#3: Kristin Kontrol – “X-Communicate”

In a just universe where actual pop songcraft was rewarded over celebrity, every song on X-Communicate would be a hit. Of course, Donald Trump is going to be president, so we don’t live in that universe. But Kristin Welchez, who formerly fronted Dum Dum Girls, can take solace in knowing she has made her most complete album yet, on her own, and further established herself in my mind as a low-key pop genius.

X-Communicate feels like a pop clinic, put on by an artist who has listened to it her whole life and has memorized the recipe of a memorable song. There is a virtuosic feel to its verses, choruses and bridges, and to Kristin’s vocals, which have range and expression that she couldn’t show in Dum Dum Girls. The album doesn’t stray much from traditional pop structures, and it doesn’t really break new ground, but this is by design: Kristin uses the nostalgic sounds of the past to make an album that is a celebration of the pop song as a form of personal expression.

Kristin Kontrol – “X-Communicate”

As the mastermind behind Dum Dum Girls, Kristin Welchez (at the time known as DeeDee) perfected the art of making the old seem new again. From album to album, the band traveled through time, morphing their sound around influences from different decades while still sounding like the same group. They peaked with 2014’s Too True, which went back to the 80s with a Siouxsie and the Banshees meets C86 aesthetic and was one of my favorite albums from that year.

Artists are often pressured to make music that is confessional, where they reveal their darkest fears and sing about horrible things that have happened to them. But in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin made a point of remaining anonymous — the band always had a focused style with the members dressing alike, and she rarely sang overtly personal lyrics. Now she has left Dum Dum Girls behind, but chosen to remain behind a veil of anonymity with the persona Kristin Kontrol, a name that I doubt is a coincidence. After years of being in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin has expressed frustration with how she felt boxed-in by the group and the preconceptions people had about it. With X-Communicate, she retakes control of her musical identity and the result is the closest she has come to an individual statement.

Kristin’s personality comes through more in the construction of her songs than her lyrics. Something I noticed about the last Dum Dum Girls album was how much I appreciated a band that could just craft simple pop songs that sounded good without relying on goofy instrumentation or other gimmickry. This is a gift Kristin has that has translated to X-Communicate, and it comes from her deep knowledge of pop music and what her idols have done before her to make it great.

And while Dum Dum Girls could sometimes be justifiably knocked for being too into nostalgia, X-Communicate feels more like a current pop statement. Similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, it is borrowing from the past to make music that feels fresher than what is actually trendy right now. It also has the same feeling of an artist breaking free from how they have been perceived and starting a new musical life for themselves through pop music.

For most of her career, Kristin has had one foot in pop and the other foot in “indie.” The biggest difference on X-Communicate is that it is pure pop, which allows her more room to showcase her vocals compared to some of the more minimalist music she made in the past. The songs also have a lot more rhythm than her previous music did, with prominent bass and danceable beats, and guitar takes a backseat to keyboards and synthesizers as she channels pop from the 80s.

The fifth track, “Skin Shed,” most obviously states the album’s theme of reinvention, and near the end Kristin name-drops Nina Simone and Stevie Nicks. X-Communicate is a worthy tribute to those artists and others that Kristin idolized, and is also proof that she can stand on her own as a solo artist.