Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Neighbourhood | The Neighbourhood

A neighborhood as a common noun and The Neighbourhood as a proper one are quite different things. A neighborhood – ideally, at least – is made of cohesively styled homes and happy families to fill them all. The Neighbourhood, meanwhile, aren’t quite sure what they are – even three albums and multiple extended plays into a career – and they aren’t exactly happy about much of anything, either.

Hailing from California but flaunting the British English variant of “neighborhood” in their namesake, the five-piece band have always stressed aesthetics over substance in their greyscale world. As they came to age in an era of dark, oversaturated pop, they brandished a debut album produced in full by Emile Haynie, whose lauded production work for the likes of Lana Del Rey and FKA twigs helped define the first half of this decade in music. I Love You. was prefabricated for perfection at the time, but critics pried out its Haynie facade and stomped across the few remnants of its contents.

In lyrical or cultural significance, conditions didn’t improve on the band’s sophomore record, Wiped Out!, or frontman Jesse Rutherford’s breakout session with pop music, somewhat irritatingly titled &. But damn, even if the band lack a definite sound and meaningful lyrics, it’s hard to refute that the muffled faux-rock soundscapes on Wiped Out! are undeniably cool. Unsurprisingly, professional critics have a hard time admitting that, perhaps because they too often try to paint The Neighbourhood as a bad hip-hop act rather than an average pop-rock one; in fact, they have been so turned off that the band’s third album – a self-titled one – seems to have been blacklisted from most major publications altogether.

Given the band’s current circumstances, this feels like an odd eponymous album. It’s hodge-podged together with songs – though not even some of the best ones – from two extended plays that were released quietly over the past few months, with new tracks tacked between the preexisting framework. Moreover, the guys have tweaked their sonic direction yet again, as Rutherford’s visit to the pop world seems to have wrenched in dance beats on this record's best tracks – no matter how paranoid or lonely their lyrics become. And even as odd as it seems, it all still feels somewhat appropriate for an ever-enigmatic band like The Neighbourhood.

Having always been a monochrome band, The Neighbourhood don't jump into technicolor on a whim: their sonic palette is still dark and condensed, and Rutherford's delivery is just as disinterested as ever. But during the front half of this album, a flashing strobe light backlights them to reveal their swaying silhouettes. The distorted guitar and keys in the underbelly and the dancing synths in the midriff of “Softcore” keep the track alive below Rutherford's slippery vocals; on "Scary Love," a tickled little synthesizer and persistent guitar line titillate listeners, while Rutherford's slurs immediately cool the fire the track's instrumental sets.

But The Neighbourhood’s depressive centerfold, “Blue” and the mopey “Sadderdaze,” pulls the emergency break on its momentum, dulling the front-loaded record back to two-stepping sadcore. The back end of the record echoes The Neighbourhood that once was – it’s not gleaming or particularly impressive, but it’s somewhat familiar. Ironically, in that sense, the album's least successful half as interesting music is its most successful half as the band's eponymous record, which leads me to believe that perhaps it's best that The Neighbourhood still haven't found their footing – because with each stab, they get a bit closer to redeeming a reputation they never really had to begin with.

The Neighbourhood is available now under Columbia Records.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Blue Madonna | BØRNS

To come from an artist whose hazy daydream of a debut album was titled Dopamine and covered by a voyeuristic photograph of a woman's bare legs, Blue Madonna seems to be a depressive title that represents a bit of a digression in attitude for BØRNS. His humid ecstasy fizzled as the mystery woman walked away and his nomadic rocker dreams unfolded, leaving him to pool out into a velvety state of loneliness and turmoil as he yearns from afar for just about everything from a new beautiful woman to immortality.

Per its title’s implications, Blue Madonna dismantles the constant euphoria of Dopamine to make way for a somber outlook on life. The end product's idiosyncrasies – muffled filters, cosmic production, BØRNS' nasal-toned falsetto – dress up a sad guy in a psychedelic-lite outfit. He often resides in that fragile falsetto as the tracks swirl beneath him, and though it serves him well on tracks like “Sweet Dreams" and "Supernatural," it can also paint him as a melodically grounded, equally troubled Tame Impala runoff on the very same tracks.

