Tuesday, June 12, 2018

So Sad So Sexy | Lykke Li

America has never really taken to Lykke Li. With a discography of indie-bent pop, she generally lingered just outside of American pop culture’s scope of consciousness, jumping into the frame only for a Twilight soundtrack contribution. (That stunning piano ballad, "Possibility," has already outlived the legacy of the vampire romance series, might I add.) Nevertheless, by the sounds of her fourth studio album, she sure has taken to America quite well.

A Swedish implant, she resides in the United States, where hip-hop has dominated airwaves for the past few years. Its influences have bled into pop music for much longer than its radio domination, but until now, Li’s music has been immune to that. When Lana Del Rey released Born To Die in 2012, Li was fresh off the European success of “I Follow Rivers.” When the Weeknd slid into place on the Billboard charts with Beauty Behind the Madness in 2015, she had just released the collection of heartbroken pop ballads, I Never Learn.

Four albums deep, Li decides to turn her attention toward the trend and away from the fuzzy, neo-tribal sound that carried her this far. Signaling a drastic shift into synthetic instrumentation and striking minimalism, "Hard Rain" and "Deep End," the first tracks to be released from her fourth studio album, find her processed voice gulping for air amid tinny trap beats and buzzing bass. The entrancing lead-in tracks preface So Sad So Sexy, a 10-track set that document Li at her most strained emotionally and at her most willing musically.

So Sad So Sexy comes after the loss of her mother and the birth of her first son, fathered by producer and musician Jeff Bhasker. It seems strange for her to record as a new mother in a presumably stable relationship. (Her son was born in 2016, and Bhasker is still around, having co-written or co-produced many tracks on this record.) But it seems with stability came paranoia: "Two nights in a row, where’d you go? I’ve been smoking. Somebody else. I think you’re out there with someone else," she sings on the hazy "Two Nights." It stirs visions of an angry Li, smoking in a chair under a lamp in the living room as she waits for her partner to arrive home.

Other tracks, meanwhile, lend themselves more to a good cry in bed. Even her most greyscale tracks can paint detailed scenes, like the swaying "Last Piece" or the title track, a sultry cut that frames the rest of the nine tracks in a small period of turbulence. Even still, “Bad Woman” might just be the record’s quintessential sad song. In the ballad of succinct harmonies, Li tries to excuse her distress: “I’ve been a bad woman, but I’m still your woman. I’ll understand if you leave me, just go. Just don’t go before I show you what’s behind all of my sorrow,” she sings. 

Cracks in the wall that covers her former framework can be heard across the record, though most of them can be chalked up to fragility. Though it can draw a bit thin, her woozy, hip-hop-induced recollection of her relationship anxiety is her most palatable and infectious work – and seemingly, her most therapeutic. A digitized whimper trails the record’s most optimistic line, coming on the finale: “We could be utopia, utopia. You and me, utopia, utopia.” Even when considering the nine other tracks in the record, it’s hard to believe that moan is an echo of pain. As the sunny "Utopia" closes the record, she makes it clear that she has swam to the surface of her turmoil and can breathe easy once again.

So Sad So Sexy is out now under RCA Records.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Love is Dead | Chvrches

Very early in their career, Chvrches were chosen as the pop band of choice for finicky listeners – the flagship act of Pitchfork pop, if you will. For every elitist declaration of “I don’t like pop music” comes the essential postscript “except Chvrches.” The trio’s twinkling in-house production and lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s shouty soprano voice have attracted a particularly selective crowd. Without much effort, they were deemed the smart man’s alternative to pop and catapulted themselves into the top few rows of festival billings.

On the trio’s third record, Love is Dead, the sharp tips of their synthesizers and automated beats are gelled back with styling from mega-producer Greg Kurstin. Gasp. It shimmers as if it's covered with a blanket of glitter, and nowhere is that more apparent than on “Graves” or “Heaven/Hell,” where Chvrches are on an ultimate sugar rush. The well-versed producer Steve Mac also appears on the record, though not molding as well as Kurstin when he puts his hands into “Miracle.” Its melody dances over an uncharacteristically heavy instrumental before plunging into an even more uncharacteristic breakdown.

