Monday, September 30, 2013

London EP | Banks

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Some people have called her the 'American answer to New Zealand's Lorde.' Others have thought of her as the 'next Lana Del Rey.' But her real identity? Banks, who just released a debut extended-play, the London EP.

The extended-play opens with the placid "Waiting Game," which opens with some simple hums and a piano and then opens into a sea of electronic synths. During the chorus, Banks contorts her voice to sound nearly identical Ellie Goulding and the dark urban sounds compliment her nicely. I love listening to the song while driving at night, because the chilling electronic sounds encompass the interior of my car and it's such a relaxing listen.

The song that struck in me in the face is "This is What It Feels Like," a track that screams the dreary urban influences that everyone has been talking about. The chorus is composed of just a few lyrics: "Bring it down, bring it on / Bring it now, bring it up / This is what it feels like now / Scared enough / Bring it down, bring it on," yet it's one of the most entrancing pieces I've ever heard from a debut extended play (or full album, for that matter.)

The next track, "Bedroom Wall," seems like bit of an outlier on the London EP. The instrumental track is especially strange, considering how present the synths were in the earlier two songs. In "Bedroom Wall," the instrumental is almost muted, letting Banks' voice shine alone. There's nothing really special about the song, but it's a sufficient filler. However, a filler track on a four-track extended-play makes a bigger negative impact than it does on a full-length album.

The London EP concludes with "Change," a track with a combination of a marching band's drumming repertoire and electronic sounds; a combination that seems just as unlikely as the combination of bluegrass and house in Avicii's "Wake Me Up." It works alright, but the production could have used some finalization before being sent out; a few of the instrument lines seemed out of place and distracted me from enjoying the song completely.

Right now, I've got the first two tracks of the London EP on repeat, but I'm curious to hear what her future projects sound like. If she continues on the route of "This is What It Feels Like" and "Waiting Game," I have extremely high hopes for Banks, but if the latter two tracks are what she plans on doing, I may be a bit hesitant towards listening to her debut album. It's hard to judge an artist on just four measly tracks, so for right now I'll enjoy what we've got from her and continue to await more material.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Pure Heroine | Lorde


After appearing out of thin air in the music industry, Lorde is already pressing out a debut album, with amazing results.

All of the songs on Pure Heroine, as well as Lorde's previous extended-play release, The Love Club EP, work on a simple formula: a stripped down instrumental track composed of a drum machine and a few other elements, and wisely-crafted lyrics that forces your inner philosopher to come out of hiding.

Many of Lorde's avid followers (many of which have been obsessing over her since before the success of "Royals," may I add,) have really taken a liking to "Buzzcut Season," a song that is darker sounding, opening with lyrics "I remember when your head caught flame / It kissed your scalp and caressed your brain." I am with those fans, as I love the song, but it isn't my favorite on the album. 

While many fans have been screaming with excitement over "Buzzcut Season," I'm still in awe over the studio version of "Ribs." I loved the live version that I heard from her set on KCRW, but I'm so happy to finally have a studio version to constantly replay.

Like every other song off of Pure Heroine, the lyrics of "Ribs" are intriguing and mystifying; almost every verse ends in "It drives you crazy getting old" or "It feels so scary getting old," while other lyrics pertain to being young and single. Underneath Lorde's voice, edited backing vocals can be heard singing an 'A' vowel, making the song sound somewhat angelic.

Three previously-released songs appear on Pure Heroine: "Tennis Court," "Royals," and "Team." I have already reviewed the latter two, giving them both high marks. However, "Team" has to be my favorite of the three; actually, it's one of my favorites overall from the album. The lyrics of that song center in on being from a small town and wanting to be carefree and full of dreams. "Royals" parallels the same theme, but the overall sound of "Team" makes me lean toward it more.

As a whole, Pure Heroine is now fighting Natalia Kills' Trouble as one of the most cohesive albums that I've heard in the past couple of years. There isn't one song that sticks out on either album, but rather all of the songs work together to create one massive piece of work. While Kills' went with more of an over-produced sound, using the beats of Jeff Bhasker and Emile Haynie, Lorde took a bare-bones approach with her music with one single producer: Joel Little. 

