The whole song pauses just for a second of absolute silence;  it's a nice and unexpected touch. Before the end of the song, it all breaks down to a beautiful choir break when words fail to express the sincerity expressed in the song. It’s about love, but more than that, it is a song of trust and commitment.

The first single Devil I Know is a little different. The vibe here is slightly more accusational, less accommodating. To begin with, I was unsure of whether the lyrics were dedicated to herself or an ex-partner, but by the pre-chorus I was sure who the words were directed at: "I think I'm better alone, now with the devil I know”.

There is an interesting soundscape here to appreciate, including a sliding guitar solo. Like the other tracks, the songs end just before you want them to. This particular track ends so suddenly the listener is shocked a little. And perhaps that is the point – you can’t overstay your welcome if you leave while still wanted.

Title track Superpowers starts with a throaty, acoustic guitar strummed gently. This seems more intimate, less synthy. Obviously, one of Alisa Xayalith’s superpowers is stacking up layers of her vocal tracks, put to good use on the preceding tracks. Here, the vocals are less layered as is the instrumentation. There are subtle sound effects added, but the whole song nearly sounds like it could be an Americana influenced country song (at times) with an ambient slide guitar playfully inhabiting the higher frequencies.

There are places that I go when I’m alone, roller-coaster highs and terrifyingly lows, with the familiar sound of my heart beating so loud,” she admits on this track. Here the topic is one of admission to fear and being unsure of one-self, despite the track also being about ‘superpowers’ she possesses. The song picks up some energy, until a funky drum sample is added that pushes the track into the ending where she finally discovers that: I think I’ve found my superpowers, don't listen to the voices in my mind, I’m holding it together, holding together.” Again, there is a sudden unexpected end.

Too Late is another guitar ballad with a stunning vocal performance.

Ain’t it strange how you left me alone in a place where the light never dies even after you’ve gone” she coos. It's a little dis-concerting hearing and processing that line...

The song has loads of guitar tracks, but none of them are played how you might think. There's more slide guitar, reverb-laden ambient guitar and some more heavily processed generation loss guitar falling apart into digital glitch in the background.

Then, one of the coolest moments on the EP, “...and I swear I tried,” is suddenly whispered with a single vocal take with everything else removed, creating the effect of her singing (or speaking) into your ear. It's unexpected, intimate and really attention grabbing through subtraction of sounds.

The track fades out with a haunting guitar line sliding up into infinity.

There are recurring themes of doubt, discovery, believing in oneself, liberation and empowerment. Ghosts are mentioned a lot – I wonder if she is processing the past, perhaps a failed relationship or a friendship that has soured.

It's sort of sad, but it's also uplifting, beautiful and unexpectedly intimate like a film that a film student might suggest to their flat mates. It’s what good music should be.

Rating: ( 5 / 5 )
 

About Alisa Xayalith

Award-winning singer/songwriter, Alisa Xayalith is an open book who creates well-produced cinematic, indie-electro-pop with beautiful vulnerability.


Photo Credit: Sarah Eiseman

Visit the muzic.net.nz Profile for Alisa Xayalith

Releases

Superpowers
Year: 2022
Type: EP

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