Read The Room by Bel album review by Igor Bannikov for Northern Transmissions


Read The Room


What happens when independent musicians become big stars? Right, their place is immediately taken by new up-and-coming visionaries. Do you remember the time when Gus Dapperton, Billie Eilish, Clairo, and Benee were buzzing newcomers? Today they’re bona fide stars of the indie and pop scene, and their place is already occupied by new fresh musicians who are eager to win it all, much like participants in Squid Game. Bel, with her third EP “Read the Room,” is also in the race for it, and we have two flip sides of this coin to discuss here.

There are indie musicians who stake out a particular genre and sonics right from the start and go along this path till the end. Then there are indie musicians that grow and change right behind our eyes. Where the former consequently grow to success, the latter always look for opportunities for metamorphosis, and it’s always interesting to keep an eye on them because it’s a blueprint of the evolution of pop artists with many left turns and experiments. During this series of trials and errors, they also contribute to the progress and diversity of music. As you already understand, Bel is from this group. Born in the small town of Clovis, California, with a population of just over one hundred thousand, Isabel Whelan was eager to sing on big stages and “to be a pop star” like Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, and other icons. In 2021, she started her odyssey to the music industry with the first EP “Muscle Memory” full of folk ballads, reminiscent of Sharon Van Etten (“Hey”) and Australian singer-songwriters like Courtney Barnett, with the elements of slacker indie in the vein of Soccer Mommy (“Isn’t It Romantic?”). By the second EP, she shifted to bedroom pop (“PBR”) with Phoebe Bridgers-ish whispering folk (“Paul BigDawg”). And in her third EP “Read the Room,” we already see her in the role of an indie pop fashion beast with an aperitif and in sunglasses.

Bel starts her third offering right from the playful sounds out of Benee’s or Beabadoobee’s playbook. She’s really good at creating a fun lazy atmosphere of an afternoon party on a balcony in the middle of the workweek. By listening to her uplifting cuts, it’s easy to imagine that “we’re good, so good, so good.” By accumulating sounds of every pop artist of the moment from Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo to the Beaches and by mixing it with Tame Impala’s psychedelic guitars (“Are You Okay?”) or even bubblegum grunge (“Forget Everything”), she creates a bright palette of sonic tropes of an average pop artist. Sometimes it’s even hard to define if it’s a new direction of folk, just an extended version of bedroom pop, or something else. And in this case, Bel reminds me of Caroline Rose who is still successfully levitating in a gray area between pop and indie folk. Regardless of the lack of consistency in the lyrics, Isabel knows how to compose simple and catchy chants for soon-to-be viral TikTok choruses: “Are you okay? / Are you okay, okay?”, “Oh, I keep it in, I never spill / I can be good, I can be chill”, “Cause I’m a woman on fire / I don’t need your desire,” and so on. There are enough upbeat pop rhythms (“Cold Brew”, “Hypocrite”) and there are some stylish visuals like a woman on fire with a canister of gasoline or a leisure party girl with a cocktail. And all of the aforementioned is the bright side of a coin which should be enough to ride the pop industry.

Nevertheless, when it comes to narrative and deeper thoughts, “Read the Room” falls short of that vivid and saturated image because of lacking the real story behind that. While young, relentless, and creative newcomers excel at creating dazzling, entertaining concepts and new techniques that could define the future of music, they often lack the personal lore or perhaps the fearlessness to open their own wounds in public, which is crucial for filling their work with meaning.There’s, for example, a really smart “Hypocrite,” delivering a personalized story with sharp songwriting and the simplicity of bona fide singer-songwriters, but the world needs more folk confessionals! By sticking to humdrum lines like “I really want you back”, “Hold me ’cause I’m lonely”, and “I don’t need ya,” Bel plays on a safe side where the vast majority of independent musicians are. Her third installment gallops brightly to the sunset with a bottle of whatever but leaves a little to think about. Meanwhile, even music critics need some texture, some exposed nerve to lean on in reviews’ narrative. Though, it’s not that you need to literally get naked before the audience like Maggie Rogers, Janelle Monáe, Boygenius or even Robbie Williams. Is it funny that it’s even harder for an artist to expose their true feelings than undress in public?

Isabel tells about breaking into the industry that this is her “third time doing it” but this time she is “really determined to finish it.” So, regarding the idea developed in this article, there are only two ways out of this rising-independent-artists-trap: to elevate your bright image to the absolute or, as Karen O may call that, to “show your bones.”

Order Read The Room by Bel HERE

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