Graded on a Curve: Midnight Sister,
Painting the Roses

Midnight Sister is the duo of Los Angelinos Ari Balouzian and Juliana Giraffe, two interdisciplinary artists who are releasing their second full-length Painting the Roses January 15 on vinyl, CD, and digital via Jagjaguwar. Established as co-writers, the classically trained Balouzian brings his skills as arranger while Giraffe’s impact is felt through a voice that’s warm and rich. Breathy? Oh my. The songs are consistently vivid, frequently lush and reliably strange, as Midnight Sister maintain a pop sensibility throughout. Hovering between warmly retro and approachably surreal, there’s never a dull moment as the LP’s dozen tracks unwind.

The label bio relates that Midnight Sister’s halves have worked in “fashion, visual art, video and film scoring,” with Giraffe a filmmaker and Balouzian having arranged for musicians Tobias Jesso and Alex Izenberg. Their 2017 debut Saturn Over Sunset is described as her first time writing and performing music and his inaugural dive into dishing out “true pop music.”

True pop it is, but Painting the Roses is frequently as bent as a box of boomerangs, though with appreciable acumen on display, the record flows instead of just amassing a succession of shallow attempts at weirdness. This is apparent right off in opener “Doctor Says,” which blends the sophistication of strings and the measured emotiveness of Giraffe’s voice with cascades of pop-rock guitar.

As a beginning, it’s engaging enough, but the ’70s big-beat soulfulness of “Satellite” kicks the album into cruising gear, with bass large enough to bring the productions of Leon Michels to mind, plus a handful of diagonal violin lines and recurring surges of tweaked, occasionally backward, mellotron. Next, “Foxes” starts out as vividly baroque-poppy as prime ’70s ELO but then gets glitter-funk sassy and with hints of Beatles-esque psych-pomp (meaning we’re back in Jeff Lynne territory).

Disco and Bowie are cited as the musical diet of Giraffe as a youth, which was fully apparent on Saturn Over Sunset, but this record’s “Sirens” gets truly bodacious in this regard (the lyrics referencing the “midnight disco”), though it’s very much in the arty tradition of early ’80s post-No Wavy NYC disco. There’re also twists that recall Beck’s Midnite Vultures.

A smidge of dancefloor R&B gets retained in the strings of “Escalators,” but the track is predominantly a vehicle for Giraffe to indulge into some wispy baroque art-pop ’90s-style, like an album produced by Jon Brion, whose work is suggested by this and other tracks on Painting the Roses. But “Dearly Departed” hits more of an urbane ’70s pop mode; maybe it’s just the piano and the jazzy sax.

The song doesn’t skimp on the strangeness as it culminates with some raucous electric guitar. It’s “Tomorrowland” that throws a sweet wildcard, reminding me of ’70s Bryan Ferry swaddled in electric keyboard and canned strings for most of its duration. “My Elevator Song” returns to an atmosphere redolent of Brion, but with grand string sweep and wiggling horns that suggest a merger of Mancini’s scores for Orson Welles and Blake Edwards and Badalamenti’s work for David Lynch.

These cinematic observations make sense given Giraffe’s background. Still, the disc is consistently pop-oriented, especially “Wednesday Baby,” with that one striking the ear like Chelsea Girl-era Nico (also, Rita Lee from Os Mutantes) cutting a single for White Whale. Or Don Kirshner, even. Except weirder. And with some upright bass. “Limousine” returns to the disco again, lyrically as much as structurally. There are flashes that sound like Giorgio Moroder was in the room, But also Eno during Taking Tiger Mountain.

“Song for the Trees” spikes classique gal-pop gentleness with bold mellotron bursts and vocal swoosh as a third additive, namely more “Lucy in the Sky”-style psych imagery, bonds them together. The closing title track finds Giraffe channeling Nico once more as Balouzian goes hog-wild with the strings. It’s a fitting wrap-up to Painting the Roses as Midnight Sister has improved upon the promise of their debut.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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