The sound is unique, especially in today's world when the radio is dominated by a large amount of heavy electronic music. I'm not saying that I dislike the electronic music (because I absolutely love it,) but Lorde's sound is too ear-catching to ignore when "Royals" pops up in Top 40 playlists. And it's that unique sound that makes me love the entirety of Pure Heroine so much.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Dark Horse | Katy Perry feat. Juicy J

Rating: ★★★★☆

It's has only been one short month since the lead single from Katy Perry's upcoming album, Prism, was released, but now she's already prepping for another potential candidate to impact radio.

"Roar" was released in August and now, thanks to a joint promotion between Pepsi and Perry, a new song has been released early: "Dark Horse," which features Juicy J.

After just the first listen of "Dark Horse," I was left wondering why this wasn't chosen to be the lead single from the album, rather than the Sara Bareilles' rip-off that is "Roar." This new track blows the rest of Perry's discography out of the water (minus, "E.T.," perhaps).

The song relies on a trippy house beat with a heavy bass line that shakes every window of my car when I'm listening to the song through my car stereo. Perry slides in with a smooth, seductive tone, before belting out "Are you ready for, ready for / A perfect storm, a perfect storm? / 'Cause once you're mine, once you're mine / there's no going back" in the chorus, just before a house-style instrumental loop.

The only thing I really don't like about the song is the inclusion of Juicy J, who is not only irritating but also irrelevant. As he raps "Y'all know what it is. Katy Perry. Juicy J," I couldn't help but think, 'Ironically, I don't know what you are.' Instead, I've been listening to a fan-made solo edit version that I found on SoundCloud.

If "Dark Horse" is anywhere close to where Perry is going with Prism, I could go out on a limb and say that it will be significantly better than Teenage Dream. I doubt it will reach the same standard that I'm setting for Lady Gaga's ARTPOP or Lorde's Pure Heroine, but I'm sure it'll be sufficient for an artist like Perry.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Team | Lorde

Rating: ★★★★★

While planning her upcoming debut album release, Pure Heroine, Lorde decided to give out a stream to another new song from the album: "Team."

Lorde has yet to release a song that I dislike. "Royals" caught the attention of everyone in the United States, but while everyone else is caught up in their fascination of that song, I've dug deeper into Lorde and found that most of her other material is even better. In fact, "Team" has to be my favorite of her released songs thus far. 

It, like most of her other songs, relies on two trademark elements: the simple sound of Lorde's voice and a beating drum and the wise lyrics about coming from a small, unheard of town yet having big city dreams, such as "We live in cities you'll never see on screen / Not very pretty but we sure know how to run free."

Honestly, all of Lorde's lyrics make more connections to my own life than those from any other artist out there. Minus Lady Gaga, even most of my favorite singers don't write lyrics that I can completely connect with: Lana Del Rey is always singing about loving someone and dropping it like its hot with her full-time daddy, Marina and the Diamonds pens a bunch of songs about a girl with a broken heart... I like their music so much, but Lorde completely relates to me in so many different ways.

A combination of "Team" and all of the tracks from The Love Club EP have made me so excited for Pure Heroine, and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy. If it can live up to The Love Club EP, I'm sure I could easily consider it a five-star album.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Trouble | Natalia Kills

Rating: ★★★★☆

Natalia Kills is back with a sophomore album, this time taking a rather different musical approach than she did for her debut album, Perfectionist. However, don't let the pink fonts and abundant roses fool you; the police cars and handcuffs make an appearance on the cover for a reason because, as Kills sings on the album, "that girl is a goddamn problem."

Speaking of "Problem," it was lifted as the lead single to the album in June, but I haven't heard it up until a week or so ago. It was the first song I heard by Kills and instantly made me want to hear more from this girl. The track is fueled by pounding bass, electric guitars, and Kills' sassy voice. The song's lyrics paint a picture of a bad-ass, misguided girl and her misfortunes, a theme that remains consistent with the rest of the album.

I'm pretty sure that this bad girl image isn't just a mere mirage. A great number of lyrics from many of the album's tracks are centered around domestic disputes and problems within the family, with many of those lines being aimed at Kills' father. One of the most upfront songs, "Daddy's Girl," portrays her father as a rich man that "messed up bad," yet she proclaims her devotion to her father by singing "I'll keep your secrets, I'll never tell / You know I'll ride with you right through the fire of hell." To be short, her daddy issues come to the surface during the album, which makes the album feel more personal from Kills' end.

