Sunday, May 19, 2019

Review: Dedicated • Carly Rae Jepsen

As a woman whose career hit an astonishing commercial peak in its infancy but obtained a more sustainable sense of meaning in the years following, Carly Rae Jepsen boasts a resume unlike most others that hit the desk. 

Though home-run hit "Call Me Maybe" and a glossy international debut record suggested Jepsen could stake a claim as the last integral addition to the early 2010s generation of commercial pop stars, she never quite meshed with provocative giants like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. What was to come, however, revealed a more compatible place of belonging: E•MO•TION, a sturdy set of polished bangers, positioned her as the pop artist for everyone – for the young, the old, and even the elitists who feel most pop music is below them. Thanks to its profound impact within important niche audiences and its resilience in an era that has shrunken pop's importance in the mainstream, the acclaimed album far overshadowed her Diamond-certified single in some respects – and for that, we all give thanks.

She grabbed the sales numbers on her first try at the worldwide stage and the critical acclaim on her second, so where was a gal like Carly Rae to go now? Her solution, it seems, is quite simple: Rather than split the difference or preoccupy herself with her place in the musical landscape, she allows her newest record, Dedicated, to relax into a carefree evolution. Like all great warriors, she returned from her hiatus wielding... well, not a sword, but a dildo on "Party for One," a sharp, modern-minded track that has since been banished to the deluxe pressing of the record. It’s not a particularly essential addition to Jepsen’s catalog, but it allowed her to make a clean break from her three-year lucid dream set in the mid-1980s – and with a defiant wink, at that.

Like "Party for One," Dedicated is easygoing – sometimes to its own detriment, especially in regard to its pacing – but determined to move forward: On it, Jepsen isn't afraid to exercise her quirks and test pop's limits in subtle ways. While nothing feels the same, nothing feels out of place, either – minus perhaps "Now That I Found You," a class-act Captain Cuts banger that punches right through the rest of the record's cooler palette. She welcomes reggaeton rhythms on "Too Much" and "The Sound," slides into shimmering neo-disco on "Julien," and flaunts a horn hook (once again) on "Real Love." There's also a chintzy sample from the 1980s Popeye musical in "Everything He Needs" and a bit of a rock chick moment with "I'll Be Your Girl," both of which can be chalked up to Carly Rae Jepsen being Carly Rae Jepsen. 

Her experimentation doesn't overextend the integrity of the tracks, most likely thanks to an irresistible pop veneer that coats the entire record. Rather than commit the record to wholesome nostalgia, Jepsen and her group of producers pull samples from multiple time periods, including present trends, to craft the sleek and shiny soundscapes on Dedicated. This, of course, isn't meant to downplay Jepsen's solid songwriting: Her sticky melodies linger long after tracks have ended, and her lyrics still buzz with youthfulness. The incredible vocal work on "Automatically in Love," however, spares the innocence and allows Jepsen to explore her sensual side, which was exercised for the first time over the chilled-out groove of "No Drug Like Me."

In some ways, there seems to be a bit of dichotomy between Carly Rae Jepsen and the concept of dedication. She told interviewers that she wrote over 200 songs during sessions for her last record and nearly another 200 for Dedicated, and the long process of whittling tracks down to an album involves pool parties, voting sessions, and arguments between friends. And after all that fuss, Dedicated itself still isn't quite sold on the idea of commitment, finding itself caught in moments of both doubt ("Too Much," "Happy Not Knowing") and bliss ("No Drug Like Me," "Want You In My Room," "Feels Right"). But if there is one thing to which Carly Rae Jepsen is dedicated, it's her craft. She understands pop music on a deeper level than most – its composition, its irresistible appeal, its versatility, its underestimated complexity, and when it's written with as much care as the cuts on Dedicated, its power.

Dedicated is available now under Interscope Records.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Review: Sanctuary • Aly & AJ

Welcome to the age of Millennial nostalgia: As the entertainment industry squeezes a profit from it, society has been inundated with remakes of movies, age-progressed television reboots, and bands revived from the dusty stack of Radio Disney archives. In 2019, a Full House sequel will enter its final season, Tiffany released a fresh take on "I Think We're Alone Now," and the Jonas Brothers have returned with a full-length effort, an extended arena tour, and a fervor even more intense than that of their purity ring era. Dizzying, isn’t it?

