The art-punk L.A. band French Vanilla is back just two years after their first release, with the assertive and free-spirited How Am I Not Myself? While the sneering, gleeful punk energy of the band was present in 2017’s French Vanilla, that record feels comparatively as if it was holding something back. Here, you can feel the band relax and get comfortable with adding more musical flourishes, more detail, and overall more dynamic vocals and rhythms and in doing so they reach some highs that the first record failed to quite reach.
The record starts out on a tear, with “Real or Not” launching you into the sax-laden flavor of punk French Vanilla likes to dish out. Daniel Trautfield’s ever-present instrument keeps every song on this album ricocheting along at a relentlessly energetic and cheeky pace. The rhythms pushed alongside the leading sax are so peppy that they end up invoking Huey Lewis and the News while simultaneously creating what that band’s sound might have been like if they took a few different turns in life.
By the second track, “Lost Power,” the eagerness for experimentation and the sense of relief that must come after the release of a first album feels palpable as the band has already made these first two songs more dynamic and textured than the majority of the tracks on French Vanilla. The third track is a standout, and features lead vocalist Sally Spitz’s broadening of her vocal performance on this album. She leads “All the Time,” a song about those all-consuming initial feelings of attraction, with her specific punk voice that lurches and leaps in the great tradition of female punks of the past, but with added moments of nuance and feeling that contribute to the catching rhythm of the track.
Unfortunately, the next few songs fail to ride that wave of excitement that the first few tracks were building towards. “Friendly Fire” and “Protective” have compelling subjects—a toxic, unsupportive relationship and emotional self-sabotage respectively—but they don’t do much to distinguish themselves from the rest of the album. The album as a whole is an improvement from the first release, and a few more individual tracks shine, but for the most part, the band is still vulnerable to falling into familiar patterns rather than stretching to find a new angle for their sound.
“Suddenly” is one of the spotlights of the record, alongside “All the Time.” Here the saxophone makes itself known immediately, but in a more demanding tone than before. It catches our attention and pulls us in where Spitz’s vocals then keep us interested, in particular during the chorus which has her letting loose in a post-punk vein which evokes the best work of Siouxsie Sioux, Ari Up, and Lesley Woods of the Au Pairs.
The last half of the short album doesn’t contain a diamond along the lines of “All the Time” or “Suddenly,” but it does keep up the spirit of the album gamely. The penultimate song “Move Along, Move Ahead” features a mid-song changeup that adds a small element of funk that signals the band has more tricks up their sleeve which they may be ready to pull out in the future. In the meantime, How Am I Not Myself? Is a step in the right direction for the band, adding more production detail and dynamic musical elements that illustrate the growing strength of the specific sax-and-sass-heavy voice French Vanilla can offer to the indie post-post-punk scene.