Saturday, September 9, 2017

Lovers | Anna of the North



Anna Lotterud, one-half of the pop music duo Anna of the North and its only visible member, carries a voice with the density of cotton candy. It glides over minimalist electronic soundscapes fueled on tinny drums and cool, fuzzy atmospheres, an affinity for which originates from her upbringing in a household that cultivated a passion for '80s pop music. But unlike most acts touted as '80s-inspired, who often sort themselves as dance-pop or power rock, Anna of the North often dips the decade's warm aesthetic in a pool of hyper-real, synthesized backdrops while they cover heartbreak in its many forms on debut album Lovers.

Despite the implied tone of the album's title or its opening track, the driving, neon-lit "Moving On," most of the album copes with distress, both in singularity and in a relationship. As expected, Lotterud deals with personal heartbreak ("I'm in the dark," she cries on the title track) and loneliness ("I'm tired of being in love, always in the background," she sings on "Always"). And although she still hasn't recovered herself, she also lends support to others. The chanting, airy chorus on "Money," for example, warns another of a common gold digger: "Open your eyes, my love. She's not the one for you, just wants one thing from you: your money." 

The complexities of being in love and the dynamic of a relationship are often conveyed in states of euphoria or disaster; Not often are such strong feelings presented in a soft, collected manner as they are on Lovers. On most occasions, the album rides on chilly vibes rather than outbursts or climaxes, just as the duo has done since their earliest tracks. "Baby," the only of their first tracks to make it to this album, doesn't even carry a defined chorus, and closing track "All I Want" gets its kicks from twinkling synthesizer plucks and Lotterud's breezy, double-tracked vocals.

But there are times when Lotterud and producer Brady Daniell-Smith spike the formula, most notably when listeners approach prepackaged party track "Fire" and "Someone." On "Someone," they are able to tie together the gap between Madonna and Journey that most cannot. Easily the duo's most encompassing use of an expansive soundscape since "The Dreamer," it commences with clean drum-machine hits and swells into the overwrought ways of '80s power ballads: blaring choruses, prominent guitar lines, multilayered vocals – oh, and a key change, which concretes the duo's successful effort to replicate the authenticity of an '80s radio behemoth.

It may be easy to write off Anna of the North as only an aesthetics act, capitalizing on viral appeal for sharp cinematography and living in a world colored in pastel pink and baby blue. While that may have been a more accurate description in the days of "Sway," the disjointed breakthrough track recorded on GarageBand, today's Anna of the North has a clearer trajectory. They've found their place along the musical spectrum, nixing their initial nods to hip-hop for feathery synthpop. Now to be considered the formal introduction to the duo, Lovers is a focused ten-track outfit with the sounds and substance to captivate.

Lovers is available now under Different Recordings.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell | PVRIS



Having built a name as a metal band before splicing electronics into their debut studio album, rock band PVRIS shares the niche allure of a cover band that transposes popular contemporary hits into edgy rock pieces – spare the fact that PVRIS's tracks are, well, enjoyable. On White Noise, lead singer Lynn Gunn and bandmates Alex Babinski and Brian MacDonald steamrolled sharp hooks with electronic rock and a voice capable of coarse screams and smooth warbles. Given the success of that guise, they created a sophomore album that proves mainstream rock and pop-punk, although more pop than punk, are still alive and well.

To understand the band's sophomore album, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, perhaps it is best to reference its title in its original context. Pulled from the final lines of an Emily Dickinson poem, it reads in full, "Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell." The phrase implies conflicting feelings of hope and doom, but lead singer Lynn Gunn errs on the side of hopelessness: "You took my heaven away," she belts on the album's opening track, a driving rock-leaning anthem engulfed in stern wails and heavy drums.

Splattering misery across the record's ten tracks, Gunn has been caught in a toxic whirlwind since the band's last record. The cause of her despair can be thrown up to a manipulative relationship and industry growing pains, but she ensures its severity is scaled to the utmost extreme: On "What's Wrong," she laments, "I don't need a metaphor for you to know I'm miserable." And from there, she burrows into herself, translating her tattered psyche through ear-catching melodies and soundscapes that shatter the barriers of pop sensibility and rock personality.

