When one hears the term ‘experimental pop’ in advance of listening to an album, it’s fair to wonder how far into either genre-defining word the work will go. When discussing Manchester trio Virginia Wing’s latest full-length, private LIFE, it’s a fifty-fifty split. On the one hand, the group forgo pop tropes such as catchy, sing-along choruses, yet they embrace familiar-sounding, retro synthpop rhythms and a newly added, harmonious saxophone. And while Alice Merida Richards doesn’t so much “sing” as sing-speak, emphasis on key lyrical points are highlighted throughout via tuneful vocal overdubs so as to be perceived as backing singers.
“I’m reaching! I’m holding out!” Richards shouts over a peppy R&B beat on private LIFE’s “I’m Holding Out for Something”. The bright opener doesn’t offer much in terms of variety, but the three-minute track does manage to ease listeners in gradually by layering patterns on one at a time before everything is pulled away in the final seconds, leaving only Richards’ echoed moans that sound simultaneously exhausted and sexual. Virginia Wing’s newest bandmate, saxophonist Christopher Duffin, is first heard on “Moon Turn Tides”. Duffin’s brass never feels heavy-handed, instead it adds playful, jazzy touches of color to the pieces, and his style proves to be a worthwhile addition to the core duo.
A standout moment is realized on private LIFE in the form of the frenetic “99 North”. This may be the closest the record steps into full-on pop, as Duffin’s happy solo halfway in wouldn’t sound out of place if heard during a nineties adult contemporary radio hit. “I’d rather be seen to be pious, than have to drink a single drop” Richards plainly states during the confessional, pulsing “Return to View”, the only song on private LIFE that contains a somewhat memorable chorus, signaling the conclusion of the record’s first half.
The chipper R&B beats reappear on side B’s opener, “St. Francis Fountain”, and provide a solid foundation for the song’s technopop inclinations. Richards’ lyrics are mostly abstract and poetic, leaving room for interpretation, though it must be said she does land a relatable corker of a verse during private LIFE’s second half when on “Half Mourning” she sings, “… you’re stuck like a magnet to the walls and the floors of the rooms you inhabit, and every morning starts in the way that you practiced, and each year that you’re living counts for one that you haven’t.” Wow! Right?
The last third of private LIFE doesn’t offer anything too revelatory in terms of sounds or loops. The album’s penultimate track, “OBW Saints”, does include another fine retro-touched sax solo from Duffin just before falling into what sounds like a sample of a children’s band playing a dreadful, tuneless rendition of “When the Saints go Marching In”. private LIFE is concluded with “I Know About These Things”, the album’s longest song and Richards’ most personal lyrically. “I might just be in someone’s sleeping dream, a whisper to a friend, or a moment on the street, is there anything to suggest I just won’t blow away with a strong breeze?” Although Richards’ vocal style won’t be for everyone, it does make a good fit for her cryptic-yet-confessional writing.
On Virginia Wing’s fourth full-length album, original members Alice Merida Richards and Sam Pillay manage to broaden their sound, with the addition of saxophonist Christopher Duffin, without straying too far afield from the avant-garde musical endeavors they explored on their earliest efforts. While not a perfect record, private LIFE, as promised, manages to be at once experimental and pop. Virginia Wing successfully satisfy the expectations of fans drawn initially to the group’s innovative, futuristic soundscapes while simultaneously incorporating more accessible musical attributes.