Rina Sawayama’s Hold the Girl shows off an updated sound and introduces a number of exciting new tracks that will certainly delight anyone who enjoyed Rina’s first album. After my first listen of the album, here are my thoughts.

Hold the Girl is a slight departure from Rina Sawayama’s previous sound. Her first album, SAWAYAMA, is first and foremost a pop album, but it also uses a considerable number of elements from metal music, including in the guitars, drums, and overall arrangement. On Hold the Girl, these elements are present but a lot more toned back. I’d say the classic Rina “metal sound” is most present on “Hurricanes,” although elements of it (especially distortion on the vocals) are still present throughout the album.

As well as a reduction in the metal elements, Hold the Girl incorporates creative and agile use of harmony and key changes. Nowhere is this more apparent than on single “This Hell,” which features frequent abrupt key changes between distant key centers. When this single was first released, the key changes felt jarring, but as I’ve listened to the track a number of times, they have shifted into feeling like a necessary and welcome part of the track that keeps me on my toes. Rina’s creative use of harmony and key is most obvious on “This Hell” but it is present throughout Hold the Girl in more minor ways. There are quite a few moments where a track uses a note or chord from another key, which brings excitement to the track and helps tie the album together sonically.

I always find it difficult to listen to a new album when I know some or all of the singles well, because it is quite a jump to go from an excitingly brand new song to one I am very familiar with. I’m a fan of the album as a unit of music, with themes and sounds that are shared across tracks, and it can be hard to take in an album for its full self when I know some parts of it far more than others. During my first listen of Hold the Girl, I already knew the singles “This Hell,” “Catch Me in the Air,” and “Hold the Girl.” For better or for worse, these songs were frontloaded at the beginning of the album, so once I got past them I was able to listen to the rest of the tracks straight through.

Hold the Girl as an album does a number of things well. In no particular order, here are some of my favorites:

Many tracks feature a guitar drenched in reverb that’s doing either a call-and-response thing or a vocal-harmony thing. It sounds great and I love its consistency across tracks.

A buuunch of the tracks feature delicious ambient sounds, especially in their outros. Wind, rain, bells, and motorcycles make this album feel like it exists in a place.

On at least two songs, Rina namedrops a year or an age in the opening lines. I love a good number here and there.

The album continues a thread from Rina Sawayama’s previous discography by exploring themes of identity and pride. On this album, these themes are particularly prominent on “Send My Love to John,” “This Hell,” and “Your Age.”

In a handful of tracks, there are little moments of destructed electronic drum fills. I love these sounds.

The production on the album is quite good in general. Dry vocals are used to emphasize important lines of some tracks. Elements like background vocals are panned back and forth within the stereo image. Songs build up over their runtime and conclude with generous layering of sonic elements in a way that sounds dense without being overwhelming or muddled.

Hold the Girl also demonstrates range, from the ballad that is “Send My Love to John”, to a dance club banger in “Holy (Til You Let Me Go),” to the classic SAWAYAMA-sounding “Hurricanes,” to the 6/8 bop “Phantom” with a well-earned guitar solo.

As far as specific tracks go, I think “Minor Feelings” is a luscious opening that draws you into the album. It took a while to grow on me as a single but I quite like the idiosyncrasies of “This Hell.” I can only imagine the choreography that will accompany “Imagining” on stage. “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” kind of buries the vocal in the mix, at least in parts, and I think it really works because it sells the groove of the track. “Frankenstein” has such a catchy chorus melody. And closer “To Be Alive” is such a happy song that must be so fun to belt out at the end of the night.

I don’t have much criticism for the album, at least after my first listen. I think Rina Sawayama accomplished what she set out to do. I will say that I don’t always enjoy this certain kind of melisma that Rina uses where she sings one syllable and alternates between two pitches1. It just doesn’t really please my ear. But this album does so much right that it’s easy to overlook any shortcomings I perceive.

I think Rina’s fans will love this album2. She’s really done something here. Having seen Rina live once in the past, I’d love to hear these songs live in the future. I think the energy of this album, plus Rina’s on-stage presence and that of her band and backup dancers, plus the audience’s excitement, would really be something.

  1. It’s present on the chorus of “Catch Me in the Air” and on the word “mind” in the chorus of “Forgiveness.” ↩︎

  2. In fact, I’m positive their reactions and reviews are already out there, but I wanted to listen and get my thoughts down before finding out what others thought. ↩︎

  3. I thinkā€¦ But if not this, then “Send My Love to John.” ↩︎