At times, in fact, it is hard to distinguish whether PVRIS is a pop-oriented rock band – as they present themselves on the jagged "No Mercy," which detonates in a screamed chorus – or a rock-influenced pop band – as we hear them on the dancing "Anyone Else" and forlorn "Separate," during which Gunn employs a slurred, Sia-like delivery. Though it bends genres further into a tailor-made mold for the band, the songwriting here is tighter and stronger than that on the debut: the melodies are more potent and pack a stronger punch to the senses, and the vision and storytelling offer a clearer vision into Gunn's world.

With the concept of coping as a reference point, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell offers a resolution that Dickinson was unable to provide when writing the phrase in regard to death. The album's closing track, "Nola 1," accepts ignorance as to where it all went wrong but realizes Gunn's ultimate purpose: "Don't know where I went wrong, but I keep singing." In a way, it is this phrase that ties Gunn and Dickinson's perspectives together: parting, regardless of context, can be painfully unfathomable, but when the storm clouds pass, it becomes clear that the world continues to turn. This record, of course, is just an explosive snapshot of Gunn as she weathers the storm.

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell is available now under Rise Records.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Rainbow | Kesha



Portraying herself as the careless firecracker who was the first to the party and the last to leave, Kesha was the essential guest to every dance floor across the nation in her early days. It was hard to run across a contemporary hit radio station at the beginning of this decade that didn't have "TiK ToK" or "Blow" on heavy rotation, because Kesha had entered the mainstream at just the right time. The youth of the United States had become enamored with the recklessness of Jersey Shore, and Lady Gaga had brought back four-to-the-floor, dance-oriented pop. And as a girl who painted her life as a never-ending cycle of drinking, sleeping in cars and bathtubs, and searching for new guys to do the two previous things with her, Kesha was nothing short of fun and nothing less than unrealistically outlandish.

Her second record, Warrior, doubled down in punchy electronics and pitch-corrected sing-rapping, but by the time it was released, Kesha had bent her angle to market a message of self-acceptance to proud, young social anomalies. A documentary-style reality show and coinciding autobiography, My Crazy Beautiful Life, paralleled Kesha in everyday life to her fans, validating her self-proclaimed outcast status. Just as rambunctious as she seemed in her craft, she fantasized out loud about fondling a Scottish man under his kilt and drank her own urine. Though the recipient of more than a few side-eyes, she was a beacon of confidence in herself and her craft.

With her name emblazoned with a dollar symbol and her online presence marked with the username "keshasuxx," she even seemed to hold a sense of humor about her own public persona, which she admitted had been magnified on her own volition. But when she entered rehab for an eating disorder in 2014 and reemerged with the use of her birth name and a fresh start on social media sites as "KeshaRose," it seemed as if the party were over. And when she further revealed physical and sexual assault allegations against Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, the man who has her career gridlocked in a multi-record contract and with whom she made her first two albums, it was hard to fathom how the party was kept alive or even started at all.

Although a liberating album meant to give Kesha a voice all her own for the first time in her career, her third album, Rainbow, is difficult to divorce for its inspiration. She dances around specifics and settles on malleable, generalized statements of freedom and forgiveness – the phrase "learn to let go" comes up a few times on the record. Even lead single "Praying," with an opening dialogue that begs for death and lyrics that aim and fire at Gottwald, throws the past few years' events up to fate and wishes him luck in righting his wrongs: "I hope you're somewhere praying, praying. I hope your soul is changing, changing. I hope you find your peace. Fall upon your knees, praying."

The former cornerstones of her craft – the digitized sing-rapping, the thudding 808s, the party hard mentality – have been largely abandoned in favor of a grittier selection. Riding the wake Lady Gaga stirred with last year's Joanne, Kesha infuses honky-tonk country and back roads rock into an catchy pop base. Her creation yields a borderline-chintzy environment in which she can collaborate with the funk group Dap-Horn Kings on "Woman," a banging, brass-led feminist track, and with Dolly Parton on a cover of "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Flame To You)," a song Kesha's mother wrote in the 1970s and Parton recorded in 1980. In the unexpected collaboration, Parton is all but a paper-thin echo by the time this rendition climaxes with Kesha's strong, stern wails and pounds of drums and tambourines.

