Graded on a Curve:
Hazel English,
Wake UP!

Hazel English is an Australian American singer-songwriter currently residing in Los Angeles, but with a long stretch spent last decade in California’s Bay Area, where she moved from Melbourne in 2013. English has a couple prior EPs that’ve been combined into a longer showcase of her talents, but it’s the brand-new Wake UP! that’s designated as her debut full-length. Smoother and bolder than the indie pop that comprises her earlier work, a byproduct of working with producer Justin Raisen, the tidy 10-song set maintains stylistic continuity with what came before as it serves as a proper introduction for a widening listenership. It’s out April 24 on wax, CD, and digital through the Polyvinyl label.

Hazel English’s “Never Going Home” EP emerged in 2016, released then on vinyl, in fact. The “Just Give In” EP followed the next year, but its wax edition found it combined with the prior EP in a double 12-inch situation by Polyvinyl in the States (the labels Marathon Artists and House Anxiety took care of Europe), with the separation into equally weighted doses, five songs apiece, encouraging the perception of incremental progress within a relatively tight timeframe.

However, when the sets were combined on compact disc and digitally (with a bonus digital-only track missing on the CD but included with the vinyl’s MP3 download) they flowed sweetly enough that its likely a certain percentage of those listening considered the contents as one whole thing, and indeed maybe as her first album.

This is to English’s credit, as is the step forward that’s offered with Wake UP! Part of the progression is rather simple; the new record connects like she’s fronting a band rather than helming a project, which isn’t a knock on the EPs but just an observation of how English’s sound has bloomed. The growth is also beneficial to opener “Born Like” as it alternates a decidedly neo-’60s pop foundation (heard through the dexterous flair of the rhythm section, in particular) with big dream-pop bursts in the choruses.

It’s a solid beginning, but English doesn’t idle in one place, as “Shaking” retains those dream-pop qualities (smartly, as she has the voice for it) but applies them to an up-tempo guitar strummer that can be pegged as post-Velvets, though it also reminded me a bit of The Primitives or maybe even Transvision Vamp.

And so, a ’60s-’80s split of sorts, with English’s voicings strong throughout, showing off her potential as a belter even, though the mode here is better tagged as post-Deborah Harry-esque sass. And there are a few sly instrumental touches in “Shaking,” ss well, such as the guitar line at the start and the rhythmic clang at the end.

The title track keeps up the pace but scales back the dreamy aura somewhat in favor of an indie-pop chug that shows off English’s guitar playing (complete with late-song solo) as much as her singing. I like that. And I like the slowed pace and the neo-’60s reemphasis in “Off My Mind,” though in her favor she resists going full retro.

To the contrary, Wake UP! is an unmistakably contemporary record, and nowhere more clearly than during the lush pop atmosphere of “Combat.” Riding a slower tempo and really showcasing English’s abilities as a vocalist in tune with current (or at least fairly recent) pop sensibilities, it’s…not exactly my favorite tune on the record.

Frankly, too much of this sorta thing could’ve done Wake UP! some damage, but in a small dose it goes down okay and sets the table for the deftly executed, ’60s-tinged tempo shifts of “Five and Dime,” where a little pedal steel gets sneaked in without disrupting the proceedings. English’s vocal is bold in this track, appropriate for the pop paradigm, though the guitar still registers, and that’s nice.

With “Like a Drug,” the LP hits the home stretch en route to a strong finish. On first listen, English’s singing was reminiscent of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on that was revealed with sharp clarity in the following cut. It’s that her voice is reminiscent of Camera Obscura’s Tracyanne Campbell, a similarity that shines brightest in “Waiting” as English goes all-in with a sophisto indie-pop mystique.

Along with those who miss Camera Obscura, it should please fans of Belle & Sebastian, which is no shocker, I guess, but it’s notable how English keeps this favorable comparison relevant across the album’s most rocking track, the penultimate “Milk and Honey.” Closer “Work It Out” slowly rises up with hovering keyboard that suggests something in the mode of You La Tengo circa Painful, but then English’s voice enters and impressively changes the direction.

But it’s not an especially unexpected move, as the course she takes is a pop one, carrying forth the primary aspects of her sound—the dream-pop, the neo-’60s-isms, the indie-pop, into a strong concluding statement with just the right amount of melancholy. I’d say those Belle & Sebastian fans should be pleased.

Altogether, Wake UP! is a promising first album for Hazel English, with the songwriting deep enough overall that she will hopefully continue honing and building upon this productive mode rather than diverting from it in search of the dreaded “new direction.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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