Jeen O’Brien is no stranger to the music industry, working in the past with such Canadian musicians as Great Big Sea and Serena Ryder, as well as with Brendan Canning on their collaborative group, Cookie Duster. Lately, her career has shifted to a more personal focus, beginning with her solo LP debut Tourist in 2015. Modern Life, out on December 9, will be her sophomore album, and despite the name, she’s fallen back on a distinctively 90s power pop sound. Listening to the album’s full and polished production, it’s easy to forget that everything was assembled in Jeen’s own attic. I do think that Modern Life, which centers around themes of youthfulness, could’ve used the DYI feeling that was scrubbed out of it, but regardless, it brings 10 anthemic tracks that seem destined for blasting through the radio.
Besides a few playful drum machine beats, much of the instrumentation here evokes hard rock. The soft-verse, loud-chorus technique is frequently used, albeit in a surprisingly heavy way that reminded me of some of Weezer’s first couple (and last couple) albums. The guitars are buzzing and sometimes fuzzy, though there’s not much use of the lo-fi filtering here. It pairs well with Jeen’s punky snarling/droning, which is the takeaway element of Modern Life for me. Vocally, tracks like “All Night All Day” and “New Minority” are dripping with confidence and sass. That being said, some of the more dazed performances like the verses in “Sirens” seemed like they were purposefully flat but end up feeling just devoid of personality or interest. For the most part, Jeen feels as if she’s finally able to let loose in her own element, even if the lyrical themes of youthful vigor, scorned love, and self-fulfilling redemption aren’t explored in many new or cliché-avoiding ways.
I was a little disappointed with the way Jeen’s songwriting, while skillful, refused to take many risks. Though they keep the album tight and provide catchiness and immediacy, the pop constructions Modern Life relies on make the experience feel somewhat shallow. The melodies are fine, and the choruses are strong, but when you hear them consistently through a single listen of a song, it makes you quickly wonder what impression the album will leave in the long run. The speed and professionalism with which Jeen writes her music is impressive, but it roots her work in its own small release window, no matter how many influences of the past are borrowed.
Jeen O’Brien’s Modern Life is an interesting mix of rock-attitude and pop-structure that shows clearly seasoned songwriting applied to ideas that feel too worn down. It sounds as if it were inspired by the alternative rock of Jeen’s own youth, and though it follows the form smoothly, it never quite hits on the reactionary experimentation or creative highs that careful listeners will remember fondly from the 90s.
review by Matthew Wardell