Kesha's vocal performances throughout are unprecedentedly organic, without digital alterations to drown them in a syrupy coating, and her radiating presence is undeniable. But her differing goals, both to share her case against Gottwald and to promise that she's still the same fun-loving Kesha, split this record in two. After all, it opens with a middle-finger to bastards, assholes, mean girls, and scumbags and follows a disjointed trajectory that allows it to end on back-to-back tracks about Godzilla stealing French fries at the mall and a metaphoric intergalactic abduction. The latter cuts, of course, take us back to days of Kesha past, favoring the silliness that bolstered her popularity in an era of overdone music videos and red carpet outfits.

Fanned across the record are spaghetti western earworms ("Hunt You Down," "Boots"), electric rock bangers ("Let 'Em Talk"), standard pop cuts ("Hymn," "Learn to Let Go"), and everything in between. But Rainbow, lacking a consistent sonic direction, is nothing if not an embodiment of its title: a spread of many colors. The struggle between comfortable normalcy and conscious personal evolution makes itself clear, as she juggles between the urges to return to fun and games ("Boogie Feet," "Boots," "Hunt You Down") and to reveals details of a story that only tabloids have controlled until this point ("Praying," "Learn to Let Go"). In short, as the therapeutic product of an emotional hurricane, it plays as such – just as it should.

Despite not being in the eye of it any longer, Kesha's storm isn't over yet. She may have been able to release this album without direct contact or a working relationship with Gottwald, but she still is bound to him legally – in fact, these tracks appear to have been published through one of his companies. This isn't to say, however, that Kesha unleashed her Rainbow prematurely. In sharing her narrative and pursuing once prohibited musical avenues, she developed things that many victims cannot: empathy and a renewed sense of self-worth. Rain may continue to fall until the loose ends are tied in the courts system, but until then, Rainbow brings a promise that Kesha will weather the storm and her colors won't be washed away.

Rainbow is available now under Kemosabe Records and RCA Records.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

CollXtion II | Allie X



Pulsating pop music is no longer made for the masses. As if that weren't already made clear enough by failed attempts to revive the genre's extraordinary popularity from the likes of Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani, it became most apparent when we as a society let the banger to end all bangers, Ariana Grande's "Into You," fizzle into oblivion last year but made her inferior follow-up, a little tropical house number called "Side to Side," ignite airwaves.

However, this also means that today's pop music is regarded as, well, kind of cool. Spears' latest album was one of her most lauded to date. The unexpected windstorm of success for Carly Rae Jepsen's trendsetting E•MO•TION has left her all but deified in the eyes of critics and Twitter fans alike. Grande and Selena Gomez are cooler with every breath, needing not to prove themselves with records that particularly conform to trends.

And now, viral pop and rock artists have begun to pull away from their roots and charge full-synth ahead. Most recently, Betty Who has left her lush synthpop behind for her biggest beats to date, and notorious alternative pop figurehead Halsey ignited her sophomore record with a sound that should flatter Rihanna – if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, of course. Even Paramore, once famous for their angsty anthems, has jumped from their own lane and into the '80s-era pop carpool.

Singer-songwriter Allie X has been not above the movement, but rather at the forefront of it. Although masqueraded with melodramatic imagery and a strange public image, she has spent her short time in the industry on the dance floor, producing superbangers that belong in the clubs from behind a veil of Tumblr-certified personality. From her piercing voice to her heavy dance beats, she has stirred memories of the pitch-shifted europop that thrived around the turn of the millennium since her beginnings.

Her second set of work, CollXtion II, is the first album since Hilary Duff's Breathe In. Breathe Out. to open with a whistled chorus – an infectious space filler to some, a cardinal sin to others, and a sure sign of synthpop in its purest form to all. "Paper Love" throws that whistle over a sultry guitar line and electronic beat for optimal pop, kicking with bubbling energy in a humid soundscape. And from there until the very end, when "True Love is Violent" twists a piano ballad into a trap-tinged finale, the record never sleeps.

