Following Alex Winston’s 2010 emergence with her Knocks-produced, Stones-inspired Basement Covers EP, many a blogger latched onto the fact that the 24-year-old singer/songwriter possesses virtually the same vocal range as Kate Bush. Both vocalists have been recognized for employing an innocent, giddy soprano as their chief means of conveying anything-but-innocent, giddy lyrics, and this is still true of Winston on her debut LP of self-penned pop tunes, King Con. But where Bush often stilts her pipes atop minimalistic piano melodies, here Winston surrounds her voice with walls upon walls of painstakingly produced sound. Select tracks like “Medicine” lean anthemic in the Arcade Fire tradition of multi-part harmonies spiced with banjo, mandolin and other Americana accoutrements so dense it seems a mild marvel that Winston’s voice rises to the forefront as prominently as it does. But that’s the kind of vocalist Alex Winston is—capable, commanding and unflappably confident even when tasked with selling silly lyrics about velvet Elvis fetishists.
With production aid from Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn And John, Winston’s record has no problem striking pop gold from multiple promising veins. Hooks drop early and often—the first sounds we hear on opener “Fire Ant,” for example, are a string of infectiously menacing toy piano plunks—and lyrics regularly come stocked with a faceless antagonist perfect for absorbing our vicarious ire. “Sister Wife,” which preceded the album as an EP and bonkers, blood-belching music video, offers the most satisfying synthesis of hook and lyric in this collection. Admittedly more about the childish impulse not to share what we love than a jab at polygamy, this song makes it impossibly easy to sing along, “Hey there, sister wife/Get the hell out it’s my night,” propelled equally by the hypnotic whirr of digital percussion and Winston’s multi-tracked array of oohs trundling through the background.
King Con‘s most interesting moments come in its contrasts, typically when Winston recites some downright deranged banter about crushing her enemies with the conversational confidence of a serial killer. Though the album overstays some of its freshness by the closing tracks, nearly everything Winston sings up to “Sister Wife” adds an inspired spin on common pop idioms. “Fire Ant” is basically a dis track but, unlike certain other pop voices with recent full-length releases, Winston holds herself to a subtler lyrical standard than merely rattling off “you a stupid hoe” for four minutes like some crass Mean Girls yogi. Winston gets that it’s far more satisfying to relish in the unbroken cheer of such threatening gems as, “Kill the bitch that bats an eye at Elvis,” or, “I hate what you say and I hate what you do/But never did I say I wouldn’t steal it from you,” with a smile on her face and giddy xylophones plinking hollowly through the background like mallets against human skulls. If the best revenge is living well, there’s little wonder why Alex Winston has dubbed herself king.