Banks - III (2019)

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Some of the very best records take time to really make sneak way into the subconscious. It doesn’t always land right at the outset, upon first listen. I recall sitting in a coffee shop in the middle of nowhere listening to Low’s Double Negative and simply unable to absorb what I perceived to be extremely challenging production. I texted a friend saying “there are no hooks” well-knowing this isn’t necessarily a band that always provides them. It was less about music and more about the experience. I was taken aback by what was a distinct disconnect that I didn’t anticipate from one of my favorite bands making music today.

The reason for this prelude is due to a similar first experience with the latest from singer/songwriter Jillian Banks. Upon listening to her previous work over the course of a month, I became a fan. Not to the same degree as I am with Low, but certainly found a lot of her songs to be heartfelt, vulnerable, and melodious. She will undoubtedly translate this energy to a live setting in ways that I am sure will be astonishing. Yet, something kept me on the outside looking in for the majority of her new record, simply titled III. The production felt taxing rather than inviting, which I slowly realized isn’t necessarily a bad thing but takes some getting used to. Then the correlation struck upon reading another review: one of the producers behind Low’s Double Negative is the same behind the latest from Banks. There’s that otherworldly auto-tuned choir throughout that give the album a sense of an apparition floating through the soundscape. There is a true sense of haunted longing contained here, in a way that recalls Bon Iver, an expert in songs about contemplative loss and restlessness. Makes sense once again since Banks employed producer BJ Burton to bring a lot of odd touches throughout. Producers Buddy Ross and Hudson Mohawke also join in, stripping down studio quirks to allow Banks’ talent shine in ways that highlight her strengths as a singer. There are actually a lot of producers to credit for what ultimately is an experience that reveals itself to be a true force of nature that crept into me the more I paid attention to its eccentricities.

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Those aforementioned odd touches are utilized mostly in a very good way even if it took awhile for me to warm up. Once I gave the record a third listen, little pleasures and treasures began to emerge. There’s no denying that the momentum, unfortunately, slows by the midway point and a couple of tracks sink to the bottom rather than rise to the surface. But I’m also willing to pass them by and concentrate more on the overall effect. Focusing on the record’s undeniable power is contained right at the outset, with three back-to-back tracks that are as good as anything else I’ve heard all year. It’s a triple threat starting with “Til Now” that beautifully segues into an impeccable first single with “Gimme.” This is the song that got me hooked and curious about her other work. The intense EQ frequencies on tracks like “Gimme” and “Contaminated” shatter the earbuds in ways that invite the listener on a journey, rather than overwhelm. The melodies are strong, the lyrics sincere, and the opening act feels like an intimate artistic statement about desires and wished, spiked with regret. This continued personal proclamation later becomes more subdued but every bit as powerful during the closing two tracks that allow her to come to terms. Whether it’s a true blue breakup record from beginning is not really something that needs to be explored. To call it a record about a failed relationship would be reductive, it is more about becoming a dimensional individual with pains from the past. Presently, the songs hint at learning how to manage those pains in order to have a brighter future. The music serves that theme and ends with a sense of longing for the light. There is no doubt that her honest, conflicting emotions in just about every song feel palpable and enveloping. 

As expressed earlier, I initially found the production accompanying these songs to be intensely excessive and out of place. Like the sounds were fighting with her vocals, but then I realized that this might be intentional in a positive way. In other words, she’s at war with her feelings and the wide gamut of feelings are represented in everything from electronic dub-step slaps to soothing ambient oceans of calm reflection. It began to make more and more sense that this record was actually not always an easy listen. Love, loss and everything in-between isn’t easy to process or hold onto. Yes there are imperfections but they actually don’t diminish in the end. The progression and challenging sound throughout represents III as a lush, fully realized and painfully introspective record. On the beautifully subdued album closer “What About Love,” Banks sings about possibility (“I can talk to you like this is okay / that's the only way”) while also seemingly coming to terms with acceptance of change. There’s a sense of closure for what once was, while also hoping for what could be. Perhaps this is okay and this way is better than self-imposed isolation. I can’t think of a better note to end on for what ends up being one of my new favorite records of 2019 from a daring musician that only continues to evolve over time.

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James Laczkowski