When Karmin’s YouTube-powered rise to fame began in the spring of 2011, the duo of Berklee graduates gained appeal for their quirky, calculated covers of pop and hip-hop hits, the latter category featuring rapped verses spat with a wink and a nod by Amy Heidemann while partner Nick Noonan often took on a featured role as harmony vocalist and instrumentalist. Following a major-label deal with Epic Records, Karmin released the Hello EP in May of 2012 on the back of top ten hit “Broken Hearted,” after which began a lengthy period of label delays and frustrations. Nearly eighteen months after its planned debut, Pulses was released with two failures to launch in singles “Acapella” and “I Want It All.”
Much of Pulses presents Karmin in the midst of an identity crisis, toeing the line between the original but short-term viral success of their urban-leaning YouTube covers and the hitmaking potential uncovered by the success of “Broken Hearted” and the array of pop’s heavy hitters (Cirkut, Stargate, Claude Kelly, “Tricky” Stewart) that assisted on Hello. While traces of Heidemann and Noonan’s origins are still present, with tracks like “Pulses,” “Drifter,” and “What’s In It For Me” containing urban beats and rap verses, most of the material veers into the pop lane. Among the highlights on that end is “I Want It All,” whose brassy instrumentals, on-trend retro production, and catchy melody bridge the best of both worlds; “Hate To Love You” also excels with its use of bouncy guitars, hemiola-shifted chorus lines, and Nick Noonan’s verse melodies paired with concentrated bursts of rap from Amy Heidemann. “Night Like This” is a less successful bonfire party anthem, with lyrics calling for raised cups and the increasingly popular combination of acoustic guitar and dance beats, while ballad “Neon Love” stands out by stripping back the production to keyboard and percussion. On the other end of the spectrum are tracks like “Acapella,” whose repelling falsetto breakdown in the middle eight was a likely contributor to its lack of radio success, and “Drifter,” which features a dubstep drop and Heidemann pitch-altered to sound like a male.
Where Karmin excels is in catchy melodies, harmonies that feature both Heidemann and Noonan on vocals, and spunky instrumentals that add a touch of flair to what could otherwise become generic pop fodder — benchmarks that tracks like “I Want It All” hit solidly. However, Pulses falls flat in part due to the many peculiarities that make up a large part of the record, primarily in word choice and vocal delivery. Obnoxious, cringeworthy lyrics are sprinkled throughout nearly every song, with topics ranging from Olive Garden and tryptophan to Belvedere and “party pants,” and the rap shtick that gained viral video attention doesn’t translate as well to the record, especially with the duo’s melodic vocal talent often outshining it. Worse yet is when an otherwise good song like “Neon Love” is brought down by distracting vocal quirks, such as Heidemann’s repeated gasps for air, wavy vibrato, and bent notes. Creative differences with label executives likely influenced the confused sound of the album — at times, Heidemann’s voice is so over-processed that she sounds completely unlike herself, even aside from the intentional gender-shifted rap — but the duo themselves seem to have an acute sense of self-awareness regarding their oddball nature, almost applauding their corniness at times on the record. Karmin has potential with strong compositional skill and a unique niche in their “swag-pop” brand, making their eccentricities frustrating at best and annoying at worst.