Friday, July 31, 2015

Singles Summary: July 2015

Chvrches // "Leave a Trace"
Every Open Eye, Glassnot

Lana Del Rey // "Honeymoon"
Honeymoon, Interscope

Foxes // "Feet Don't Fail Me Now"
All I Need, Sony UK / Sign of the Times

Halsey // "New Americana"
Badlands, Astralwerks

Carly Rae Jepsen // "Run Away With Me"
E•MO•TION, Interscope / School Boy

Major Lazer feat. Ellie Goulding & Tarrus Riley // "Powerful"
Peace is the Mission, Mad Decent

Melanie Martinez // "Pity Party," "Soap," and "Sippy Cup"
Cry Baby, Atlantic
Pity Party: ★★★★☆ // Soap: ★★★☆☆ // Sippy Cup: ★★★★☆

M.I.A. // "Swords"
Matahdatah - Scroll 01 - Broader than a Border, Interscope

Monday, July 27, 2015

Blurryface | Twenty One Pilots

As an Ohioan, I am no stranger to Twenty One Pilots, the Columbus-based alternative duo composed of Tyler Joseph and Josh Dun. Upon their rise to mainstream popularity, the two have garnered a massive cult following of overly-dedicated fanatics, especially here in the Buckeye State where people pride themselves on being the original fans and mercilessly abuse the stylized "ø" character in their social media handles. (Hell, Twenty One Pilots released an Ohio-shaped vinyl for Record Store Day 2015. That's dedication.) The release of Blurryface, the group's second major-label studio album (fourth album overall), brought fans out of the woodwork - it was nearly impossible to avoid this album online a few months ago. But from the standpoint of somebody who hasn't been sucked into the sea of super-fans, is there any substance behind Joseph and Dun's hype? I would argue that, to a certain extent, there is.

Joseph's strikingly conversational lyrics are complemented by his half-sang, half-rapped delivery. (Think of Kesha's vocal style, but Joseph's is deemed more hipster-chic by Tumblr users because of the duo's lack of ovaries and larger-than-life pop productions.) The album's causal, autobiographical ramblings are its only constant variables, though. While it is protected under the blanket of an "alternative" label with an overall blend of electronic and trip-hop music, the record is a cluttered jungle of different influences that should leave ordinary listeners confused in places. How does reggae slip its way into the grating "Ride"? Why is a stray ukulele the primary fuel for "The Judge"? Why does the duo sound more like Foster the People than themselves on "Hometown"? What made them think that "Goner," a track that is primarily a piano ballad, belongs on the album at all, let alone in the closing spot? There are so many questions left unanswered here, guys.

They may have searched far and wide for influences, but the duo's best cuts are played safe: cue the standout tracks "Fairly Local," "Lane Boy," and "Doubt," perfect melting pots of spacey synthpop and hip-hop with punchy choruses and processed vocals. "Stressed Out" is in a category of its own, with a clean-cut sound and a clearer focus on the vocal talent at hand. A common idiom says, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The same could be applied to Twenty One Pilots' quirky music; trip-hop fused alt-pop is in the duo's wheelhouse, so why did they stray so far into left field in attempts to seem fresh? More often than not, those stabs at new sounds just backfire anyway. When Joseph and Dun are good, they're great, but when they're anything less than that, they're just forgettable. Blurryface, for better or for worse, has a fair share of both moments.

Blurryface is available now under Fueled by Ramen.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Kicker | Zella Day

Zella Day is an enigmatic character. Through her scarce  interviews, we really haven't learned much about the American singer-songwriter; her two extended plays, 2012's Cynics vs Dreamers and last year's Zella Day, were both too brief to give us much insight, either. Through a few rudimentary Huffington Post and Vice articles out there, we do know that she prides herself on her upbringing in a minuscule dot on the map in Arizona, boasts a youth surrounded by live music in her parents' coffee house, and describes her music as "ethereal, desert, '70s, gypsy, [and] rock." Those pieces of information play crucial roles in the understanding of her own formal introduction, which comes in the form of Kicker, her debut full-length studio album.

