Friday, May 29, 2015

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful | Florence + The Machine

When mainstream audiences in the United States were introduced to English alternative pop-rock band Florence + The Machine in 2010, lead singer Florence Welch was in the first of many creative eras. As she recited the lines to the band's breakout single "Dog Days Are Over," her skin was painted white, her hair was dyed a vibrant red or covered by a bizarre wig, and her outfits were strikingly unorthodox - almost as to camouflage the core of her being. Slowly but surely, she began to let her guard down; the stage make-up was wiped away, her saturated hair color began to fade, and her fashion statements became original, yet subtle.

Five years removed from the success of "Days," Welch admits, "I've gone through loads of different phases. I get into stuff in a really intense way and then I move on." However, the goal of the band's third album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, is to reveal the realest side of Welch, not to build a new wall around her. As Welch explained, "With this record, I feel like the boundaries between, like, who I am off stage and on stage... there's not much separation." In lieu of her theatrics and ornate costumes, she now embraces her own head of burnt auburn hair, earth-tone imagery, and off-white pantsuits. The record itself, though, proves that the newest reincarnate of Florence Welch is not just a physical transformation, but a sonic one as well.

After working heavily with Paul Epworth on the first two albums, Welch selected Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Bj√∂rk, Coldplay) to produce this new record in its entirety (spare the Epworth-produced "Mother"). With Dravs' help, the band now showcases a refined and scaled-back version of their existing sound. Ceremonials lunged at listeners like a tidal wave and immersed them in a sea of expansive, luxuriant production, but How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful dazzles with potent alt-rock production that strips away a few layers of the band's eardrum-rupturing sound. Instead, guitars and horns craft a new texture to the Machine's music ("Queen of Peace," "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful," "What Kind of Man").

While "Ship to Wreck," "Various Storms & Saints," and "Third Eye" prove that she can still live up to the vocal belts delivered on older tracks such as "Cosmic Love" and "Spectrum," Welch has learned some restraint. Promotional single "St. Jude" was the grand debut of her new technique; her vocals float over quiet sustained keys in the personal hymn. She also treads delicately on the sultry and mysterious "Long & Lost." Her hushed cries are complimented by some glimpses of her rarely-heard falsetto as she ponders, "Is it too late to come on home? / Are all those bridges now old stone? / Is it too late to come on home? / Can the city forgive? I hear its sad song."

Introspection is the underlying theme of most tracks on this record. In place of the constant metaphoric allusions to death and otherworldly spirits that Welch used to hide behind, she now exposes every emotion and angle of herself through melodramatic narratives. From the regret of destroying everything that she owned and loved ("Ship to Wreck") to the post-breakup feeling of abandonment ("Long & Lost"), her lyrics are frank but leave a little space for her imagination to run wild. At times, she becomes brutally honest with how she spent her time away from the spotlight: "Don't touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head" and "Another drink just to pass the time."

Lead single "What Kind of Man" is one of Welch's most emotionally-charged pieces to date; aggression resonates in every note. "To let me dangle at a cruel angle / Oh, my feet don't touch the floor / Sometimes you're half in and then you're half out / But you never close the door," Welch shouts in agony. She broke her foot during an electric main stage performance at the first weekend of Coachella, the holy grail of the American summer festival circuit, and was forced to perform the rest of the band's promotional appearances in April and May seated. Despite her confinement, she was still overtaken with colossal energy as she ripped through these painstaking lyrics - including the ironic lines, "I was on a heavy tip / Trying to cross a canyon on a broken limb."

Despite the progress she has made emotionally, Welch transfers back to her position as a mythological storyteller a few times; on "Queen of Peace," she alludes to a fable of fortresses and kings while telling her own tale, and on the sprawling, psychedelic album closer "Mother," she channels her own spirituality in a time of loss and confusion. More connections to a higher power and Christianity are speckled through the record, most obviously on "St. Jude" and "Delilah." The former begs for "the patron saint of the lost causes" to fix a broken relationship, which is compared to the monstrous storm (nicknamed the St. Jude storm) that impacted Europe in 2013. Meanwhile, "Delilah" parallels characters from the Biblical story of betrayal to Welch and her partner: "It's a different kind of danger and my feet are spinning around / Never knew I was a dancer till Delilah showed me how."