A sitar line adds character to “We Don’t Care,” though it is chucked before a sorely underdeveloped chorus, and more than anything, his voice sounds painfully stretched while he wails into his uppermost register on lead single “Faded Heart.” But his more refined hooks warm to boil and wrap themselves around the listener, like when he and his label-mate and mirror-image Lana Del Rey plead together over “God Save Our Young Blood” or when “I Don’t Want U Back” shakes below BØRNS’ milky, Auto-Tuned flutters.

This record re-spools the androgynous allure of his first one into something more thematically ambitious – but perhaps too ambitious for his glamorous metaphors and glossy sweet nothings. Per his interviews and Genius lyric annotations, he clings to meta conversational cornerstones in search of answers to very large unknowns. And while this record is just as capable of being hypnotizing in musical composition, it's when listeners emerge from the spell that they realize that the tunes are beautiful distractions – not answers – to his problems.

Blue Madonna is out now under Interscope Records.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pop 2 | Charli XCX

Much like a mullet, there are two distinct sides to pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX. In the front, she's business-friendly, safely rebellious, and still somewhat commercially viable, having delivered two proper albums and a drip-feed of commercial pop singles. In the back, however, she's a polarizing party-igniter. Upon colliding with the PC Music songwriting and producing collective a few years back, she burrowed deep into the disjointed synthpop renaissance – the grounds in which her Vroom Vroom extended play and both of her 2017 mixtapes were planted. The second of those mixtapes, Pop 2, is a robotic, future-is-female collaborative that takes most everything we know about pop music and chucks it out the window of speeding car.

Pop 2 is what most people over 35 would say isn't qualified to be classified as music, but what most everybody else would say should be pop music's eventual final form. A genetic mutation of commercial pop's DNA, the mixtape is a hyperactive, barely human circus of dysfunctional melodies, sputtering repetition, and stomping beats. She and her collaborators – from Carly Rae Jepsen to CupcakKe – are digitized into cyborgs; rippling with Auto-Tune, their voices are wired right into the mixtape's overproduced hard drive. Jepsen's contribution, "Backseat," opens the album with a swirling melody line, while CupcakKe joins Charli, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar for the killer "I Got It."

It's moments like when Charli gulps her way through the words "I got it" 80 times over or when Caroline Polachek's voice is pitched to the tone of a dog whistle ("Tears") that Pop 2 can prove grating under the right conditions. After all, it never stops; barreling through off-kilter bangers like "Femmebot" and "Unlock It," the electric set refuses to rest until its finale, "Track 10," when Charli's synthesized voice leads itself through devastated lyrics and into a pit of directionless modem frizzles. Nevertheless, the mixtape is an assertive, unapologetic piece of pop – and after years of Charli's hopscotching between sounds and daydreaming about even more, Pop 2 sees her find soundscapes that fit her brash attitude and punchy voice best.

Her end game has always been a moving target, although it's still hard to believe that a strangely orchestrated Rita Ora collaboration was ever a part of her master plan. (Yes, front-side-of-the-mullet Charli, we all still remember that... vaguely.) But her stint with PC Music is the longest lasting and most fitting phase of her career, even if it does operate with secondary importance behind her major-label commercial work. It's a strange business plan, but it works: Her finger is on the pulse of pop's leading edge, and her household name acts as the vehicle to intoxicate pop audiences with the avant-garde product. She confronts commercial pop's boundaries, running wild with all that pop music can be in the digital age. 

Pop 2 is available now under Atlantic Records.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tell Me You Love Me | Demi Lovato

After she ripped into Taylor Swift during an interview in 2016 and was then criticized for it, Demi Lovato – the singer, actress, and twin sister to Poot – posted a tweet to declare something that probably should have been presented in an announcement more formal than a tweet, if it were a true threat. "So excited for 2017," she wrote. "Taking a break from  music and the spotlight... I'm not for this business and the media."