She really drives the point home with "Saturday Night" and explicitly spells out what went on in her childhood home. In terms of sound, it's not my favorite, but the lyrics are some of the best on the album; they hit you right were at hurts. The song opens up with one of the most assertive lines: "Mama, you’re beautiful tonight / Movie star hair and that black eye / You can’t even notice it when you smile so hard through a heartfelt lie" and the song continues to escalate on to others like "I wrote him a hundred times / Can you hear my heart through the prison bars?" and "There’s a rainbow on the bathroom door again / Where the lipstick slides and the pearls all fly." Pretty strong stuff, eh?

Two of my other favorite tracks from Trouble are "Devils Don't Fly" and the title track. The former track have some more really deep lyrics and an average-paced yet killer chorus. One of my favorite lines of lyrics comes from "Devils Don't Fly," as Kills says "What's a girl to do when she's not strong? / When everyone that holds my hand gets cut from all the thorns?" Meanwhile, 'Trouble" is also mid-tempo, but its lyrics closely parallel those of "Problem." The song acts as the album finale and it does a great job at reflecting on the whole album, which obviously gave Kills good reason to name the entire album after the song.

I would also like to place some attention on the track "Rabbit Hole," which immediately stuck out when I first listened through the samples of Trouble. The song is like a modern-day remake of an old Gwen Stefani song; Kills' voice seems to mocking Stefani's unique vocal style and the pounding drums and horns could have easily been sampled out of "Hollaback Girl." This is one of the most sex-oriented songs on the album,  a fact that becomes increasingly evident when Kills spirals into "We're gonna (uh) like rabbits, (uh) like rabbits, (uh) rabbits (hmmm)." As I'm sure everyone could imagine, the verse is repeated multiple times and contains much more moaning than I can place in text.

Overall, the slower and darker sound has really worked for Kills; her voice just seemed to fit perfectly in all of the tracks on Trouble. Producers Emile Haynie and Jeff Bhasker knew what they were doing with this album, but a few elements may sound awfully familiar. In both "Problem" and "Trouble," altered wails and screams can be heard, which are identical to those found in many of the songs on Lana Del Rey's Born To Die. It may sound nice, but I don't know if I should call this an attempt to reproduce the same sound as Born To Die or rather Haynie simply proving his presence in the song.

Although not the best album I've ever heard, Trouble has to be one of the most cohesive albums I've heard since Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials. All of the songs follow one direct theme, carry a similar sound, and come together to create one monstrous piece rather than just being a bunch of tracks thrown onto one disc. I can already tell that I'm going to be listening to this album on repeat for weeks, and I'm hoping that more people find out about it soon because I'm sure everyone else will be just as impressed as I am with it.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Lady Gaga: Live at the iTunes Festival

Aura: ★★★★☆
MANiCURE: ★★★★☆
ARTPOP: ★★★★★
Jewels and Drugs: ★★☆☆☆
Sex Dreams: ★★★★★
Swine: ★★★★☆
I Wanna Be With You: ★★★★☆

Every year, Apple Inc. sponsors the month-long iTunes Festival held at The Roundhouse of London. Yesterday, Lady Gaga opened the concert series, premiering seven new songs from her upcoming album, ARTPOP. She closed the show (which she coined the 'SwineFest,') with "Applause," the lead single from the album.

Twenty minutes later than scheduled, Lady Gaga appeared on stage, kneeling in a black outfit that covered her entire body, including the majority of her face. Unexpectedly, her wig was straight and black. I wasn't the biggest fan of the hairdo, but it was definitely different from other hairstyles she's done before.

Blaring through The Roundhouse first was "Aura," which wasn't entirely new to everyone; a demo of the song leaked a few weeks ago online, so many fans, including myself, had already heard it before. The initial sound of the song could be described as a demented version of Gaga's own "Americano," but at around the one-minute mark, all hell breaks loose and the song swings into an electronic-dance craze. It was one of my many favorites of the night.

Following "Aura" was another much-talked about track: "MANiCURE," a title which acts as both the word 'manicure' and the phrase 'man I cure.' The song screams the influence from rock music, as Gaga rips into verses sounding somewhat like Joan Jett. The rock vibe lasts for the entire song, but towards the end a bit of trippy electronic music gets added in, giving the song a completely insane sound that I would have never expected from Lady Gaga.