Between 2015's CollXtion I and now, Allie X released singles like party favors, promising they were part of a grander scheme for this album. In all, seven songs in demo form were released, three of which were carried to this set. Bombastic cuts "Old Habits Die Hard" and "That's So Us" were rerecorded and reproduced here, giving her synthesizers and vocals stronger, punchy impacts. Originally a piano demo, "Casanova" gets an overhaul, becoming a dancing '90s house anthem. Sorely missing, though, are cuts like "All the Rage" and "Too Much To Dream," solid tracks that could have been sewn into this record seamlessly.

Acting like a true pop star with fickle sonic tastes is all in the beauty of pop musicians' newfound allure, so Allie X follows the part: a myriad of influences bend her supercharged pop from one sound to the next, even if she sometimes has to step on others' toes. While "Simon Says" could feel at home in Melanie Martinez's playpen and "Paper Love" is a direct companion to Adam Lambert's "Ghost Town," these are comparisons that run close to Allie X's synthpop stomping grounds. It's the reggae-inspired "Lifted" that surprises with swagger during its two-stepping chorus.

But playing the same as a glossy, high-budget synthpop record from a major label artist, Collxtion II boasts more lavish and polished production than the rest of Allie X's back catalog. In fact, it feels like her first authentic attempt to be more successful than a flash in the pan on a streaming platform's "pop rising" playlist. Her lyrics take aim for the typical, like infatuation and betrayal, and she has learned to craft a spellbinding chorus without shouting over balls-to-the-wall instrumental bursts, like on the vocoder-laden "Need You." In short, it seems she has grown into the supersized sonic world in which she resides, finally feeling right at home.

CollXtion II is available now under Sleepless Records.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

What Do You Think About the Car? | Declan McKenna



While we Americans have been caught in the terrifying whirlwind that is the Trump administration, it has been quite easy to ignore the outside world. But we mustn't those in the United Kingdom, for example, were trapped in their own madhouse last year as Brexit was voted through in a narrow margin and David Cameron's resignation dismantled the arrangement of the county's political figureheads. Having come to age in an era of political chaos, when liberalism has become the golden standard for political correctness without having its standards actualized through the current administration, singer-songwriter Declan McKenna is fed up.

On his debut album, What Do You Think About the Car?, he finds power in youth, in the millennial generation that remains the subject of concern for right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers to our guns, our God, our religions, and our constitution. Glued together with hopeless echoes of "do you care?," opening track "Humongous" implodes in its own frustration – an anger that developed from being told that his generation is the future, but then being ridiculed based on liberal sociopolitical beliefs. It's not long, however, before the dooming feeling of helplessness turns to indifference on "The Kids Don't Wanna Go Home," as McKenna throws his hands up in response to his null position in politics as a citizen under 18. (He has since aged up and is able to vote in his native United Kingdom.)

While McKenna's feelings often occupy his mind, they give way long enough for societal observation – only for said observation to anger him all the more. His debut track that overtook streaming platforms in 2015, "Brazil," throws accountability onto FIFA for its irresponsibility, slamming its decision to incinerate Brazil economically when it chose the country to host the world cup. "Paracetamol," meanwhile, was inspired by the fears and troubles of transgender teens in the wake of Leelah Alcorn's 2014 suicide: "So tell me what's in your mind, so tell me what's in your mind, and don't forget your paracetamol smile," he sings, inviting listeners into a peer-to-peer therapy session.

He adorns his thoughts in spiraling rock production that glows with an indie-static record store appeal. Minus perhaps the electronic harpsichord on the Foster the People-channeling "Isombard" and the analog synthesizers in "Paracetamol," everything about this record feels organic, as if recorded with a cheap microphone in McKenna's garage: the shouted, slurred vocals, the drum kits, the summery acoustic song bases. It all makes for a refreshing, calming oasis within a sparsely populated corner of popular music's world today, in which so many chase clean, concise, electronic-based environments.