Prior to hearing their newest material, it would be easy to write off Aly & AJ Michalka as a sibling act revived with ulterior financial motives. But their 2017 extended play, Ten Years, and their newest release, Sanctuary, are far from nostalgia-pandering: Rather, they listen as Aly & AJ's solid attempts to carve a place in the pop landscape as adult musicians, issued as independent releases and somewhat detached from their former lives as teens with guitars. (However, it was quite nice to watch them stumble their way through "Potential Breakup Song," a forever favorite, on a karaoke machine a few years back.)

Birthed in the era of children’s television during which every actress became a musician for the hell of it, the duo was one of the lesser promoted acts in the Walt Disney library – perhaps because Aly's time as a Disney Channel star was short-lived, and AJ's was nearly nonexistent. The media, however, found an ill-guided angle in press junkets through Aly & AJ's religion, as they were one of the few young acts to cite their faith and found their way onto Christian rock radio. To a degree, the stigma remains – a recent profile was published under the headline "Religious Faith, Being Gay Icons, and Cow Belles 2" – but now more than ever before, the R-rated Aly & AJ aren't to be mistaken as a chintzy Christian pop act.

Small but potent, Sanctuary is a five-track fever dream of pastel synthesizers and polished hooks. As their digitized vocals emerge from a haze and into a sparkling instrumental break, Aly & AJ plead for forgiveness on "Church," the most current-minded cut of the bunch. The rest of the tracks boast more traditional pop choruses. The melodies of "Not Ready to Wake Up" and the title track are undeniably evergreen, bubbling with the innocent excitement of a great teen pop track, while the deep drums and punchy chorus on "Don't Go Changing" are rewarding returns on investment for the song's otherwise minimalist structure.

Though they changed their collective name to 78violet and did close to nothing under the moniker for years, it still feels like Aly & AJ never left us after their last full-length record, released in 2007. In place of music, their respective acting careers took precedent – and AJ admits that her time spent on long-running sitcom The Goldbergs left Aly to make the executive decisions on this record. And that could help explain why their return to music has been simmering nicely, as compared to the rolling boil in the Jonas camp. But damn, even with the lack of major label support and their careers divided by television, these women give pop music a fighting chance.

Sanctuary is available now independently.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Review: Love + Fear • Marina

After many years spent in a popular but heavily manicured record cycle, Marina Diamandis placed a chokehold around the neck of her creative process on her last studio record. Written by herself and produced with one collaborator, Froot was a guarded, somewhat stagnant body of pop music. And in its wake, she retreated, taking an introductory course in psychology while throwing around the idea of a hiatus from the industry. It seemed that one lengthy stunt in an alter ego’s shoes doomed Marina to a jaded state as a musician. But then, Marina (sans the Diamonds) lightened up... well, as much as someone like Marina can.

Whereas Froot worked against its time period to a degree, Marina’s fourth studio record, Love + Fear, is a current affair that flaunts its timestamp. “Baby,” her calypso collaboration with Clean Bandit, feels at home on the first side of the record between the easygoing breeziness of “Orange Trees” and the saturated electronic joy of “Enjoy Your Life.” On the record's flipside, "Believe in Love" and "You" could have been piano ballads in past lives, before they were dressed in vocoders and choppy percussion. The tropical-lite "Karma" and unexpected banger "Emotional Machine," however, are the true buoys of Fear.

Though the two sides of the record are meant to straddle the titular emotions, there doesn't seem to be much incentive to treating them as separate entities, because the complex feelings aren't explored in an outright fashion. Rather, the album's loose narrative expresses contentment and appreciation for life, even through the wickedness of modern society – something that gets lost in its schism. And with minimalist production and dampened songwriting to match, the record stretches thin at 16 tracks, especially when weaker, less developed tracks like "Superstar" and "No More Suckers" fail to make a connection altogether.

Marina’s flowery songwriting sometimes sticks the landing: Lead single “Handmade Heaven” finds its basis in the serenity of untapped wildlife and feels appropriately pastel. For each passable track, though, there's one like “To Be Human,” which trots the globe and expends most of its lyrical real estate not on its message of unity through universal love, but on poetic imagery of foreign countrysides and American riots. And perhaps that’s the record’s most glaring problem: It reaches for sweeping statements with little substance in its foundation. But when Marina lets herself slide into relaxed, unadulterated pop music, which she does often enough on this record, Love + Fear seems the most enjoyable for its creator and its listeners alike.

Love + Fear is available now under Atlantic Records.

© Aural Fixation Reviews
Maira Gall