Review by Rebekah Hoffer
The cover art for Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez’s first full album, If They’re Mine, is an eerie sort of graceful. Fragmented body parts are twisted together in such a way that at first glance it looks like a person, or two people embracing, but the eyes can’t quite make sense of it. In an interview with 1883 Magazine, Sokolov-Gonzalez said that releasing this album felt like “a bit of an out-of-body experience”—maybe that’s what the album cover is portraying.
Gorgeous cover art aside, If They’re Mine is a remarkable debut album. Sokolov-Gonzalez began working on the album not long after graduating from college, and the entire thing was co-produced by her and her brother, Jake. Her style is rooted in R&B and jazz—a hint of saxophone here, a high-hat cymbal there, but mostly settled into steady beats and chords rather than the random feel of improvisation.
In Sokolov-Gonzalez’s words, this album is about “a young woman grappling with internal and intimate conflict, searching for truth, embodiment, and resolution.” The song “Better For You,” for example, is addressed bitterly to a lover: “Is it better for you if I’m reclining?/Is it better for you if I’m resigning?/Is it better for you if I don’t feel a thing?” Toward the end of the song, she howls, “Look me in the eyes and tell me/all this fucking leads to love.” Unfulfilling relationships show up in several songs. In another interview, Sokolov-Gonzalez said that this music “represents a chapter of my life that was difficult, parsing out dysfunction around attachment, desire, and loss.” She certainly isn’t the first person to write about those things, but her style is original.
Many of the lyrics in If They’re Mine reminded me of slam poetry: simple, impactful, frequently rhyming, their syllables tallied up and arranged with precision. In fact, Sokolov-Gonzalez reformatted the lyrics to each song into a book of poetry (available for purchase on her website), complete with artwork by the same person who designed the album cover. Her voice has all the passion and dynamic range of a slam poet, too. One of my favorite things about her singing is the way she goes so quickly from robust and full-throated to sultry and soft. In “Open Fire,” that contrast is especially apparent. Gossamer-thin oohs and breathy ah-yeah-yeahs are paired with the vocal intensity of the main lyrics, swelling and receding like a tide throughout the song. Similarly, “40 Days” is a little more subdued than the rest of the songs, which creates the same contrastive effect on a larger scale. Sokolov-Gonzalez said, “I intentionally showed a softer side with the second single, ‘40 Days,’ to show folks that the album has different colors—and, like the song, the responses have been so tender.”
Seven songs may not be a very long album, but Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez and her bandmates have produced a respectable first collection. If They’re Mine has groove and spice and a strong new voice, not to mention some tasty juxtaposition between harsh and sweet, loud and soft. It will be fun to see this emerging artist’s style develop and hear what she comes up with next.