Moreover, What Do You Think About the Car? is a promising sign that this generation's Woodstock era – the one Katy Perry thought she had signaled into popularity but Lana Del Rey recently undertook in a manner that can be taken seriously – may appear at the time when we need it the most. Young people, albeit not a majority of them, pay attention to the real world's disastrous affairs, even if mediated through the distracting screens in their pockets. And though McKenna's music sometimes substitutes musicality for meaning and gets wrapped in its own feelings of defeat, this record is nothing if not rooted in social awareness – a camp in which music is sure to put both feet as political administrations continue to toy with the international environment like a puppet on a string.

What Do You Think About the Car? is available now under Columbia Records.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lust for Life | Lana Del Rey



If there were ever a pop star to release an album titled Lust for Life, American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey would seem to be the least likely candidate. Her earlier major label work, housed in the gloomy debut record Born to Die and full-length follow-up Ultraviolence, depicted life's most unspeakable and undesirable topics through song and video: suicide, assassination, prostitution, addiction, abuse, gang activitydrug manufacturing. She was, as a Rolling Stone reviewer once said, one sad tomato – but a popular one, she became.

The golden standard for a new classic archetype, Del Rey boomed as a bad girl. But as her brand grew, her lack of comfort was magnified. In the eye of her debut's storm, she performed a good deal of her live gigs on her knees in jeans and a crew neck sweatshirt, keeping her eyes locked on the ground in front of her. Going as far as once saying that she wished she were already dead to avoid having to continue in the limelight, Del Rey raised points for concern in her first few years as a mainstream musician.

Yet she has managed to grow into herself and her fame, coping with its reality with an elusive, if not nonexistent, public image and intermittent social media presence. The "gangster Nancy Sinatra" of 2012 was replaced with a nostalgia-saturated, authentic singer-songwriter quite quickly, making Lana Del Rey a mere name change for Elizabeth Grant instead of the separate persona she was originally groomed to be. She overcame critics' initial distaste and has since gotten them to eat from the palm of her hand, owning her on-stage presence and crafting a template for a generation of alternative pop artists to follow.

She built a career on being an all-American old soul then settled on becoming a comfortably familiar parody of herself to sustain her position. On her second and third albums, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon, she doubled down in melancholy and flowery language. And without the context of the full tracks they represent, the 16 song titles on Lust for Life seem to follow that trajectory – stitching them together, one may take an educated guess that this album is another look into toxic relationships and unshakable addiction, part autobiographic and part fantasy-based.

Though Del Rey has been too tangled in the thorns of unhealthy relationships with men (and with herself) for three albums to look outwards, something has shattered the importance of her small, turbulent world: the current federal administration. Life in Trump's America inversely affected her craft, now void of fantasized disaster and saturated, idealistic visions of 20th century Americana. No longer touting the American flag as a prop of pride and freedom, she extends "God Bless America" with a crucial em dash that reflects a political charge: "– And All the Beautiful Women in It."

"Life rocked me like Motley, grabbed me by the ribbons in my hair," she sings on "Heroin." On the six-minute track dressed in opiate metaphors, she realizes past ignorance to the real world and advocates for self-care and inadvertent protest through finding bliss in the darkest moment in modern America. After pondering whether we are faced with the end of America on another cut, she soothes herself with the thought of feigned ignorance: "When the world was at war before, we just kept dancing." And throughout Lust for Life, she provides the distraction that many Americans crave.

Contrary to her introductory stance that we were all born to land ourselves six feet under in the end, she paints daily life and love in a positive light for the first time. On lead single "Love," for example, she realizes her influence in glamorizing sadness and empowers fans with a timeless projection of love as a boundary-defying, all-healing element in life – a far stretch from her past philosophy that "sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough." While unexpected features from A$AP Rocky (on two tracks) and Playboi Carti make for the album's most heavily produced, least articulate moments, "Summer Bummer" in particular highlights Del Rey's newfound sunny, carefree nature.

Her cheery disposition isn't consistent – she and Stevie Nicks flow through the self-explanatory but gorgeous "Beautiful People Beautiful Problems," and "13 Beaches" revisits Honeymoon's wish for solitude as a celebrity – and there are times when her efforts to change her ways falter – "White Mustang" is Lana Del Rey at her most Lana Del Rey on this record, for better or for worse. But when happiness prevails, it's juxtaposed with Rick Nowels' production, which stabilizes Del Rey's sound in the same cool world as its predecessor. Lust for Life chisels away any excess lusciousness from its sparse organic base and spikes it with trap beats and electronic clips as needed. The soundscapes are designed to highlight her signature breathy highs and smoky lows – the same vocal techniques that many record executives told her ditch but attracted millions of hipster-chic listeners.

