January LGBTQ music: Hyphen Hyphen, HC McEntire, and Evita Manji

thumbnail_04 Evita Manji press picture (c) Maria Koutroubi
Non-binary singer/producer Evita Manji’s debut album could soundtrack a dystopian cyberpunk film.
Maria Koutroubi

We ring in 2023 with a dud from queer pop group Hyphen Hyphen and far more exciting music by lesbian country singer HC McEntire and non-binary electronic musician Evita Manji.

Hyphen Hyphen | “C’est la vie” | Parlophone France | Jan. 20th 

Queer pop group Hyphen Hyphen live and die by their singer Santa. What you think of the French band’s music will depend on what you make of her vocals. To me, Santa constantly strains to give her voice more force and volume, developing a grating edge. Filling their music with endless overdubs of her harmonizing, drenched in reverb, makes things sound even uglier. Additionally, their third album “C’est la vie” suffers from plastic production, with keyboard sounds straight out of a child’s toy.

Even the instrumental “Call My Name – Interlude” stretches out her wordless vocals for texture. Additionally, “C’est la vie” features too many songs following the same formulaic structures. The band constantly starts with a spare arrangement for vocals, guitars and keyboards, inevitably building louder. Veteran songwriter/producer Glen Ballard worked on two songs, and Hyphen Hyphen stand at the intersection of two of his credits: Alanis Morisette and the Broadway musical based on “Back to the Future.” The band has only two modes: quiet and bombastic. “ By the end, “C’est la vie” is as pleasant as getting yelled at for 45 minutes.

HC McEntire | “Every Acre” | Merge | Jan. 27th 

In the Nashville Scene’s “Country Almanac” section this week, Steacy Easton wrote, “Every country critic has a list of queer, women, gender non-conforming, and BIPOC country artists who are making the best music of their lives right now…That seems doctrinaire, among certain kinds of leftists, but it has reached a crisis pitch for me — especially considering the rise of anti-trans and anti-queer sentiment and legislation.”

Last year, the pansexual, non-binary singer Adeem the Artist released “White Trash Revelry,” an excellent album about working class southern life from a progressive perspective, but the N-word-spouting bro Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous: The Album” is one of the biggest hits in country’s history, selling four million copies in less than two years. HC McEntire deserves a much bigger audience. How accomplished do you have to be to escape the genre’s lavender ceiling?

McEntire has worked with the band Mount Moriah and sung backup for fellow queer musician Angel Olsen, but she fully embraced country with her 2018 solo debut “Lionheart.” She mixed lush, orchestrated ballads and southern rock with great skill. McEntire, Missy Things, and Luke Norton produced her third album “Every Acre” with a spare tone that allows her voice room to breathe. Its tone is more introspective and hesitant, reflecting the isolation of the pandemic. “Shadows” wonders “what else do I need to lose to make room?” over drums and guitars that barely break a sweat. In a style reminiscent of Low, the beat does the bare minimum to move the song along. For much of the album, the drums are surprisingly soft, to the point where they could be cardboard boxes.

In “Rows of Clover,” McEntire turns to gardening after the death of her beloved dog: “it ain’t the easy kind of healing/when you’re down on your knees clawing in the garden.” “Dovetail” suggests a love song, with the chorus’ “sometimes she leaves you like a landscape,” but its full lyrics run down the full variety of female experience. McEntire’s debut single “A Lamb, A Dove” queered Christian imagery into a love song about at a woman, and “Soft Crook” and “Gospel for a Certain Kind” return to religious references. Without veering into southern gothic, “Every Acre” creates a spectral version of McEntire’s life in the past few years.

Evita Manji | “Spandrel?” | PAN |Jan. 30th

Non-binary singer/producer Evita Manji picked an eye-catching title for their debut album. “Spandrel” was a new term to me, but it’s an architectural term describing the space between arches and ceiling. In Manji’s case, it helps describe the border between machine and human. The title track follows a robot’s idea of pop music, with Manji’s unaltered voice competing with distorted glitches. The entire album could soundtrack a dystopian cyberpunk film. It’s a triumph of ingenious sound design.

Manji uses elements of hyperpop but takes out its leanings towards noisy novelty songs. If their vocals are their music’s most accessible element, “Spandrel?” follows the influence of trans artists Arca and the late SOPHIE in filling up space with glitches. On “Pitch Black,” they come in and out of the mix, folding into aquatic synthesizers. The balance of empty space and noise is impressive. “Spandrel?” resembles a written manuscript that’s been doused with black ink — you can still make out the possibilities for more conventional songs, but you have to work to hear them.

While their vocals are yearning and vulnerable, the music erupts around the voice unpredictably, shaded in a thousand textures of metallic scraping. “Oii/Too Much” contemplates internalized violence: “I’m drowning in oil, I can’t get out/I might disappear, I’m out of my head/I’m burning my insides for a world that’s hurting me too much.” The percussion comes a little too close to SOPHIE, to the point where one wonders if Manji’s using the late producer’s sample pack. Distorted pieces of house music run throughout the album. But as a whole, “Spandrel?” describes a constant unease, with Manji’s own chopped-up vocals playing a big role. It’s not an assaultive listen, despite the sense that something unpredictable lurks around every corner, but it does bring out a nightmarish mood.