Kurstin’s saturated pop production has never been ignorant to trends in popular commercial music, but it hasn’t been dictated by them, either. Here, it is very much in-tune with the pre-existing template Chvrches’ past two records have laid out: It twinkles, sputters, and bursts through Mayberry’s short, choppy phrases that are looped into oblivion. On “Deliverance” and “Never Say Die,” she stomps her foot across it: “Is it deliver-iver-iverance?” and “Never, never, never, ever, never, ever, ever say die,” she sings. And on closing track "Wonderland," it sweeps with majestic flairs as Mayberry sings what are perhaps the record's most developed lyrics.

On this record, Chvrches prove themselves to be the short-form journalism of pop music: They have a lot of information on hand but a very strict word count to get it all out. For a record that is such a blunt declaration, Love is Dead offers the least amount of liberty for justification. Mayberry is at her shortest-spoken form yet, not offering the poetic lip service of, say, the lead singles from the group’s previous records. In comparison, lead single for this cycle, “Get Out,” provides no more than catchy, spastic fodder for the record. The same could be said about many tracks, like "Never Say Die" or "My Enemy," a sleepy duet with The National singer Matt Berninger.

As the commercial pop debut of Chvrches, Love is Dead does the job just fine. As a proper Chvrches record, though, it changes the band's identity and trajectory. Adorning the band in their biggest, flashiest productions to date, it expects more out of Lauren Mayberry – and Martin Doherty, for that matter, on the few tracks that he reemerges as a lead vocalist – than either of them may be able to deliver in their vocals and the emotive intentions behind them. In turn, it may also train the ear to expect less from Chvrches, if satin-finished production and static vocal performances turn out to be the newest stock features for the band.

Love is Dead is available under Virgin EMI Records and Goodbye Records.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Future and The Past | Natalie Prass

Singer-songwriter Natalie Prass got her groove back – or got her groove for the first time, should we say?

The second attempt at a sophomore record, The Future and The Past is the forward-thinking departure from her self-titled debut record. It took shape after the 2016 American presidential election, when Prass scrapped a finished record to incorporate the widespread devastation over Donald Trump's win. The first reincarnate of the record squared its sights on personal heartbreak, and fittingly, that story arc can still be seen splattered across this record as she explores thoughts of hopelessness and eventual recovery. But more importantly, The Future and The Past is the least urgent, most casual protest record to come from the past few years.

To fulfill an album title that all but guarantees a timeless sound and progressive songwriting, Prass mixes an incredibly potent cocktail of jazz, vintage rhythm and blues, lounge pop, and funk. (Oh, and just a touch of disco, especially as "The Fire" really elbows into an infectious groove not unlike one found on La Roux's sophomore record.) Her voice, then, is the smooth constant across the impressive gallery of textures. Her gliding vocal falls into dissonance for so long on “Hot for the Mountain” that when she finally slides back into proper position, it’s the sweetest relief. And on the stunning ballad “Lost,” her voice is the main attraction as it soars at its strongest on those belted lines: "Oh, I get lost when I'm with you, but at what cost?"

Remnants of the initial record can be heard on tracks like "Lost" and “Short Court Style,” a funk-oriented track slathered with a quaint pop melody. But her personal conflict is intertwined with her shared political frustration. "Oh My" opens the album with a sharp guitar line, a slinky beat, and lyrics that should be overblown on pop art posters: "Seems like every day we're losing when we chose to read the news, yeah. Oh my." Then comes the resistance: She grabs hold of womankind and empowers it to cooperate on her version of an anthem for "nasty women," titled "Sisters," and activates people to take charge in numbers on "Hot for the Mountain," chanting in one of her many layered vocal patches: "We'll take you on. We can take you on, hey."