With a title that falls in line with her reputation as the staple anachronistic figurehead in viral pop music, "Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind" makes a seemingly adventurous reach to connect her generation's premier festival to the psychedelic storm that forever changed counterculture's prominence in sociopolitical movements. But in line with the rest of the record, it represents Del Rey's overarching goal to promote awareness of the world's real problems through music – and to encourage her followers to find time to flee into happiness within personal lives rather than vicarious sadness through her own overwrought stories of inevitable doom and woe.

The success of her image reversal relies on the integrity of Del Rey's authenticity. Despite the smile plastered on her face, Lana Del Rey still feels like Lana Del Rey – a happier, more optimistic one who has just entered a new chapter of her life. In doing so, she adopts a socially responsible view of her and her music's place in the grander scheme of the world, realizing she can shape pop culture present, not just wander through the memories of pop culture past. While she's still an escapist with a limited vocabulary of poetic language, she now wears the title to ignore a real-life disaster, not to dream up an imaginary one to transcend ordinary life. And it's this unspoken appreciation for everyday life that shows sincerity in her lust for it.

Lust for Life is available now under Interscope Records.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Like a Woman | Kacy Hill



A few intense trigger words are thrown into each of the few online conversations about American singer-songwriter Kacy Hill: Kanye West, dancer, American Apparel, model, more Kanye West. (Putting those pieces together, she was an American Apparel model, and later, a back-up dancer for Kanye West, who signed her to his GOOD Music record label.) There's a lot of gleaming, seemingly exciting fluff in her backstory, but when it comes down to it, Hill puts on the front of a relatively relaxed person.

Thanks to that background with American Apparel, she was asked if she would like to audition for a dancing position in West's Yeezus Tour. A self-proclaimed terrible dancer who had been staying in the living room of a woman she found on Craigslist, she responded to the offer with something akin to what a teenager would tell her friend who asked to take a midnight trip to Taco Bell: "Meh, whatever, I don't know what else I'm doing."

Peel back a few more layers, though, and she's a bit more pensive than she leads us to believe. Her debut album, Like a Woman, revels in the fact that it was a few years in the making. Meticulous and poetic, it doesn't seem like the album to open with a DJ Mustard production – although Hill made sure his signature "Mustard on that beat, hoe" tag is absent, rightfully refusing that to be the introduction to an album about being a woman – or one to boast Kanye West as an executive producer.

Composed of new tracks and some reworked takes of older tracks, Like a Woman was crafted to be scantily clad, sonically and metaphorically. Bonafide pop creeps through the crevices, particularly on the stomp-along "Arm's Length," but was nipped in the bud elsewhere, like on the unrecognizable reincarnate of "Lion." With a dark sonic palette that leaves wide gaps between its clean-cut beats for sensuality to swirl and linger, the record is a branch on the tree that FKA twigs planted. Hill, however, commands attention as a more versatile vocalist.

Left to be the centerfold of each track, Hill has the stamina to impress, whether quivering within the instrumental voids or soaring right over them. Her childhood background in classical music, playing a few instruments and singing in a choir, makes itself apparent in her technique and delivery. A clear, textured soprano, she often opens rich notes in her mid-range like a parachute deploying amid a free-fall; her voice is a butterfly with iron wings as it flutters through the chorus of "Am I" and becomes the merciless leader of a mechanical choir on "First Time."

Like A Woman carries a vague lyrical storyboard, acting more as a sketchbook than a painting of deep-rooted feelings. Without blatant storytelling or mention to any of her associated keywords, the record was built with mere snapshots of Hill's psyche. These aren't tracks meant to empower or represent; rather, they document personal experiences without looking outwards. Nevertheless, the alluring record affirms that there's much more to the complex experience of womanhood than Kacy Hill implies when not behind the microphone.

Like A Woman is available now under GOOD Music and Def Jam Records.