The record uncovers a boho-chic indie-pop vocalist surrounded by pop-rock production that is flavored with strange twists of influences from Fleetwood Mac and - wait for it - Western movie scores. She wasn't lying about that ethereal-'70s-gypsy-desert-rock groove. It's a weird combination indeed, but hear me out: one listen to the album's most popular single proves that it works well. "Hypnotic" is a superb alt-pop track that flairs with spaghetti Western-esque post-choruses, and "Jerome" implements sultry, low guitar strums into a sweeping plea for "the only love I've ever known." These songs are not alone in being successful products from Day's cauldron of sounds, though. Her western tendencies take the undertones on "High," a gleaming track that is equal parts indie-pop and indie-rock and has its production amped up to the maximum volume level. The most obvious nod to the wild, wild West, though, comes in the form of "The Outlaw Josey Wales," a hazy companion to the film of the same name. 

Oftentimes, Day's sound is in a category of its own. Listeners' comparisons to her nearest contemporaries are substantial only when applied to tracks like "Mustang Kids" or "Ace of Hearts." "Kids" is the record's strongest nod to the synthpop category that Day is too often pushed into; immersive synths and beats blare underneath the duet of Day and Baby E, making for a pleasant interruption of the album-wide pop-rock vibe. While "Ace of Hearts" is a charged power ballad that highlights Day's voice to the best of its ability, the stripped "Jameson" tones her down to an intimate, acoustic hum that allows her voice to take center stage; the ambiance and raw vocals of the song make it a perfect contender for a peaceful indie record store playlist.

As the smoke screen around her settles, Zella Day emerges as a talented girl with a likable sound. Nods towards Clint Eastwood movies place a distinctive throwback spin on her summery indie pop-rock. Her extended plays toyed with this sound - a sound that presumably resulted from her life in the secluded Arizona town of Pinetop - but this full-length record confirms her dedication to it. Lyrically, this record is drenched with love, longing, and mischief, but of course, she manages to connect certain aspects back to home sweet home. (Take "Jerome," for example, which she says is related to the town of Jerome, AZ, not a person. Surprise.) She's a Pinetop girl on the inside and an unstoppable songstress on the outside, but the second element is dependent on the first; her time in the town honed a sound and an attitude that puts the 'kick' in Kicker.

Kicker is out now under Pinetop Records and Hollywood Records.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Not An Apology | Bea Miller

Sixteen-year-old singer-songwriter Bea Miller has done what we all thought was nearly impossible: she has made a career out of her time on the ill-fated American leg of The X Factor. Before Miller, only girl group Fifth Harmony managed to do it. Many may mistake her as the newest product of the Walt Disney Company: She signed with Hollywood Records (once home to former Disney stars Miley Cyrus, Hilary Duff, and Selena Gomez, and still attached to Demi Lovato) and gained traction in the past year with younger audiences via Radio Disney promotional pushes and opening gigs for Lovato's Demi World Tour. She may fit the bill of a Disney star, but she actually paved her own way to the spot she is in now.

The lightweight lyrics and pasteurized pop-rock haze of songs like "Rich Kids" and "Young Blood" put her in the prime position for a teen-pop superstar (see: "After school I always had to work / It kinda left me feeling like a jerk / 'Cause I never got to talk to the guy I liked / And that ain't right," "We've got young blood, can't destroy us / We make our own luck in this world"), and not much on Not an Apology shakes her from that status. But we have to remember that she was thirteen when she made her X Factor debut and that she was under the age of sixteen when most of this material was curated; not everybody can be, nor does everybody need to be, a Lorde-esque, hyper-mature figure. For what she is marketing herself as, she is right on par.

The acoustic "Force of Nature" reveals that her light little voice bears resemblance to Echosmith's Sydney Sierota with the right inflection, but more often than not, she is ripping through her lyrics with enough power to be heard above her rugged production. Most of her products here are licked with a slight rock edge and offer some better scraps of lyrics than "Rich Kids." She employs her strongest rock influences on back-to-back tracks "I Dare You" and "Paper Doll," in addition to "This is Not an Apology" and "Enemy Fire." Lyrically, she sticks to broken relationships: She provokes he who imprisons her ("Put me in a cage, lock me in a room / Throw away the key, I dare you"), channels Katy Perry's "Ur So Gay" ("You're such a chick it makes me feel like a dude"), and proclaims her independence ("I'm not your paper doll / Can't make me what you want / You just build me up to tear me down / Enough's enough / Go, leave me alone"). Nothing special, but definitely sufficient.

