Music critics like to compare artists with other artists; it’s just what we do. Sure, part of it is to show off how many obscure artists we can name (“ah yes, very Jandek-esque!”), but it’s also a way to compare and contrast different artistic approaches, as well as a way to give readers an idea of what they’re in for when they press play. Some people complain about excess name-dropping, but it’s not necessarily a good or a bad thing. Comparisons are tools, and they can be used or misused depending on who’s handling them.
Comparisons are not a problem, but lazy comparisons are, particularly when it comes to female artists. If you’re a woman with an unusual voice, you will be compared to Bjork or Joanna Newsom. If you’re a woman with a cool, arty sense of remove, you will be compared to Laurie Anderson. And if you’re a woman who plays the piano and is slightly eccentric, you will be compared to Kate Bush or Tori Amos, and most likely both. Not only is it lazy, but it pigeonholes women into positions they may not want to fill.
Milena Lainovic, who performs as MILENA, would seem to be a magnet for those comparisons. Raised in Montenegro and currently based in the United Kingdom, she is a woman who plays the piano and has an unusual voice. But on “Higher Hopes”, her lovely new single off of her upcoming album of the same name, I didn’t hear Kate Bush or Tori Amos. In fact, if I had to compare her to anyone, it would be David Sylvian, the former frontman of Japan who reinvented himself as an ambient pop dreamer.
“Higher Hopes” starts with wintry, twinkling piano figures, the kind that dance and float in the air like snowflakes. The piano straddles the line between classical and jazz, and it plays particularly well with Lainovic’s vocals. Breathy and gentle, Lainovic’s voice is as pure and sweet as a Disney princess’, but she doesn’t sound saccharine or naive. There’s a maturity to her voice, and you get the feeling that the song’s peace was hard-earned.
I mentioned Sylvian earlier for a few different reasons. “Higher Hopes” is a beautiful ambient pop song with jazz and classical inflections, much like Sylvian’s work circa Secrets of the Beehive. Like Sylvian, Lainovic makes excellent use of empty space, knowing exactly when to keep things sparse and when to let the sound fully blossom. Even their lyrics have some similarities, both poetic and ambiguous.
“Higher Hopes” is addressed to someone who provides hope and guidance to Milena’s life. It’s unclear if she’s singing to a lover, a friend, or God (the lyrics capitalize the “You”, which raises some questions), but the subject is less important than the sentiment, and the way that sentiment is expressed. There are some lovely turns of phrase here: dawn is described as “when hope is at its loudest”, and Milena expresses her devotion with “my mouth is filled with Your name. It could come across as a bit much in other contexts, but with the fluttering piano and the warm rhythm section it feels perfectly peaceful–just like the rest of this gorgeous song.
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