Then came 2017. And in the centerfold of it, our ears were given a whole lot of song from the one and only Lovato. Having been lauded for her powerhouse vocals on her fifth studio album, 2015's Confident, she decided to plow her way through a track titled "Sorry Not Sorry," which catapulted toward the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Like many on her sixth studio album, titled Tell Me You Love Me, the track leans with a gospel sway but is crushed under Lovato, who fancies a transformation into the human equivalent of a foghorn to wow her audiences.

Though emotion cracks through her delivery of the stellar title track, Lovato isn't quite as concerned with inflection as she should be. Rather, her focus is squarely on volume: the louder, the better. On "Sorry Not Sorry" and "Daddy Issues," she crescendos into a barreling screech that, while I suppose works for choppy pop anthems, isn't her most flattering technique. Similar remarks can be made about "Sexy Dirty Love," where her outbursts are perhaps the most merited; she cracks into an excited shout only when appropriate, rather than at every turn.

Admittedly, "Daddy Issues" and "Sexy Dirty Love" are definite earworms, but Lovato's most stunning performances as a vocalist come from her hushed, sensual tracks, like "Only Forever" and "Concentrate," and scaled-back ballads, namely "Hitchhiker." Those moments, when she sounds her most mature, are what counteract the booming urgency of the belted bangers – and it's the first time we've gotten to hear Lovato in that capacity, given that her craft has traditionally abused her voice's larger-than-life abilities.

On this album more than any other before, Lovato is all wrapped up in some mad relationship funk on these tracks. In that sense, it's a commercial pop record through and through. But as is the case for many commercial pop records, it can come off as manufactured, because none of its tracks provide the same indication as to how the relationship is faring. Sometimes, her lover is playing games and just doesn't do it for her anymore; other times, she isn't afraid to admit that she can't concentrate on anything other than the bedroom or the altar, whichever better fits the romantics she caught at the moment.

Tell Me You Love Me, like most of Lovato's albums, lacks much behind its current curb appeal and vocal acrobatics. It's reflective of its moment in pop music, reliant on the slickest styles of the hours: a little sensuality, a little acoustic guitar, a little urban flair. It serves its place in the current musical landscape just fine, but it's not much to scoff at aside from that – and if meets the same fate as Confident, which might as well have been a mere glimmer in pop music's history, it certainly won't have aged like fine wine in a few years' time.

Tell Me You Love Me is available now under Island Records.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Someone Out There | Rae Morris

Although Rae Morris' potential to become a power pop artist has been apparent since her career's beginning – even if she always has skewed a bit left field – her sophomore effort is a surprisingly fluorescent record for an artist whose last album was an overcast approach to pop with a singer-songwriter state of mind. Today's Rae Morris rides the waves of the most recent high-gloss pop revival – an era of newfound appreciation for bouncy beats and sugar-coated melodies. She, however, dials back pop music's typical titillating bombast, bending instead toward a Kate Bush quirkiness as she undertakes modern pop aerobics.

In that regard, Morris may also be the first artist to be an unabashed Björk fan – and sound like one. Her songwriting is catchy in an unorthodox way, and to boot, her voice is a distant echo of the strange Icelandic artist. It becomes most obvious when Morris' voice is stretched at the piercing midrange on Someone Out There, like on unfurling lead single "Reborn" and slower cut "Physical Form." And often enough, she's given clearance to smudge the pop music blueprints more than most label-label acts – except for maybe the very safe, two-stepping title track. It's admittedly charming in its own way, sounding as if it's meant to soundtrack a lonely wintertime scene in a mid-aughts drama movie.