It isn't until "Nothing to Say," an expansive, piano-led number toward the end of the record, that Prass perhaps best sums up the noisy, polarized madhouse that Trump has built out of America: "Everybody's talking, but they don't know. Everybody's talking, but there's nothing to say." Likewise, everybody talking expects to win – including Prass, who closes out with the triumphant funk of "Ain't Nobody." She sings, "Ain't nobody here is giving it up. Oh, ain't nobody can take this from our hands." But luckily, her confidence isn't misguided: The Future and The Past helps commemorate in music what ultimately will be remembered as the winning side of the 2018 narrative: The one that values respect and equality, built for and by those who prevail together.

The Future and The Past will be released June 1, 2018, on ATO Records. It is available for preview streaming via National Public Radio.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Saved | Now, Now

The emo era of the mid-aughts is well in the rear-view. Connected to the popularity of rock, acoustic pop-rock, and pop punk throughout the last decade, it perhaps officially died when this year’s edition of the annual convention for emos and nostalgic former emos – the Warped Tour – was announced to be the tour’s last cross-country run. (It could also be argued, however, that the Warped Tour jumped the shark a few years ago when Bebe Rexha somehow found herself in its lineup.)

But the bands who thrived in the emo era's heyday – ones like Fall Out Boy, Tegan and Sara, Panic! at the Disco, and Paramore – have managed to survive by aging out of their association with Hot Topic culture alongside their core listeners, who are all solidly out of their angsty formative years and into young adulthood. Paramore have done particularly well as they transition into a pop-oriented rock band, sparing the depressive rock clichés and melodramatic outpouring of overwrought emotion in their newest form.

Now, Now, a low-profile band that began to make waves in the twilight years of the emo era, are no different. Saved, the duo’s first album in six years and third in their decade-long career span, is far separated from their last records, which resided only in the periphery of "emo" but didn’t cower from the acceptance from the community. This record’s guitars and sad-song lyrics, both carryovers from the first generation of the band, are softened by a cradle of synthesizers, pillowy and pastel-toned like a cloud of cotton candy. The result is a more mature, instantly infectious record, with a sound and release date that lodge it in the contenders’ list for the album of the summer.

What better way to concrete a commitment to a pop record than to pen a song dedicated to the King of Pop? Like most of the record, "MJ" is the bouncy antithesis to its own distraught lyrics. Lead vocalist KC Dalager creates a conversation with the late Michael Jackson, lamenting about a crumbling relationship with her oh-so sparkly voice. Across Saved, that voice is glossy and punchy as it navigates melodies and climaxes that are no further in relation than first cousins within her restrictive comfort zone. The songs’ deceptively neon coatings are not uncomfortably similar to one another, but admittedly, they can melt together into one hue without careful attention.

The duo’s melodies are not belters by any means – in fact, Dalager’s vocals are most potent when cut staccato against plush backdrops. She stars opposite of a stuttering guitar line on "Yours," a anthemic track that dives into dusky, synthesized padding at its chorus. And her vocals are chopped to bits on the pulsating "Knowme" and the disjointed title track - the closest the duo jaunts toward dance music, though they're not the best tracks for getting down on the dance floor. Rather, they ensure the record's gaze toward the pure pop giants doesn't go unnoticed.

The tracks most reliant on guitars ("AZ," "SGL," "Set It Free") remind listeners of Now, Now’s initial charm without regression in attitude; guitars are implemented with much sunnier implications on Saved than they were on Threads. When Hayley Williams, a powerful figure who lent her hand to give Now, Now some footing with an opening act slot on a tour, smiled through her pain on After Laughter, it seems everybody else followed along – including Now, Now.  Saved is a distressed record, but it doesn’t show it; the emotional cracks are walled over with warm, synthesized patchwork. And that's certainly far from an unattractive look.

