Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Crawl Space | Tei Shi

If the childhood cassette recordings that glue her debut album together paint an accurate self-portrait, Argentine singer-songwriter Tei Shi has always been a handful. "I'm a bad singer, can't do anything well. I think I sing so great, but I never really do anything right. I just hope one day I can be like Britney Spears," a young Tei Shi tells her boombox recorder. And when those dreams of fulfilling the Spears lifestyle entered the realm of possibility a few years ago, she was just as doubtful: "I forced myself into doing this thing that I was really afraid of doing," she told DIY Magazine about entering the music industry after attending the Berklee College of Music.

Recognizing a history of self-loathing and anxiety, she attacks all of her fears point-blank with her debut album, Crawl Space. Capturing the essence of the narrow, dank space Tei Shi often visited at night as a child to combat her fear of the dark, it is an echoing pop record adorned with mysterious shrieks and extraneous spurts of energy. Insulated by a cloak of anonymity within the darkness, her ambient dreams and disruptive tendencies clash unabashedly, translating to a schizophrenic, albeit revealing and enjoyable, product of experimentation.

As she spills the details of her worries in life and her losses in love, Tei Shi sprawls across the branches of pop music, taking her best stab at dance pop ("Say You Do"), dwindling within Chairlift's oddly enticing neighborhood ("Creep"), and splattering her heart across a grueling guitar line ("How Far"). And although her voice and demeanor both were shrouded in reverberation and behind a wall of blaring synthesizers on past extended plays, they take command and remain the guiding forces to hone a consistent vision here – an eccentric, honest vision from an artist who just conquered all of her fears in one zealous swish.

Crawl Space is available now under Downtown Records.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Valley | Betty Who

As Betty Who's career was coming into its own four years ago, being a hidden online treasure had just become the new trend of choice, but artists who wanted to fit that mold were to shroud extravagant pop dreams and accept the sonic pigeonhole they'd be thrown in. For the Australian singer-songwriter, that meant curating her debut record behind the filter of fluffy, lush synthpop. And it worked: Take Me When You Go was an impressive introduction, and its respective touring runs through gay pride festival circuits gained her unbreakable connections in the LBGT+ community.

While she didn't seem uncomfortable within her debut, the record was fueled with the bombastic melody lines and vocal capabilities that indicated Who wasn't going to stick in that arena for long. And today, as a heavier reliance on streaming services has magnified online acts and narrowed the scope of truly underground viral stardom, she has been given the chance to make her move. With her sophomore record, The Valley, she has set her sights for two seemingly contradictory goals: to aim for both pure pop and pure honesty.

An inoffensive, romantic daydream, her debut album left an impression of a young gal who still had a tight grip on her teenage dreams. Her neon-lit cover of Donna Lewis' "I Love You Always Forever," released last summer as a stopgap in the lull between her two albums before its success earned it a place at the back end of The Valley, carried the torch of romanticism that her debut lit, but elsewhere on this album, Who's own stories evidence an effort for transparency: She's been through love and heartbreak, but more specifically, she's coped with those situations. She's craved the touch of an ex, partied through some pain, and watched friends and fans share her experiences.

And all of Who's stories play out on a polished pop platform. As a Millennial who grew up with a pop radio dominated by the age of teen dreams, she had plenty of exemplary role models when she aimed to break free of a stigmatized alternative to the shiny pop acts of the Top 40. The results shine with the lessons she learned, perhaps most brightly on "Mama Say," a tribute to the incomparable Britney Spears that drops lyrical hints of Spears' biggest tracks. The song even came packaged with a choreographed music video that shows Who operating on a level that should make Spears proud.

To strengthen an argument for her pop superstar transformation, Who also taps into the power of contemporary trends. "Pretend You're Missing Me," for example, positions itself as a first cousin to The Chainsmokers' biggest tracks, and Taylor Swift's "Style" paved the way for the creation of "You Can Cry Tomorrow," an '80s-tinted dance track with sultry undertones. However, both tracks, in addition to minimalist dance track "Human Touch" and the party-hardy "Some Kinda Wonderful," are infectious nonetheless, holding sturdy enough against comparisons to the tracks with which they vie to compete.