The record recounts multiple stories from a few turbulent, eye-opening years for Welch, but it also acts as a medium for her to cope and regroup. Glimmers of exuberance can be heard in the midst of the chaos, as if the record celebrates the end of the mayhem. While Welch references drug misuse and false hope in "Delilah," unfortunate lyrical backgrounds are masked with carefree production and another display of her falsetto. The energizing "How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful" is just as the expansive as the saturated Los Angeles sky that inspired it; blaring horns and driving guitars offer a lush backdrop underneath Welch's powerhouse vocal display.

Welch abandons her self-control and rips through "Third Eye" like a freight train through the dead of night. The song is arguably one of the Machine's most buoyant selections to date; its uplifting production and sweeping, layered choruses parallel its optimistic lyrics: "Hey, look up / You don't have to be a ghost hidden amongst the living / You are flesh and blood and you deserve to be loved and you deserve what you are given." Oppositely, the forlorn sound of "Various Storms & Saints" masks the messages of hope that Welch gives to her listeners - or herself: "While all around you the buildings sway / You sing it out loud, 'Who made us this way?' / I know you're bleeding, but you'll be okay / Hold on to your heart, you'll keep it safe / Hold on to your heart, don't give it away."

It's no wonder Florence Welch is a changed woman; between the band's last LP and this one, she was torn to pieces and had to put herself back together again. No longer is she consumed by death, drowning, and the afterlife; she now wears her heart on her sleeve, unabashed by her human emotions. She has learned to place her voice on a leash and to allow it to work its magic only on her cue. As she introduced "Ship to Wreck" to the crowd at Coachella 2015, she said, "Even though all of that disastrous stuff happened, I got this song out of it. So, whatever happens to you tonight, whatever you say or do - don't regret it, because something good will happen in the end." Not only did Welch get one good song out of her misadventures, but also one brilliant album.

How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful will be released June 2, 2015 under Island Records. Standard and deluxe pressings will be available, and exclusive bonus tracks can be found on special editions sold at Target department stores.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Singles Summary: May 2015

Becky G // "Lovin' So Hard"
TBA, Kemosabe

Three pre-album singles in a one year period, yet there are still no definitive plans for Becky G's debut studio album. The infectious jams "Shower" and "Can't Stop Dancin'" were dropped this year, followed by the uninspired "Lovin' So Hard" this year. This new love song lacks the infectious kick of her past singles, but she tries to mask that fact with a mushy video full of scenes featuring her boyfriend, Austin Mahone.

Hilary Duff // "Sparks"
Breathe In, Breathe Out, RCA

After two ill-fated single releases last year, Hilary Duff is back to promoting her upcoming fifth studio album, Breathe In, Breathe Out. "Sparks" was released last month, with the music video making its appearance this month. The video is much more of an ad for Tinder than a music video, but the cut-away dance scenes actually look nice. The song, on the other hand, is an amazing nod to '90s and early '00s synthpop with an ear-catching whistle post-chorus.

M.I.A. // "Platforms"
TBA, released demo

M.I.A. is back in the studio and is already leaking demos out to her fans. She dropped "Platforms" on Soundcloud this month, a song that delivers next-level production and slow-paced rap-singing. The ambient, futuristic backdrop impresses, while M.I.A. makes a statement on the progression and availability of the Internet and media, among other things: "Rolling by scrolling for the future on the app / Data mine my mind like a diamond in the rough."

Sia // "California Dreamin'"
San Andreas (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack), WaterTower

After she penned Jessie J's piece for the second installment of the Pitch Perfect franchise and released a track with Giorgio Moroder last month, Sia has dropped a new track. Her unique spin on the Mamas and Papas' "California Dreamin'" was tagged on the end of the soundtrack to San Andreas. The original piece has been transformed into a somber, dramatic piece to match the movie it accompanies. Sia's vocal is stunning (per usual), and the haunting direction that she took the song is perfect for the theater.

Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar // "Bad Blood"
1989, Big Machine

Watch yourself, Katy Perry. Taylor Swift is back for blood and called in all of her friends for back-up. At the Billboard Music Awards, she premiered the star-studded music video for a new remix of "Bad Blood," which features rapper Kendrick Lamar. This version strips off Swift's verses in favor of Lamar's raps, adds some bass, and only allows Swift the choruses and bridge of the song. Considering that 1989 has already effortlessly sold millions of copies and should be losing steam, a revamped remix with a huge star is just the right move for Swift.

Britney Spears & Iggy Azalea // "Pretty Girls"

Put one of the most prominent artists of the new millennium and one of last year's biggest artists together in one song, and what do you get? A short hip-hop infused track titled "Pretty Girls." 

Britney Spears has given up on the Britney Jean ideal of helping write her own music; instead, she hands the writing credits over to the girls of Little Mix and the production trio The Invisible Men. Along for the ride is Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, who gets to sing along Spears in the chorus and makes a short rap appearance. 

The song lacks the certain pop bite of many of Spears' other pieces, but it is a sufficient addition to her discography. It is reminiscent of Azalea's own "Fancy" and Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl," but it has just enough spark to set itself apart. Spears' vocals are still heavily edited (as expected), giving her a youthful sound that counteracts with Azalea's deeper approach as they chant, "All around the world, pretty girls wipe the floor with all the boys." 

As for Azalea, this could be just the right ticket to get her back on the bright side of pop culture. An unflattering Vine meme of her rapping at a SXSW performance circulated the web earlier this year, making her the butt of many jokes. Azalea's rap verse is not her best (there's still a lot of "Iggy, Iggy, Iggy-Iggs, Igg, Iggy, Iggy" in there to fill her gaps), but it's nice to hear her in the hook of the song. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

True Colors | Zedd


Abandoned prisons and haunted hotels don't seem like appropriate settings to listen to an album that is stamped with the vibrant title of True Colors and filled with shiny electronic dance synths, but those locations are exactly where some Zedd fans got a first listen to his new body of work. Courtesy of the Russia-German artist, fans from ten major U.S. cities were sent on large-scale scavenger hunts, in search of his large 'Z' symbols in their respective areas. The first fifty to complete each hunt were transported to outlandish locations, such as Alcatraz Island, a secluded desert, and the Stanley Hotel, to attend exclusive listening parties for each of the album's tracks.

After months of these secret gatherings, Zedd is prepared to drop the full album. It's time for him to reveal his True Colors and prove that his newest attempt lives up to the hype that he has generated.

Many artists use their sophomore albums as opportunities to redefine and streamline their sounds; Zedd is no different. "I Want You To Know," his radio-ready lead single with short-lived love interest Selena Gomez, led listeners to believe that True Colors would deliver more of the same: heavy beats, thick seas of synths, and short, yet powerful breakdowns. On tracks like rumored second single "Beautiful Now" and the impressive "Bumble Bee," his strategy isn't altered much. Other tracks, however, integrate small glimmers of acoustic instruments, stretch much longer than other tracks, and veer off of typical formulas.

The somber title track is the most prominent departure from the sound of Clarity, as bells, pianos, chimes, tambourines, and natural-sounding drums are placed over a newfound minimalist synth style. Zedd, who prides himself on being a classically trained musician, revealed to the Huffington Post that most of the songs on this album began as piano-based demos. Hints of the piano skeletons can be heard most prominently in the final copies of "Papercut," a sprawling seven-minute piece featuring the vocals of Australian YouTube sensation Troye Sivan, and "Illusion," a track done with Echosmith. The latter track begins with a piano verse before transforming into atmospheric synths - a technique that Zedd says gives room for "the elements [of the song] to breathe."

This is still an electronic dance album, though, and Zedd can still deliver a few impressive synths and beats. The album opens with "Addicted to a Memory," one of his strongest tracks to date; airy production swirls around Bahari's vocals and then slides into a pit of dark, scratching synths. In the final minute, Zedd orchestrates a mad collection of synths unlike anything he has done before. Alt-rockers X Ambassadors and rapper Logic are invited for "Transmission," another track with some stellar production. The wild synths are complemented well by the gritty voice of Ambassadors front-man Sam Harris as he repeats, "Don't forget what they told you: 'You're never too young to die.'" 

