Australian pop artist Betty Who releases her sophomore studio album, and continues the long line of fledgling female pop singers experimenting with alternative sounds to great success. Now achieving a string of number 1 hits on the US Dance Charts, beginning with a cover of Donna Lewis’ 1996 one hit wonder “I Love You Always Forever” that remains Who’s most recognizable track, The Valley is an excellent showcase for her talents, even if it is made evident at times that she is not using all that is in her arsenal. She breaks through here as a more musically adventurous and vocally strong Katy Perry, who she has opened for on tour and shares extensive vocal similarities.
The album is full of well-written, shouted power-pop choruses accompanied by instrumentals that are just the right degree of left field to come across as innovative rather than disposable. To compare it to my recent review of Zara Larsson’s similar album So Good, you can hear Who’s personality on every track here. She brings a unique presence to each song that can overpower even the most dominant instrumentals. These instrumentals feature glittery synths, the album being 80s-influenced in instrumentation but decidedly 90s-influenced in vocals and melody.
Who is making engaging pop music which is perhaps less of an attempt to make unorthodox sounds work well a la PC Music than perfect inhabitation of a niche sound. She is more similar to Carly Rae Jepsen than Charli XCX. The song structure still rides the wave of the necessary pop-music dance break at times, but the build-up that Who’s anthemic choruses creates warrants it. Some unexpected collaborators appear here in the form of 90s g-funk rapper Warren G, who is nearing his 50s, and Superfruit – a cappella group Pentatonix’s Mitch Grassi and Scott Hoying, who fit into Who’s weird and wonderful world as well as you might expect them to.
Who has primary writing credit on every song here and hits the heights of direct, smart pop songwriting, while recognizable producers include The Monsters & Strangerz, as well as Pop & Oak, whose recent contributions include Kehlani and Alessia Cara’s excellent albums.
The intro, “The Valley”, is incredibly beautiful and demonstrates the real potential and range Who has as an artist. It features a minute and a half of layered a cappella, as what sounds like 5 or 6 voice parts blend together perfectly. The transition into “Some Kinda Wonderful”, the most blatantly electropop track on the album, was very jarring – not that she shouldn’t be making these pop tracks as she clearly has a gift for pop songwriting as well, but I’d love more of the pure musicianship we saw on the opener. Who’s voice is one of the most dynamic I’ve ever heard in the genre, malleable and applicable to every place and emotion her music needs to hit. Her range is its best component, opening her album with some impressive a cappella low notes before reaching into the heights of her breathy head voice on the soaring chorus of a track like “Wanna Be”.
“Wanna Be”, speaking of which, might be the best track here. As the synths ascend up the scale and the piano pounds out a 90s-influenced bass melody, Who delivers a longing and passionate chorus wanting to reconnect with a partner. It kicks off an amazing 3-track run: “Pretend You’re Missing Me” might be the only track where I enjoyed the instrumental more than Who’s vocals, presenting a punishing drop which features what sounds like 8-bit video game samples and already has me envisioning the cannons going off in a live setting. “Blue Heaven Midnight Crush” is another unapologetically 90s power-pop ballad.
Every so often there is one repeated element which brings me out of the song as a whole, as a result of strange vocal choices rather than too-experimental instrumentals. Turning the drop of “Mama Say” into sharp inhales of breath did not work at all, deflating the energy provided by its strong chorus, while Who’s channelling of Fergie’s “London Bridge” era party-girl raps on “Some Kinda Wonderful” sounds too grating to be enjoyable.
As the album nears its end, it becomes clearer that trimming a few tracks could have benefited the project as well. “Reunion” isn’t particularly bad, but the instrumental is perhaps the least inspired on the project and as a result is completely indistinguishable from a Katy Perry hit, while the chorus of “Beautiful” is rather underwritten and monotone despite the impressive vocal runs that the Pentatonix members lend to the track.
The reckless abandon with which Who attacks the vast majority of these tracks sets her apart from her counterparts, the number of which is growing rapidly. As people on my side of the globe have already been connecting with Who’s playful sounds on the dance floor, it is only a matter of time before her defining hit.
Favourite Tracks: Wanna Be, Pretend You’re Missing Me, Blue Heaven Midnight Crush, Make You Memories, You Can Cry Tomorrow
Least Favourite Track: Mama Say