Monday, July 16, 2018

Still Run | Wet

Prior to this month's release of Wet’s second studio record, The Chicago Tribune published a profile of front woman Kelly Zutrau under the title, “Kelly Zutrau is back in control of Wet, and that’s good.” Though awkwardly conversational, the title hints at the transitional power struggle that came after the three-piece band released a major label debut album to a critical yawn and toured it across the globe. Wet have since shrunk a member amid hesitations of continuing the project, and in hindsight, Zutrau has hinted in interviews that their songs were too homogenous and that label pressures and her band mates pushed her into certain directions, though Don’t You remains a charming alternative pop record. 

Their second record, Still Run, is the portrait of a band caught in the crossfires of a premature transition. With Zutrau now squarely at the helm and Joe Valle in a supporting role, Wet seem driven to rebel against what once was, even if for only a portion of the record. They introduced this chapter with "There’s a Reason," both anthemic and upbeat – two words that never would have been used to describe the band circa 2013. The too-cool and old-school "You’re Not Wrong" keeps up with the pitter-patter of drums while Zutrau’s voice sounds as if a few sheets of copy paper were slid between her mouth and the microphone, muffling its usual quivers and chokes.

New Wet's sensibilities, though jarring upon first listen, shimmer in their own rights. When the worlds of New Wet and Old Wet collide, however, the true magic ensues. "Lately," perhaps the band’s best track to date, sounds like a signature Wet track, but it, in part, takes aim at the band itself: “Oh, I use up my energy just to make sure that you know you’re important. And you never like how my song sounds, but you give nothing of yourself,” Zutrau sings toward her band mates and business partners amid general frustrations in her professional career and personal life. And on "11 Hours," her voice rips into the lyrics in agony over a painful relationship (with a person, with the band, with music... who knows?) that she just can't shake.

Moments like "11 Hours" and the title track, a side-stepping acoustic track with a yearning vocal line, prove the record to be much more moving than most have recognized thus far. "Softens," a sprawling six-minute vanity track, is nothing if not mesmerizing; although it does not convey the personal metamorphosis that many tracks here do, it listens as Zutrau's beautiful escape from her band's impending implosion. Her anxiety is splattered across the record's first half, before she flips her script and gives into love: "This Woman Loves You" is a quaint track regarding blind love, and "Visitor" is over five minutes of Zutrau offering herself as a home for her emotionally lost partner, even if the first half of Still Run suggests she needs an emotional grounding first.

Despite being the vehicle for some of the best tracks in the band's short discography, Still Run surely doesn't present Wet in their final form. Within its 10 tracks, Wet are very much caught up in, well, being Wet. Zutrau is tangled in her own existence as a friend, a lover, and a musician, and what comes of those struggles is an album that is both gorgeous and directionless. Aside from Zutrau's gains in assertion, the record struggles to find a forward motion – and that's okay this time around. Memorializing what could have spelled disaster for the promising young band, it does as its centerfold track promises: Beauty radiates from the record, softening the band's grief track by track until it puts the turmoil to sleep with a final lullaby.

Still Run is out via Columbia Records.

Monday, July 2, 2018

High As Hope | Florence + The Machine

In 2011, Florence + The Machine released a Gothic cathedral of a sophomore record, Ceremonials. Dark, unrestrained instrumentation and high-voltage vocal performances thundered Florence Welch through a record that paired well with the successful formula of Lungs, distracting listeners from the deep-seeded issues that kept the record's blood pumping from beneath the patchwork of otherworldly metaphors. Four years later, it was counteracted by How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, which shifted the point of view to Welch's immediate self-destructive behaviors – and away from the underlying discomforts, which were never settled in its predecessor's ornate storytelling and caused her to unravel throughout her first two records.

A sobering agent following the drunken blur of her early days of fame, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful gave her structure and clarity. It recognizes the storms she conjured as she traveled from city to city, from party to party. High As Hope, meanwhile, is her homecoming record: It's Florence sans machine, stripped of her brass armor and here to confront what Ceremonials attempted to address years ago. She has been settled for a few years now, and she’s had time to reflect on her lifelong coping mechanisms: "When I go home alone, I drive past the place where I was born and the places that I used to drink, young and drunk and stumbling in the street," she recounts of her hometown on "South London Forever." 

We see Welch with the least flash, at her most literal – but with restraint. "At 17, I started to starve myself," she opens on the thumping "Hunger," before pulling back and carrying over to a different hunger – a passion she sees in listeners a decade her junior. She addresses her grandmother's suicide again, after having dedicated the opening track of Ceremonials to the topic, this time on "The End of Love" in a painfully upfront way: "And in a moment of joy and fury, I threw myself from the balcony like my grandmother so many years before me." Whereas "Only If For a Night" recounted a dream, the new track listens as a devastating retelling of her family and ancestors, leaving listeners awestruck with its stretched harmonies and uncharacteristically conversationalist tone.

The record's title and a track like "South London Forever" may cast a feeling of peace with having her worst days behind her, but now, Welch can find that peace only in cracking her vulnerabilities wide open, broadcasting her guilt as a form of self-repair. She purges pain her pain outright, rather than reaching outward or masquerading turmoil for solace. And though she makes unprecedentedly declarative statements, she pulls back in time, as to keep her confessions striking when they do spill out. Even the narrative on "Grace," an intimate apology to her younger sister in the form of Welch's most reality-based power ballad yet, intrigues with its minimal exaggeration across its swelling, five-minute run. 

