Review: Grimes' conflicted, energized 'Art Angels'

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Claire Boucher, the Canadian indie electronic artist who records as Grimes, is a fabulously conflicted pop star.

Boucher, who will play a sold out late show at Union Transfer on Saturday night as part of her 'Rhinestone Cowgirl' tour, has just released Art Angels, her fourth album and by far her most pop targeted effort to date. It’s also the first one where evidence of her professed love for such Top 40 heroines as Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift and the Dixie Chicks can actually be heard in the music.

You might not know that by looking at the album cover, though. It features a drawing by Boucher of a three-eyed Vulcan-eared creature with a sad, ambivalent look on its face, like a melding of Dr. Seuss and macabre Philadelphia graphic novelist Charles Burns. It’s a self portrait of the 27 year old artist who still (correctly) sees herself as an outsider, even though she’s extraordinarily well connected as she makes music that will move her into the mainstream.

Which is not to say that Art Angels (4AD *** 1/2) is some kind of simplistic watering down of Boucher’s cutting edge style. It much more refreshingly complicated - and fun - than that. The album is an entirely self-produced one woman show that features Boucher - who plays guitar and violin as well as singing and handling all beat programming - on songs that are devilishly alive with sonic detail.

It contains only two cameos. One is from Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes, who raps in Mandarin on “SCREAM” - translations are available online - which also features Grimes doing a whole lot of screaming over a fusillade of uncoiled guitars and slamming electronics that recalls the aggression of noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells.

The second brings in Afro futurist Janelle Monae, on a pounding funk jam called “Venus Fly” that acts out Grimes’ feminist mission by first asking “Why you looking at me?,” then snapping back at would-be predators.

“Venus Fly” is one of the most rugged of Art Angels’ several electrifying, giddily inventive tracks. Top of the list are the spring-in-its-step title cut, which revels in unabashed poppiness (“Everything I love becomes everything I do”) and the entertaining, energetic rampage “Kill V. Maim.” Boucher told an interviewer she may or may not have been putting on that “Kill” is “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in Godfather Pt. 2. Except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel though space.”

Since giving up her studies at McGill University in Montreal to pursue electro pop, Boucher - who now lives in California - has been headed towards greater renown. Last year, she released “Go,” a single that was written for Riahnna (who rejected it), and she’s had assists from tastemakers such as music site Pitchfork and hip-hop mahoff Jay Z.

The former named “Oblivion,” from the 2012 album Visions the best song of the century so far - a declaration that has not kept the artist from feuding with the online magazine, going so far as referring to Art Angels’ cheery sounding “California,” in which she sings of “commodifying all my pain” as “a hate track to Pitchfork.” In 2013, Boucher signed to Jay Z’s Roc Nation management company, and she was one of few female artists to land a high profile stage slot at last year’s Made in America in Philadelphia, where she was one of the festival standouts.

Much of the music on Art Angels is so easily ingratiating that it seems that Boucher has to work to scuff it up and make it grimier, so to speak, in order to remind herself and the world at large that Grimes is an up-from-the-underground project at heart. She stresses over the booby prize of fame, and could be addressing her audience on “Realiti” when she sings “Your love kept me alive - and it made me insane.”

On Art Angels, Grimes makes inviting, hyperkinetic music that turns out to be pointed and thorny. And though the album will surely lead more fans to put her on their crush list of independent minded music makers, she makes clear she no intention of being anyone’s fantasy object. “If you’re looking for a dream girl,” she sings on the album’s closing track, “Butterfly.” “I’ll never be your dream girl.”

The Grimes-directed video for "Flesh Without Blood / Life In A Vivid Dream" is below.

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