Saved is available now under Trans-Records.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Sway | Tove Styrke

The rose shoved in a shiny aluminum soda can on the cover of Tove Styrke’s abbreviated third studio album is perhaps a genius representation of the Swedish singer-songwriter. Considering her previous album's detour into outlandish alternative pop succeeded in being intriguingly off-kilter, her imperfect, indie-bent vocals shouldn’t fit so well in a highlighted pop art picture book of concise love stories – but Sway does a damn fine job at proving otherwise. 

Sway is an eight-track collection of Styrke’s poppiest, most current-minded songs yet – six of which were delivered via drip-feed over the past year without confirmation of an album to come. Minimalist in nature, they are constructed with hallow instrumental centers. Stellar lead-in single "Say My Name" is built upon a scrappy ukulele and not much else. Her vocals on both "Mistakes" and her cover of tour mate Lorde’s "Liability" take the forefront, swooning in a watery vocoder; "Mistakes" blossoms into an ode to all the bad things she’d like to do with a partner, while "Liability" echoes Lorde’s feelings of doom by way of fame. 

Though bare, Styrke's production choices are infectious, and much like her last album, they warrant equal attention in the mix as her charmingly cockeyed voice. The chorus of "On a Level," for example, jerks listeners with abrupt false starts for its first two repetitions before it unfolds into a spacey dance break. And the sparse "Changed My Mind" jumps from side to side with a bouncy beat that is, in part, indebted to Sia’s "Cheap Thrills" – and tastefully so, not as if the beat were recreated with a Xerox machine à la Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You."

Sway is short, sweet, and straightforward, with clean-cut production and no-frills songwriting. It is lovestruck pop at its most refined, cutting away excesses and distractions for an unadulterated shot of saccharin to the jugular. Styrke keeps from falling into the status quo with the voice, which is still ragged at its edges but is often softened with vocoders and Auto-Tune, and the production quirks to keep us all swaying for the mere half-hour she demands our attention.

Sway is available now under Sony Music Sweden.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Dirty Computer | Janelle Monáe

Without proper representation or respect in the current federal administration, minorities have taken to the arts in droves. An important outpouring of female, black, Latino and queer experiences have played out in music in the past few years. For better or worse, rap and hip-hop have taken to the mainstream without pop stars being the vehicles to deliver it to the airwaves via samples and guest verses – for better, perhaps, because rap historically has been the platform for reform, but for worse, as well, because the commercial side of the genre is void of the struggle that makes rap resonate. After all, it seems the biggest struggles Post Malone has had are washing his hair and refraining from facial tattooing.

Janelle Monáe, meanwhile, is a triple minority American with a lot to say. After spending the first several years of her career tied up in a proposed seven-part concept story line of dystopian futurism and humanistic robots, she embraces her place in America as a pansexual black woman – and she does so in the largest way possible. She sidesteps from her Metropolis conceptual spread with the declaration of a real-life broken code: She’s a Dirty Computer with faulty hard-wiring that allows her to recognize and experience emotion, sexuality, and inequality in the here and now.

Monáe’s narrative unfolds over a pop record with a funk soul. The minimalist, disjointed lead single "Make Me Feel" wears its Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter co-signatures on its sleeve, but it sets itself apart with its wobbly, Prince-inspired synth line and overtly sexual intentions. The Grimes-featuring "Pynk" and Zoë Kravitz-assisted "Screwed" are equally fun and sexually liberating moments – true triumphs for the woman who remained firm on having an attraction only toward androids until this album cycle. "Pynk" embraces femininity and queerness with its reference to the "inside of your... baby" and its anthemic, wailing chorus, while "Screwed" is a bit brattier as it infuses wise digs toward American politics and the sexual assailant that the country calls a president.