Some may see The Valley as a sign of selling out, but it's more believable to think of this as Betty Who's move towards a career that is more authentic to her own vision – after all, her back catalog point to the fact that she always has been a Top 40 songwriter at her core. Sure, this is no more than a fun, feelgood pop record. But the album's title implies a getaway of sorts – as its accompanying headlining tour clarifies, a party in the valley that most escapists need in times like these – and it markets itself without any implication of more sophisticated intentions. In short, with The Valley, Betty Who has embraced pop music for the light entertainment that it is, and for that, she can't be faulted.

The Valley is available now under RCA Records.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

So Good | Zara Larsson

Modesty really isn't Zara Larsson's thing. When it came time to announce the title of her international debut album, So Good, she told the United Kingdom's Official Charts that choosing such a brash title was easy, because "the album is so good." And her credentials merit a reason to boast: She hails from Sweden, a country that has produced pop royalty over the past few decades, where she found success as a child, winning the Swedish reincarnation of Got Talent at age ten, and surged in popularity with a regional debut album that was packed with signs of promise.

Soon afterwards, Larsson moved to break free from Scandinavia, haphazardly dispensing international singles like a faulty vending machine until one took here in the United States a year after its release. "Never Forget You," a nondescript party-in-a-box released under a dual byline with MNEK, gave the singer recognition but not an identity, which could explain why her follow-up singles have been thrown at a wall that is the Billboard Hot 100 and have bounced right back at her.

Nevertheless, Larsson is nothing if not persist on this album. An overabundance of commanding melodies is crammed into the album's singles, each of them painted with production that highlights the vocal ability that proved victorious on that televised competition show nine years ago. Now two years past its initial release, "Lush Life" has remained fresh with a deep, infectious groove that drives like none other on this album, and follow-up singles "I Would Like" and "Ain't My Fault" capitalize on the popularity of tropical house and shiny urban tones.

Despite its handful of midtempo snores in its latter half, So Good is nothing if not catchy and current. But by delivering music that is blatantly topical, Larsson refuses to solve the vital error in her career formula: She has yet to deliver us a personality worthy of our undivided attention for any longer than the run time of her most upbeat tracks. Like the ample Rihanna comparisons and dash of sex appeal, those bouncing beats and sweet melodies will carry her only so far – but luckily, at 19 years old, Larsson has time to prove just how good she really can be.

So Good is available now under Epic Records.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

All Your Fault, Pt. 1 | Bebe Rexha

Two years ago, when we last received a full body of work from Bebe Rexha, the Albanian singer-songwriter wanted the world to know that she was a bad bitch. Her I Don't Wanna Grow Up extended play introduced us to a stubborn, rebellious misfit archetype – a self-proclaimed bat-shit psychopath. A few years and a taste of commercial success later, Rexha has redefined her own idea of a bad bitch, playing the marketable, platinum-headed conformist with a Beats by Dr. Dre sponsorship on the first installment of her debut album, All Your Fault.

Closing the six-song teaser of the album, the aptly titled "Bad Bitch" finds a braggadocious Rexha listing off things that make her the baddest gal to ever step foot into some Adidas-branded undergarments: She pays her own bills. She buys her own rings. She knows it isn't fair that you can't touch her – but feel free to look. And when she's not priding herself over some glossy urban-tinged backdrops, she's making far too many parallels between love and drugs than should be contained in a six-track extended play. (Regardless of their titles, "Small Doses" and "Gateway Drug" aren't particularly memorable, if you're wondering.) It all comes off as a forced charade that, after acting as the basis of most of this album's tracks, is exhausting by the time we reach the sixth track.

