Best Ex – With A Smile: Album Review

Breezy pop with a purpose – the debut album from former Candy Heart Mariel Loveland’s latest venture. Best Ex has a lot to say for itself.

Release Date:  6th October 2023

Label: Alcopop! Records (UK)/ Iodine

Formats: Vinyl, Digital

If the name Best Ex is a new one on you, then perhaps you might be more familiar with Mariel Loveland, the frontperson of this NYC-based indie-pop outfit.  Between 2009 and 2017, Mariel was the singer/guitarist, principal songwriter and constant presence of New York pop/punk band Candy Hearts, who hit a minor form of paydirt with their third album, New Found Glory, back in 2014.  Mariel has been trading as Best Ex since 2017 and, after a couple of EP releases – most recently, Good at Feeling Bad (2020) – she’s finally got around to realizing her immediate dreams and recording the debut Best Ex album, With a Smile.

Speaking of this realization of a dream, Mariel had this to say: “I feel way more excited than nervous.  To be totally honest, this is the only thing I have ever wanted.  So many times, when I feel like I’m flailing around with no direction, the universe seems to give me exactly what I need.  In this case, the month I was getting ready to think about recording a new single, Iodine Records randomly reached out to me and asked if I wanted to make an album.  I honestly had been feeling like I may never get to make a full-length album on my own – especially with how much the industry has changed since I made music with Candy Hearts.  Of course, I said ‘ABSOLUTELY YES!’  It feels like the world is giving me a second chance, and I hope fans will too.”

Well – there’s certainly a lot for those fans to get their arms around on With A Smile.  On the surface, it’s an album of bright, bouncy pop, packed with synth rhythms and flourishes, embellished with tinkles and chimes of guitar and finished with some beautiful vocals – they range from whispered intimacy to soaring chimes of glory – from La Loveland.  But, scratch just a micron below that bubbly surface, listen to Mariel’s lyrics, and you’ll find a very different world – dark in places, full of intrigue and fractured relationships, but not lacking in notes of optimism and celebration.  It’s a highly satisfying affair, that’s for sure.

Like many albums that continue to cascade into the 2023 marketplace, With a Smile had its Genesis during lockdown.  As Mariel explains: “I honestly feel like I entered the COVID lockdowns as a girl and came out a woman – but maybe that’s the trauma of enduring an entire pandemic that really forced me to sit down and reflect on my life.  I always struggled with periods of high anxiety, but I started getting panic attacks that only got worse as the pandemic continued.  I feel like I’ve aged a decade in three short years, and I think that’s all reflected on the album.”  There were, however, a few “Ups” to go with the “Downs,” as Mariel goes on to say: “I met my husband and moved in with him almost instantly.  We eloped.  I became an aunt.  I lost my grandma.  I was diagnosed with OCD.  When I listen, I literally hear myself coming of age.”

Best Ex [pic: Mariel Loveland]

It’s the short title track that gets With A Smile underway and it’s a song that sets the pattern – repeated regularly throughout the album – of dressing a serious message in a light-as-air pop disguise.  With a lyric that recalls a period in Mariel’s life when she “…felt part of her was ‘too much’ of everything – too annoying, too damaged and too hard to love” and she realized that “…a fake smile would make [her] more tolerable.  That if [she] could need less, people would want [her] around more.”  And the bright poppy overlay to a sombre message continues with Tell Your Friends, the album’s lead single.  Once again, the tune is deceptively sweet, even as Mariel sings lines like: “You can tell your friends I’m crazy – I think that they already hear me.”  Similarly, on Give Me A Break, lyrics like “Give me a break, I’m just too tired of trying to scream” are delivered to a bouncy backing that wouldn’t feel out of place as a Eurovision entry.

The mood brightens somewhat for the breezy Salt on Skin, a pleasant, summery, number with a nice, chiming guitar hook, before Mariel shows her humourous, lighter, side with I Promise To Ruin Your Life, the later of the two singles that trailed the album.  It’s another bouncy synth-led tune, and, this time, the subject matter is the light-hearted story of the blossoming – but, inevitably, doomed – romance between two former strangers.  “I write so many songs about heartbreak, but this time around, I just wanted to write something about that light, hopeful feeling of meeting a stranger that you absolutely adore,” says Mariel with a mischievous grin…

Mariel’s voice takes on an alluring and surprisingly intimate quality for the doo-wop flavoured Stay With Me, before the bitterness of her storytelling returns for the chunky Die For You.  A stinging swipe at a former partner, it’s yet another example of vitriol-disguised-as-fluffy-pop, as lines like: “I would’ve died for you, but that’s not the worst part.  I would’ve died for you, and you would’ve let me” readily testify.

With a quiet, synth-drenched verse and a glorious, soaring chorus, Cut Me Out tackles the subject of lost female camaraderie, before Mariel confronts her own lonely, disorganized situation on What The Hell – one of several genuine album highlights.  And things get even better for Joyride (Glad You Found Me).  Without doubt, Joyride is the most unconditionally upbeat and optimistic song on the album.  Quiet, confessional, verses are balanced by a chorus that oozes pure joy, as Mariel recounts the story of meeting her husband – a coming together that, amongst other things, enabled Mariel to reprioritize everything that matters in her life.

Penultimate track, The End, is – perhaps – my favourite.  It’s a song that starts life as a wistful folky number and which soon blossoms into a driving pop anthem with another of the album’s more optimistic messages.  Mariel puts her fears for the future of the world to one side and decides to take life one day at a time.  “I know, I know, I know the world isn’t ending,” she sings, “But sometimes it feels like it is.  I, know, I know, I know the world isn’t ending, but what if, what if it did?”

Whilst most of With A Smile was recorded in Brooklyn with Mariel’s friend Andy Tongren, closing track, Daylight, was recorded with Gary Cioni in Philadelphia, and the change of scene shows.  Perhaps the gentlest track on the album, Daylight is reflective and dreamy with a relatively uncomplicated synth and bass backing and Mariel’s voice well upfront in the mix.  Indeed, it almost feels as if the lyrics are being whispered into your ear, as Mariel closes this fascinating album with yet another wistful contemplation of the doubts and disappointments that life can often serve.

With A Smile: Breezy pop, but with a purpose.

Listen to I Promise to Ruin Your Life – the second of the singles to be taken from With A Smile – here:

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