Talk of her sexual experiences, self acceptance, and womanhood is triumphant but never flaunting; moreover, it often acts on behalf of grander commentary. (Only when Pharrell Williams was cleared to drop the line, "Yellow like the pee," on "I Got That Juice" does Dirty Computer graze distastefulness – and even then, Monáe recovers with a stern, "If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.") And though she is so often confidently defiant in all the right ways, she does allow fragility to prevail in the crevices of this record – especially when a romantic relationship is referenced, like on standout power ballad "So Afraid" and the less dynamic "Don't Judge Me." 

Dirty Computer acts not only as Monáe’s sexual awakening, but also as her rise to power. She ignites with pride in her identity on "Django Jane," a thunderous dedication to black girl magic, while "I Like That" and finale track "Americans" look in the rear-view mirror, back to national and personal history. "I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off and you rated me a six. I was like, ‘Damn.’ But even back then, with the tears in my eyes, I knew I was the shit," she says on "I Like That." And "Americans" allows her to warp a nostalgic, wholly American sound into the ultimate satirical statement and call to action: "Sign your name on the dotted line," she sings as the final resonating line of the album.

In 2016, Beyoncé and Solange Knowles released two of the year's most prolific albums, both with the same thematic core: the black woman and the confrontation of her own existence in society. Beyoncé's Lemonade was filled with rage, provoked by both systemic racism and marital woes; Solange's A Seat at the Table, a bit more general in nature but still introspective. And in 2018, Janelle Monáe builds upon the Knowles sisters' progress with an equally important piece of work. She embraces herself as both a black woman and a queer American with strength and striking wit across this record's tightly-written, infectious tracks, then she directs action upon her experiences: "You fucked the world up now; we'll fuck it all back down," she promises. And that, we will.

Dirty Computer is available now under Atlantic Records.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Primal Heart | Kimbra

It’s high time that Kiwi singer-songwriter Kimbra is recognized on her own merit. Not as “Gotye collaborator Kimbra” or “‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ Kimbra,” but simply as Kimbra. She's a woman whose solo career far outshines her 30-second, vocally ambiguous guest spot in a stellar one-off hit that threw her career into an awkward, premature spike. And if there’s such an album that can convince people to pay attention, Primal Heart should be it.

Primal Heart, her third record and first in four years, explores the human condition through experimental synthpop tracks that are freakishly organic. Tribal beats, mocked up samples, and unraveling melodies run rampant over complex instrumentation – perhaps best exhibited on the stellar Skrillex-assisted single "Top of the World." She sing-raps just slightly off-kilter, signaling vocoders in and out of the mix to haunting results, before the song resolves into a chanted hook about the desire to conquer all who stand in her way. Over her soundscapes, she exercises her vocals expertly. She flexes her stronger middle and lower registers ("Black Sky,” “Human") and either double-tracks her upper notes for strength ("The Good War," "Like They Do On The TV") or buries them in the mix as a sound effect ("Lightyears").

Her previous record, 2014's The Golden Echo, was sewn with equally intricate patchwork, but it operated on the premise of idealistic love; this record reveals its cracks, where primal urges render weakness, control, and triumph. "Got a heart that’s primal. ‘Cause, yeah, I need your love for my survival," she wails on "Human" before crooning through a frank conclusion: "This is what is means to be human. Don’t know much but I know this much is true." She often struts with confidence – "Everybody Knows," "Top of the World" – but eventually cracks. "Version of Me," the album’s standalone ballad, and the Auto-Tune-drenched "Real Life" tiptoe the album to its close, both cautiously questioning Kimbra’s reality.

Kimbra’s instincts led her through the creation of a potently hypnotic and accessible record. Working with elements of a genre that can be so robotic, she orchestrates clashing electronics to form a very human set of tracks. Following her emotional command, her tracks unhinge when she's at her most confident and pull back when she falls into introspective valleys. Her melodies are just as breathtaking as the encompassing production that supports them, her lyrics convey the four-year effort of living and learning that it took to write them, and most importantly, the star behind the record isn't afraid to stay in touch with her primal side and come back punching.

Primal Heart is available now under Warner Bros. Records.