"Do It" was lauded as the best stab at a tropical pop banger in a good without being a banger proper, but more striking dance tracks do exist on Someone Out There. On "Rose Garden," Morris' vocal lines stack on top of cascading string lines and build to the dissonance of a train whistle, triggering a pulsating pop beat to come alive. "Lower the Tone" politely – perhaps too politely – suggests mutually desired sexual advances, but it also grows into a hypnotic dance track as more elements skitter below Morris' digitized vocal line. And in a more traditionally catchy fashion, "Atletico" and "Dip My Toe" dance with sharp drum machines and lively melodies.

Someone Out There proves current, fun, dance-conscious pop music doesn't have to be topical or trivial. Written and recorded just before a romantic relationship formalized between Morris and primary collaborative songwriter and producer Fryars, the album bleeds the excitement that comes with a blossoming relationship. Yet when Morris is giddy, she's still composed ("Atletico," "Dip My Toe," "Do It"). When she slows the tempo, she remains hopeful ("Dancing with Character," "Reborn," "Someone Out There"). And regardless of her tone on this record, she's absolutely mesmerizing.

Someone Out There is available now under Atlantic Records.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Synthesis | Evanescence

A hiatus can be so unkind to a musical act. A personnel change can be, too. Rock bank Evanescence has had a lot of each.

Just six months after having won the battle for a green light on Fallen, their major label debut album, the band said goodbye to songwriter and founding member Ben Moody. Three years after Fallen's release, a second member had left, another had suffered a stroke, and the band was still without a sophomore record – which would arrive in the fall of 2006 in the form of The Open Door, a stylistically adventurous (and impressive) endeavor with a smaller commercial return on investment. It was another half-decade later before Amy Lee, the band's powerhouse figurehead, bandaged her passion project back together for a self-titled record in 2011. Released amid more band member and producer shake-ups and at the height of the career-long tension with Wind-up Records, the album was a splash compared to the tidal wave that was Fallen.

In the band's lengthy lag times, Evanescence fell into near-meme state. Breakthrough hit "Bring Me to Life" has been dragged through the mud for its rock-rap aesthetic and wonderfully 2000s music video – and the mockery peaked with a popular cover by a guy who can contort his voice to sound like Goofy. "Going Under" was the soundtrack to the iconic goth parody that stars Raven, the acid bath princess of the darkness, and her friends, Tara and Azer. And "My Immortal" shares a name with an equally iconic, infamously terrible, 44-chapter Harry Potter fanfiction about a girl named Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way – no relation to Gerard Way, but she does conveniently look like Amy Lee. Their reputation in meme culture began to outpace their legacy as a Grammy-winning band that reintroduced the female voice to rock music.

For an act that had been silent for six years and hadn't produced a true hit in over a decade, Evanescence returned in 2017 in the best way they could have: They planted themselves as a nostalgia act, releasing an unorthodox greatest hits collection of sorts. Synthesis – kind of their fourth studio album, kind of their first compilation album – is a hodge-podge of new tracks and reworked songs from their back catalog, all molded into an electro-orchestral experience. (So basically what we all should ask of Ashlee Simpson's return to music, should that ever happen. Or a Lindsay Lohan comeback album, featuring 12 different orchestral versions of "Rumors." Man, a lot could be done with the bridge on that one... But I digress.)

However, selections were plucked from the first three records based on how compatible they were with a Synthesis retrofit, not on their commercial success. Though fans will find plenty of goodies on the album, casual listeners who checked out after 2004 will be unhappy to recognize only "Bring Me to Life" and "My Immortal." One goes without its "wake me up" hype-man and feels a bit empty without him, even if he wasn't meant to be there in the first place; the other isn't all that different, given its basis was already a somber piano ballad. Other ballads, including power ballads "My Heart is Broken" and "Lost in Paradise" from Evanescence, are also stripped of their guitars and pianos for cascading strings to equally unchanged, albeit admirable, results.

