REVIEW: Madeline Kenney - Signals

Laura Kerry

Madeline Kenney is a woman of many interests. She studied neuroscience but has been pursuing a career in baking, and she also seems to love modern dance. The Seattle native also once loved her loop pedal, but she gave up both city and pedal when she moved to Oakland and found a backing band stitched together from parts of other Bay Area groups.

Like its creator, the music on Kenney’s Signals EP is never just one thing. The four songs on the artist’s debut hold many elements in tension: propulsive beats that reveal the hand of Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick, who signed Kenney to his label Company Records after seeing her dazzling live performance; glowing synth voices that wash the songs in a dream-pop mist; fuzzy shoegaze guitars; and Kenney's own voice, which swings from a quiet, warm whisper to a soulfully hearty twang in the course of a single lilting line.

Most of those features are at their starkest on the EP’s opener, “Signals.”  Beginning with deep, earthy percussion, she adds warmth little by little—first with wordless vocals and measure-long organ notes reminiscent of Beach House or other soft dream pop. The drums persist, maintaining a punchy heartbeat as the track gradually builds. After the addition of acoustic guitar, more percussion, and the escalation of Kenney’s lofty voice, the song culminates in an explosion; as she declares, “I don’t want anyone else to take me home,” a distorted guitar and rock drum kit drop in noisily. It’s a satisfying end to a gorgeous song.

On the second track, Kenney leaves the dreamy beauty of “Signals” behind for a more playful tune. “Thursdaze” is quick driving, led by a hasty percussion beat and a dancing guitar line. Kenney’s voice soars above the instruments, energetic and strong but a touch elusive—the melody skips around, leaping and falling in an arty way that sounds a bit like Fiona Apple (but joyful). Evidence of Kenney’s loop-pedal origins is visible here and elsewhere, in songs that build around repetitions. On the final track, “Make Like I’m,” echoing guitars swirl around each other as more voices come in, until a quiet, melancholy song that starts with the line “Lately I’m thinking of running” turns into a clear, hard-rock riff halfway through.

Kenney’s album begins with gentle “ahs” and ends with the robustly-delivered lines, “Make like I’m meaner” and “No more fucking around / All that’s over now.” In the middle of those is “Delicate,” the poppiest tune in terms of transparency of content and structure, which states, “I will never be a delicate girl / ‘Cause I don’t have the right shoes for that.” Even amid vulnerable lines such as “I am on fire and alone” (“Signals”) and “I make like I’m making it / But it feels like I’m faking it” (“Make Like I’m”), Kenney is not fragile. From a neuroscientist, dancer, baker, and excellent new artist, Signals is an example of all the conflicting, messy, wonderful things a short album and its creator can be.