Luckily, if nothing else, she hasn't lost touch with the distracting electronic atmospheres that agree best with that voice of hers – usually overmodulated in these studio tracks, it's one that carries a shrill, polarizing tone – in her image transition. In fact, while the pinched runs in the post-chorus of "I Got You" are bound to leave rug rash on some listeners' eardrums, its chorus is perhaps the most ear-catching moment of this extended play, when the punchy synthesizers and drum clips take precedent over the static melody line that doesn't demand too much from our ringleader. (In short, it employs the same tactics that made most of the songs from her first extended play so enticing.)

Now, with a direction that relies on a submissive conformance to contemporary Top 40 trends, Bebe Rexha seems to have stalled. For this phase, she's jacked Meghan Trainor's lyrical staples of ego-centrism and love and painted them with Tove Lo's explicit façades. Even MØ, who underwent an equally drastic image reinvention in the wake of worldwide commercial success, has enjoyed a smoother, more authentic transition – an astonishing thought when examining just how decisive MØ's long-winded new era has been for her earliest fans. In her defense, Rexha did wave a bellwether track at us last year to indicate the winds of change – the Nicki Minaj-featuring "No Broken Hearts" – but in my defense, I knew even then that it was indicative of a change in the wrong direction for work to come.

All Your Fault, Pt. 1 is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

About U | MUNA

Spare the relentless synth line lurking in the basement of MUNA's "Crying on the Bathroom Floor" that is purposely reminiscent of Robyn circa Body Talk and the band's fancy for synthesized vocal lines from Imogen Heap's playbook, not much about the Los Angeles-based trio grants direct comparisons. Fusing the best of pop-rock, synthpop, and contemporary alternative R&B without wandering through their contemporaries' narrow field of drum machines and dingy synthesizers, MUNA (like Lady Gaga with ARTPOP, they insist on all caps for their title) rests within a malleable niche that lends itself to every mood of the hour.

Comparisons to the likes of Haim, Tegan and Sara, and Shura have been slugged their way, and the best words that most mainstream journalists can pull out of their hats to describe them are "honest," "dark pop," and "girl band," but the members of MUNA are no more than proud queer women who have stories to share and aren't afraid to wear a rainbow-colored pride on their sleeves while telling them. As an outward hand towards the LGBTQ community, they steer clear of gender-laden pronouns, opting for second-person references to the past love affair that inspired this album.

Largely revealing what was once a comfort found within the waves of a troublesome relationship and an overwhelming sense of loss and indecision when the turbulent cycle is finally smacked off balance, About U follows lead vocalist Katie Gavin as she sways from detachment to false hope before accepting grief, a feeling spurred by a lack of true closure. While the moment of realization, the self-confrontational "Crying on the Bathroom Floor," appears late in the track listing, it's a triumph for a narrator who had placed the entirety of the blame on her own problematic tendencies just one track prior.

Through the sunny highs and the desperate lows of this record, Gavin remains the humanistic constant, gluing the album together. Whether her disposition juxtaposes an energetic backdrop ("Around U," "Loudspeaker") or she is encapsulated in layers of her own synthesized vocal lines ("Winterbreak," If U Love Me Now"), her voice remains a smooth stream of water, rippling as if a light breeze caught it amid multi-note runs. She is at her most exuberant on "I Know a Place," an upbeat tribute to gay dance clubs that found newfound significance in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the recent installation of a conservative presidential administration, yet she retains her cool presence to keep the track in line with the album's soundscape.

The scope of this album's sonic horizon stretches from the dusky tones of "After" to the atmospheric euphoria of "Around U" and "End of Desire." In theory, it could seem like an overarching goal of a hyperactive group in a rush to show the world what they're capable of delivering; In practice, though, it's a well-executed display of every emotional turn in the trajectory of an ill-fated relationship. These songs follow the organic fluxes and flows of the story arc, which, while not the clearest an album has ever brought to the table, is more than intriguing enough to pull listeners into MUNA's gaze and lock them there from beginning to end.