Tracks from the band's eponymous album, their least striking and least recognized record, dominate this one: Five songs from it alone find second lives here, some of them outshining their hard rock origins. "End of the Dream" may have the most drastic overhaul on the record, freeing the melody that the original rendition buried beneath heavy, relentless guitars. The three tracks to appear from The Open Door do not outperform, but are free to unhinge just like, their rock counterparts –especially the Mozart-sampling "Lacrymosa," which tilts and creaks with jarring strings, and "Your Star," the last minute of which spirals into a madhouse.

Of the two new tracks, "Hi-Lo" is the brighter behemoth – although it does stand next to "My Heart is Broken" in the album's track listing and bleed some similarity in composition and tone. Regardless, Lee's vocal performance shatters through the track before Lindsey Stirling appears for a killer string feature in the bridge. "Imperfection," meanwhile, is perhaps the most reliant on the sputtering electronics that are otherwise subtle on the record. It's a bit more urgent than how Evanescence normally carries themselves, and it's certainly less hardcore than they're used to touting.

Synthesis is anything but lazy. Each detail of the orchestral arrangements seem to have been fussed over, and vocals for all of the reimagined songs have been rerecorded to emphasize Lee's refined vocal technique: a bit more dynamic and supported, but nothing strikingly different or any less dramatic than before. It's the type of project many fans dream to get from their favorite artists – and much like "part two" continuation albums, it's one that artists often promise but rarely deliver. Even if it doesn't offer transformations that are all that different, the record is an interesting capitalization on Lee's classical influences and desired sonic direction nonetheless.

Synthesis is available now through BMG Rights Management.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don't Smile at Me | Billie Eilish

As if you couldn't deduce it from the irritated glare she shoots you from the cover of her debut extended play, Billie Eilish makes it pretty clear that she doesn't want you to smile at her. And she doesn't want to smile at you.

From a stranger's perspective today, it may be hard to believe that her earliest single, "Ocean Eyes," is a feathery, non-confrontational synthpop track that was recorded in her brother's bedroom for her lyrical dance group. Her fluid vocals run like a stream over lightweight production, and when the track found its way onto every trending playlist on the web, Eilish was deemed the world's next best do-it-yourself hit-maker. And although Don't Smile at Me makes a finale out of "Ocean Eyes," its remaining tracks are products of an unrecognizable Billie Eilish.

Despite a much more professional guise, Don't Smile at Me is an in-house product in its entirety. Her brother, songwriter and former Glee actor Finneas O'Connell, co-wrote the extended play and produced it himself, throwing his sister's pastel voice over a distinct mixture of acoustics and electronics. At her most intimidating, she can unhinge over low-riding bass that can shake the dead from their slumber ("Copycat," "Bellyache") or grab a ukulele and leave a twinkling musical voicemail to confront a boyfriend ("Party Favor"). In that last one, she's cool and collected as she twists the knife in her send-off: "And I hate to do this to you on your birthday... Happy birthday, by the way."

Eilish is edgy in the most marketable way – and she is perhaps the most believably edgy of her contemporaries. There really isn't a fictional character or grand conceptual schtick to her tunes. It's just her: a teenager who has seen some heartbreak, hates having her style copped, and uses her angst to write some fine viral pop tunes. Even when she does sing a fictional narrative, as she does on "Bellyache," it's with a tone that falls in line with the rest of her extended play: "I'm biting my nails. I'm too young to go to jail... It's kind of funny," she sings from the perspective of a murderer who regrets having slaughtered her friends and lover just moments prior to the song.

For someone so young, Eilish's swagger is unbelievably convincing. She released Don't Smile at Me at age 15, meaning she threatened to ignite a boyfriend's car and watch it burn on the swelling choruses of "Watch" before she could even drive herself. Her voice is light but is complemented, not hindered, by her brother's production choices, and to boot, their refreshingly casual songwriting is trendy without the overwrought poems many young artists tend to pen in their infancy. After all, Billie Eilish is not here to make you (or herself, for that matter) smile; she's here to make music that sounds badass – and that's exactly what she's done here.

Don't Smile at Me is available now under Interscope Records.