Released alongside Welch's first poetry collection, High As Hope displays a conscious effort to reel in sonic distractions to allow her unstructured confessions to resonate. Her voice, as impressive as it is, has been pulled down to a volume level in the upper single digits, and the 10 sprawling tracks on this album are less hook-reliant. She operates her voice in ways never before recognized, creaking across the haunting "Big God" and cascading down the sizzling opening track "June" like a rogue paint dribble down a finished canvas. And with its drum line, hand claps, and encompassing chorus, "100 Years" has the gusto of the full-blast anthems in her back catalog, but its raw, underproduced vocals and organic nuances keep it cohesive with this record's neutral-toned palette.

Much of the conversation surrounding High As Hope relies on the subtle shifts in Florence + The Machine's musicality: The mixes crackle with imperfections, the instrumentation and Welch's voice swoon and build without outright jolts, and the record's landscape is milled into an even consistency. Granted, this all allows exhilarating bursts like "Hunger" and "100 Years" to coexist with subtle glistens like "Sky Full of Song" and "The End of Love." But this record displays a much more important metamorphosis: The personal one within Florence Welch. She has never sung about herself or presented her feelings in the way she does on this record – and never have her words been backlit with such bright shimmers of hope.

High As Hope is available now via Republic Records.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Voicenotes | Charlie Puth

In much of the narrative surrounding his second album’s release, Charlie Puth put himself on trial – and found himself guilty of getting caught up in the storm of success that came with his breakthrough single, "See You Again." "For the most part, it was just filler," he admitted to The New York Times in regard to his debut record, Nine Track Mind. That, combined with the fact that Puth is a Berklee graduate who began studying classical music at age four and produces a large chunk of his own music, is what made Nine Track Mind more frustrating than disappointing.

At the time, Puth was pop music’s most wanted criminal: He was popular, but damn, his music was downright terrible. Gunning for knee-jerk emotional reactions to the death of Paul Walker, "See You Again" was the obligatory memorial track that saturated the market ahead of 2015's heavyweight Fast and Furious installment. Its popularity predetermined Puth’s next moves, forcing his hand toward a debut album filled with inbred, sterile piano ballads. That album still stands as one of the worst reviewed records of the millennium.

Then came his redemption.

Last year’s “Attention,” an infectious eff-off to a woman who latched onto him only for his popularity, soothed frustrations with Puth. The track, unlike any of his earlier ones, feels authentic and undated. It’s the Charlie Puth that “We Don’t Talk Anymore” hinted he could be. Its grooved bass line and tickled guitar sets the tone for the rest of his sophomore album, a palatable mixer that is equal parts mid-‘90s rhythm and blues and mid-aughts pop-rock. (And when “Somebody Told Me” rolls around, a touch of summery '80s pop and sugarcoated pop-punk – perhaps the only time he will ever graze the strange euphoria of Metro Station’s “Shake It,” and he gets as close as he can to it without straightening his bangs and dying them black.)

Voicenotes, like his last record, is formulated for consistency. Second single “How Long,” for example, just smudges the production blueprints from the “Attention” files. Almost every chorus or post-chorus features Puth’s signature wail, predictable and usually popped into his thin falsetto. The record, though, is calibrated with better intentions and accuracy. He runs a spinal tap on the music of his own adolescence – and is undeniably more effective when he channels his nostalgia ("Done For Me," "Boy," "Empty Cups") than when he imports talent from his youth. His duets with Boyz II Men and James Taylor may be the album’s worst offerings – especially Taylor’s "Change," the record's token political song that ends up as an indifferent, complacent shrug.

On Voicenotes, Puth seems hung up on both his age and his fame. Should one song be the album's statement piece, "LA Girls" and album highlight "Boy" would be neck-and-neck for the title: He's young, his household name has granted him a fair share of sexual benders, and most of all, he is too sensitive for West Coast superficiality. He implies a certain swagger, attempting to steal away a girl from her boyfriend on the dancing "Empty Cups" and claiming to go at it in the sack until the early afternoon on the cosmic-toned "Slow It Down." But his self-revealed sensitivity and the written profiles that have found him “squawking” out the keys of TLC songs like a total band geek and saying he is "hungies" when in search of food may prove him otherwise.

Puth's ballads are still the musical speed bumps on the way to the better parts of this album, making it clear his retrofit into mid-tempo and dance tracks was the natural move for his feathered, mid-weight voice. (After all, there's not much hope in making a Sam Smith-type belter out of Puth.) The production work is sharp and current on the tracks that maintain a healthy heart rate, but never is over-polished or cutting-edge. The stylistic success pulls him away from his association with novelty viral acts and wedges him somewhere between Justin Timberlake and Nick Jonas in the pack of likable, somewhat emotional kids who like to dress up like the playground badasses. It's certainly not a bad place to be for the guy who wrote, produced, performed, and owes his success to "See You Again."

Voicenotes is available now via Atlantic Records.

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 clich├ęs 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.