With lyrics that appeal to younger audiences and productions that aren't far from Avril Lavigne's circa The Best Damn Thing (minus "Fire N Gold" and "Young Blood," which are full-fledged pop anthems), Miller is off to a strong start with Not an Apology. Although she has developed a quirky image through her social media outlets, she has yet to develop a defining personality through her music - a common downfall for fresh teenage faces and baseline pop-rock acts alike. This would be a bigger problem if she had pushed out bland material, but luckily, this album offers more than its fair share of enjoyable tunes.

Not an Apology will be released on July 24, 2015 under Hollywood Records and Syco Music.

Friday, July 17, 2015

How Does It Feel | MS MR

Ah, the inevitable growing pains. Every act has them, but how they are handled can make a world of difference; some use the pressure for the betterment of their output, a few for the worsening. For members of newer acts, musical maturation is often accompanied by the fear of the sophomore slump - a fear that the curtain of novelty that once surrounded them will fall and that their new record will bomb in comparison to their first. I'm not sure if Lizzy Plapinger and Max Hershenow, members of alt-pop MS MR, considered the slump while they composed their follow-up to 2013's Secondhand Rapture, but perhaps they should have.

On their sophomore album, How Does It Feel, the two try to chase the best of both mainstream pop and alt-pop, but they ultimately end up stagnant in an obscure left field. Visually, they have stepped away from the enigmatic ways of the past and plastered this era with saturated neon colors and their own faces, and in terms of productions, Hershenow has fused energized, mainstream-leaning dance into the duo's former grimy, gloomy backdrops. Despite their best efforts to dazzle as a fresh new pop alternative, they forgot crucial pieces to the pop puzzle: ear-grabbing hooks and melodies. Lead single "Painted" makes this obvious, as it is reliant on its production and simple chants of "what did you think would happen?" to demand attention. Unfortunately, very few other tracks manage to pique the interest that the single does. Most notably, though, "Pieces" accumulates with layers of vocals and layers of production that nod back to their debut, and "How Does It Feel" offers a hook actually worth waiting for.

The jump to a vitalized production style has uncovered a lethal detail that was concealed by the murky soundscapes of their debut: Plapinger's apathetic vocal delivery. As if the lack of commanding melodies wasn't disastrous enough, the voice delivering those lackluster lines bears similarity to that of a self-entitled girl fumbling through a solo audition in front of her high school choir director. Her lack of inflection plagues her own music; she strips ballads of emotion and drags what should be the album's most powerful moments down to low mumbles. The La Roux-evoking "Criminal," for example, could have been quite the anthem with the right voice behind the reins. And with a little more implication of authenticity behind their lyrics, "Cruel" and "Wrong Victory" could have offered some of the band's most intimate moments. But instead, the only times we twist any sort of variety out of her is during the few short moments that she shouts, "how does it feel?" in the title track and throughout the muted, ill-fitting piano ballad "All the Things Lost."

May I stress now that the production on this record isn't bad by any means, but it isn't complemented by simplistic lyrics and indifferent vocals, either. It seems as if the members of MS MR would like to make the move to heavier-hitting synthpop but were only partially committed to the idea by the time they hit the studio. The potential is there - don't forget, they did make a pretty solid entry with their debut record - but it isn't fulfilled this time around. Remember those growing pains we talked about earlier? For all intents and purposes, let's say that the duo is currently in their awkward middle school years; it seems like a grand time now, but neither one of them will want to remember any of this many years from now when they're in college and have taken yet another new, and hopefully far improved, form.

