Lo-Fang, aka Matthew Hemerlein, is a very talented guy. His early singles proved as much, showing off a diverse range of styles and instruments, all of which he played himself. Throw in some pretty catchy choruses, and you’ve got all the makings of a superstar. At least that’s what it looks like on paper. He may well rise above the fray and build an audience from the ground up, and having teen wunderkind Lorde in his corner to take him out on tour will undoubtedly help push things in the right direction. What’s unfortunate however is how Hemerlein’s debut album Blue Film turns a promising singer-songwriter and composer into a small disappointment. Turns out when you focus on only one or two aspects of your songs, there are other pieces that suffer.
If Blue Film was an entirely instrumental record, it would have turned out pretty great, what with the very Andrew Bird-like mixture of guitars, violins and synths. That’s the arena where Hemerlein really proves his worth as a musician. The other half of that includes vocals and lyrics, which is where this album really takes a turn for the worse. There are clunky and awkward lines in virtually every single song, and those mouthfuls are akin to someone trying to forcefully connect two puzzle pieces together that do not fit. “I never figured out how to / Unfold your paper cranes / Origami agony,” are kind of strange and ultimately meaningless lines from album opener “Look Away,” though the hook and gorgeous composition do a great job of averting total disaster there. While the nearly seven minutes of “#88” makes it a touch too long to be an official single, it’s one of the few tracks released in advance of the record that does a fantastic job of showing off Hemerlein’s musical diversity and influences. Unforunately it too suffers from a few lines that might as well have been pulled from the book of most commonly used lyrics.
It stands to reason that even the blandest of lyrics can be made better or more colorful by a clear emotional investment from the person singing them. No matter what the subject matter of a song, from reflections on the world around you to the morality of cheating on your significant other to trying to be a better person, it seems like Hemerlein treats everything with a calm and nearly apathetic tone of voice. Even just a hint of genuine passion or the stretching of his vocal range from time to time could have given some extra life to songs that desperately needed it. Then there’s the matter of the two covers on Blue Film, both of which seem like ill-advised choices. The first is “Boris,” from the female duo BOY, which is a very dark song about sexual harassment in the music industry. These women are singing about their experience, but in Hemerlein’s hands the perspective shifts to the creepy guy offering them Codeine. If covering “You’re the One That I Want” from the musical Grease seems like a bad idea for an artist who largely deals with orchestral pop, you’d be correct. Hemerlein slows the tempo down to a delicately composed crawl, which changes the mood from upbeat and fun to downright desperate. It’s fits in perfectly with the rest of the album for that very reason, but it begs the question of why he felt the need to do it in the first place.
Prior to signing with 4AD, Hemerlein was planning to release Blue Film as a mixtape. As most mixtapes are, it probably would have been free. When the label heard what he had put together, they wanted to release it as Hemerlein’s debut album. Hindsight being 20/20, maybe they should have waited for the next batch of songs before trying to provide a proper introduction to Lo-Fang. Surely whatever he does next will be better than this.