"MANiCURE" ended with Gaga sitting in a chair, surrounded by men in suits. On stage, in front of everyone, Gaga ripped off her black wig, replacing it with a large, frizzy brunette wig. (That certain wig that seems to be quite popular this era.) She also spun around in her chair, and stripped down to a seashell bra and underwear.

This new look led into the performance of the title track from ARTPOP, a song I've been waiting to hear for over a year now. The song is actually a bit more chilled-out than I expected, but its instrumental track is just as techno and glitchy as I wanted it to be. The only thing I didn't like about the song were the Michael Jackson-esque "HEEE-HEEE" noises that Gaga made towards the end of the song. Perhaps if we're lucky those noises won't be included in the studio version, and the song can truly be considered perfect.

As "ARTPOP" concluded, Gaga went into a small speech about not caring about commercial success or popularity, and said she wrote the next song in the set list with that mindset. However, that statement was obviously a complete lie, as "Jewels and Drugs" opens with a terrible verse from T.I., one of three rappers to be featured on the track. (Come on, we all know that pop stars include rappers for commercial success.)

The instrumental track of "Jewels and Drugs" is stunning, but the inclusion of messy rappers like T.I., Too $hort, and Twista make me dislike the song. I can't believe that Gaga axed both of Azealia Banks' tracks from ARTPOP but kept that mess on the track listing. I'm really hoping that "Ratchet" and "Red Flame" surface at some point, because I'm sure they'll be ten times better than "Jewels and Drugs."

Once "Jewels and Drugs" (finally) ended, the show continued on with "Sex Dreams." Little Monsters have known this title for a while, and I've been against the entire time. It sounds like such a slutty and trashy title, but the song actually turned out to be my absolute favorite from this set. The song is all about fantasizing about somebody that you can't really have for yourself and the overall sound is so smooth and seductive. I couldn't help but fall in love with the song once I heard it.

Another costume change took place on stage after Gaga was done having her "Sex Dreams." This time, she talked to the audience and she took off her wig and skull cap. She talked about her critics and how they always say she 'hides' behind fancy clothes and big wigs. As a response, she said that the next few songs were quite personal to her and decided to strip down to just her dark, natural, shoulder-length hair. She also threw on a plain white tee-shirt to add to the simplicity.

The monologue led right into "Swine," a song she said took her back to a 'place she never wanted to go back to.' I had always assumed the track was inspired by the hatred from Perez Hilton, but she left it pretty open-ended to the point that it could be about anyone or anything. So far, fans have guessed sexual abuse, drug use, and the struggle to get to the top of charts, all of which could seem plausible.

Like "Aura," this song begins and ends on two opposite ends of the spectrum, which leads me to believe that both tracks were produced by Zedd. "Swine" begins with a piano verse but somehow ends with the Mother of All Electronic Breakdowns. The song features plenty of random pig-like squeals and screams, and one part where Gaga's voice is edited to sound somewhat like Porky Pig from Looney Tunes cartoons. The track sounds amazing, but the lyrics are pretty off-putting, considering they're about a pig...

Finally, Gaga takes things a much more personal level, as she sits behind a keyboard and begins playing the beginning chords of "I Wanna Be With You" as she explains the meaning behind the song. She talked about how hard it was to make the decision to end the Born This Way Ball Tour early and how much she misses all of us: her fans. The song can easily be seen as a dedication to her fans, and she even plug the title "Born This Way" in the lyrics at some point. For me, it was a really emotional song. The lyrics were a bit cheesy, but I didn't care because of how emotional it made me.

The stage went dark after "Swine," but Gaga soon re-appeared in a green jacket and top hat to perform an encore: "Applause." She looked amazing and vocally, it seemed even better than the performance she did at the MTV Video Music Awards. However, I'm still disappointed that she left all of the vocals in the chorus up to the backing vocals, opting to dance instead. The choreography is complex, but not so that she couldn't sing along as well. (If she could sing and do the dance moves to "Judas" at the same time, she could easily do the same with "Applause.")

The concert left me stunned. Some of these songs were so different from what she's ever done; the lyrics, the production, the inspiration... Everything changed. Sometimes I noticed that the songs fell flat lyrically, but the instrumental beats completely met my expectations. I'm sure that Gaga, Zedd, DJ White Shadow, and Madeon have done wonders with the studio versions of the songs from ARTPOP. I gave each song a rating at the top of the page, but I can't call them final ratings until I hear the studio versions in November when ARTPOP finally drops.