About U is out now under RCA Records.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

I See You | The xx

The eponymous debut album from alternative pop band the xx was branded with some broad characteristics: roomy mood boards and a painfully obvious feeling of indifference from Romy Craft and Oliver Sim. Their sophomore album, Coexist, tightened the criteria, toying with unorthodox implementations of club music within the same dreary soundscapes. Delayed two years by Jamie Smith's 2015 solo endeavor, the trio's third album provided them with two approaches: Take notes from Lana Del Rey and become successful parodies of their own eccentricity, which seemed to be the path that Coexist suggests they would have taken, or grab a fresh source of inspiration to keep the critics, already placed under their thumbs, and audience at bay.

A trip down the latter path led them to I See You, an album that watches the three members edge closer and closer to the dance floor of an underground discotheque. Their steps are small, though, as not to shed the mysterious reputation they gained from standing in the dark street corner outside the club for so many lonely nights. We noticed, though, that the self-proclaimed cool kids wanted to join the fun before even digging into this album. While I See You makes that obvious when it proclaimed itself the first album courageous enough to open with brazen blares of brass since Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION, Smith's In Colour pushed itself to the center that neon-lit dance floor and became one of the main electronic spectacles of its release year.

Now, it's not been determined if Smith dragged his band mates to said party or if they asked to tag along, but they sit comfortably enough in the webs of electronic, pop, and rock influences that Smith weaved to cradle their voices. Somewhat less disinterested reincarnates of Craft and Sim juxtapose the trio's most forward-moving production to date, allowing most of the power to come from their newfound musical backdrops. It's not untrue to say that "On Hold" is the farthest they stray from their original sonic blueprints, but it's also not untrue to say that this album still has the power to alienate those who look to the xx as the gloomiest headliners of the festival circuit. Nevertheless, it's the album expected from the trio, resolving the dissonance between their previous work and the production growth shown on that solo effort.

I See You is available now under Young Turks.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Three | Phantogram

Inside the cardboard housing for Phantogram's third album, the inscription is simple: For Becky.

The two words summarize Three well. The jagged album, proudly nonconformist to smooth synthpop standards, is checkered with memories of Sarah Barthel's sister, Becky, who committed suicide during its creation. "Barking Dog," a Josh Carver-fronted track chronicling the afterthoughts of someone who has committed suicide, was already in consideration before Becky's death, but all things considered, it take new meaning here. Amid her coping, Barthel fuels her inner cynic on "Cruel World" ("I used to see beauty in people, but now I see muscle and bone") and on "Answer," she begs for just that: "Kindly be kind, wipe all the dirt from my eyes. I need an answer."

Tragedy and inspiration aside, the core of pop music – infectious hooks, heavy production – remains intact. While Three continues Phantogram's tradition of building tracks around harsh, unrelenting samples, the duo has delivered its most accessible, but darkest, album to date with some help from executive producer Ricky Reed. Spare "Barking Dog," which pools together with never-ending string samples, the samples lend themselves to supermassive choruses. Lead single "You Don't Get Me High Anymore" is arguably the most aggressive of the ten tracks, taking a harsh guitar sample and grinding it against the soundscape for a sucker punch of a hook, but "Run Run Blood," tinged with East Asian influences, takes the silver-plated award.

As the 35-minute set comes to a close, it's hard to grasp what kind of journey it just took listeners on. The album that begins with "Funeral Pyre," a hypnotizing track that paints the lingering image of a recently departed loved one, is the same album that ends with a danceable little ditty that instructs us to "shake, you know you want to shake, keep going, now" because "we all got a little bit a' hoe in us." But in retrospect, this is a confessional album of frustration, heartbreak, and loss. Despite the continuation of dark sonic influences, the closing track, then, offers the promise that this musical therapy session was a success.

Three is available now under Republic Records.