True Colors may not be as thunderous as his debut album, but it is definitely a game-changer for Zedd. The frequent climatic moments of Clarity have been pushed away in favor of tranquility. His heaviest hitters ("Addicted to a Memory," "Straight into the Fire," "Bumble Bee") are sprinkled throughout the track-listing, surrounded by radiant, slow-burning tracks ("Papercut," "Illusion," "True Colors"). Although the album is far from perfect, Zedd has pushed the boundaries of what mainstream electronic dance music can encompass.

True Colors will be released on May 18, 2015 under Interscope Records.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

I Don't Wanna Grow Up | Bebe Rexha


The words of American singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha have been heard multiple times in the past few years, yet nobody even knew her name. While she hasn't been in the industry for long, the 25-year-old musician has penned a few recognizable tracks, including Eminem and Rihanna's number-one hit, "The Monster." This year, however, she is making her own voice heard.

Her debut extended play, I Don't Wanna Grow Up, introduces listeners to a promising pop star that can exude ranges of both confidence and vulnerability. Rexha's high-pitched, bratty tone would have put her in high demand in the late '90s and early '00s bubblegum pop scene, but her explosive synthpop pieces are also perfect fits for those vocals.

"I'm Gonna Show You Crazy" blossoms from somber verses into overwhelming choruses as Rexha shouts, "Yeah, I'm gonna show you / Loco, maniac, sick bitch, psychopath / Yeah, I'm gonna show you / Mental, out my brain, bat shit, go insane / Yeah, I'm gonna show you." Her debut single, "I Can't Stop Drinking About You," also contains sudden chorus crescendos, but opts for an electronic dance build-up/breakdown format instead.

Rexha brings down the house on "Pray," which includes hints of gospel music when a call-and-response method is put into motion with a makeshift choir. "I'm on my knees, begging pretty please / I'm so love-drunk, stupid off these memories / The sun came up, and I can't believe you're over me / I swear to god, I swear to god, I swear to god," Rexha roars throughout the song.

Despite the fact that she thrives on her high-energy pieces, Rexha also opens up on the heartfelt power ballads "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" and "Sweet Beginnings." On the title track, a lovestruck Rexha embraces ignorance as she sings, "If love is a lie, then please don't ever tell me the truth / 'Cause nothing, nothing makes me feel like you do, even though I see through you." Meanwhile, on the slow-burning "Sweet Beginnings," she compares love to multiple contradictions: "It's like choking on a LifeSaver / Like a firehouse burning to the ground," "It's like you're allergic to your medication / It's like dying in your living room." 

With just a five-track extended play, Rexha proves to be an incredible talent with an aim for contemporary hit radio. Sonically, Rexha closely resembles Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo, and now it's just a matter of time until she hits a sudden radio success, just as Lo did with "Habits (Stay High)." She has the lyrics, the voice, and the image; all she needs now is a full-length debut to completely blow listeners away.

I Don't Wanna Grow Up will be released on May 12, 2015 under Warner Bros. Records.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Sounds & Color | Alabama Shakes


Alabama Shakes lives up to every aspect of the name. With music that blends Southern soul and psychedelic rock, the band embodies Americana at its finest. Frontwoman Brittany Howard boasts an androgynous contralto voice that can rattle like a freight train and howl like a jazz crooner. On their sophomore album, Sound & Color, the band members have added a moody coating to their old-school foundation that will pique the interest of all listeners, both young and old.

The album is carried by sultry guitars, vague synthesizers, and warm ambiance, but the real magic comes from the emotion of Howard's chameleonic voice as she cuts through her own lyrics. Without Howard fueling them, these tracks could easily fall flat. She is able to produce Aretha Franklin-worthy moans ("Don't Wanna Fight"), muffled upper-register hums ("Guess Who"), and emotional squeals ("Future People") without losing her identity.

Whether it echoes through an inviting record shop or plays on a long road trip during the dog days of summer vacation, Sound & Color sparks life into any scene. With an enticing new layer of production and an impressive display of vocal acrobatics, the Shakes have outdone themselves. The album has found itself in good company with Haim's Days are Gone and Lana Del Rey's Born to Die as another essential piece to a killer summer soundtrack.

Sound & Color is out now under ATO Records and Rough Trade Records.