How Does It Feel is available now under Columbia Records.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Communion | Years & Years

Let's be honest: the United Kingdom Singles Chart is a finicky little rascal. In a country where one plug from Annie Mac (or, in most cases before this year, Zane Lowe) can send a lucky act straight to the top of the charts, number one hits tend to be short-lived affairs; Last year alone, there were 38 separate number one singles in the UK, compared to the 10 that the US embraced. However, without that fickle chart, widespread attention would never have been piqued for acts like Kiesza, Clean Bandit, and most recently, Years & Years. The electronic trio was blasted to the summit after its single "King" was picked up as Zane Lowe's Hottest Record in January.

With the house and synthpop revitalization well underway in the England, it's no wonder the single was a success on the other side of the Atlantic. Its immersive synthpop production is speckled with a light touch of the '90s house style that helped boost Rudimental and Disclosure to their respective pedestals, and lead singer Olly Alexander's light-weight voice adds a perfect soothing finish. The trio's previous three singles "Real," "Take Shelter," and "Desire," and follow-up single "Shine" all share equally radiant qualities. With five strong singles all sharing very similar production styles, does the signature Years & Years style lose its potency when stretched across the band's 13-track full-length debut?

Surprisingly, not really. Maybe it's Alexander's voice, which adds an element of humanness to a genre a music that is so often slammed for being stripped of emotion, that keeps everything from falling apart. His voice echoes in a minimalist atmosphere on opening track "Foundation," and layers of his vocals fuel the fire of blossoming standout track "Gold." (He is so often plugged as a muted Sam Smith - a comparison that is both baffling to me and insulting to Alexander.) Or maybe it's the band's love-centric lyrics that are equal parts emotional, empathetic, and empirical. From the life-or-death devotion of "Worship" to the lust that bleeds from "Take Shelter," each song stems from the desire for, or lack of attention from, a lover - a lover that *gasp* is revealed to be a male in "Real" and "Memo." We've needed more openly gay male pop stars bar Adam Lambert and Sam Smith, and Alexander fills the position nicely.

But more than likely, Communion is successful thanks to a combination of sheer vocals, love-struck lyrics, and unfaltering production. Years & Years' first outing may not be ground-breaking by any stretch of the definition, but when compared to the lackluster recent releases from fellow electronic artist Owl City and Zedd, it seems immaculate. If anything, though, Years & Years is the sonic lovechild of the detailed electronic dance of Disclosure and the spotless synthpop formulation of Lights - a combination that shouldn't garner many complaints. All comparisons aside, the album is still a glistening example of synthpop music done right.

Communion is out now under Interscope Records.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mobile Orchestra | Owl City

Adam Young's electronic project Owl City has never been the apple of any critic's eye. Many critics have never liked his wide-eyed innocence, his boyish voice, or his dreamy brand of electronic music. We critics (both amateur and professional, that is) have noticed that although it is always sugared with a technicolor finish that many would refer to as the "Owl City touch," Young's material has never had a steady sonic vision. Since the success of "Fireflies," his products have begun to teeter in the intersection of saturated synthpop, subtle contemporary Christian, and larger-than-life mainstream-pacification. And since consistency has never been his focus before, why would he start now on his fifth studio album? 

The showcased collaborations of Mobile Orchestra alone reveal the limitless ways Young tries to malleate a reformed version of his signature production style (a style that once gleamed with originality, but has now grown to its most uninspired, formulated stage yet, may I add). Cue the entrance of the ill-fitting Aloe Blacc on a dull-edged graduation song titled "The Verge," country star Jake Owen on the country-pop "Back Home," and the brothers of Hanson on "Unbelievable," a spectacular, nostalgia-inducing anthem that gives mention to G.I. Joe toys, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the Berenstain Bears, Goosebumps chapter books, and much more. Also in the mix are Britt Nicole, who doesn't wander far from her contemporary Christian home on the overtly preachy "You're Not Alone," and Sarah Russell, a light-voiced vocalist who is so underground that she hasn't even surpassed 1,000 followers on Twitter. Russell's collaboration, the Madeon-evoking "Thunderstruck," is particularly worth a listen: it, alongside "Unbelievable," marks one of the record's only high points.

Unlike Owl City's previous albums, Mobile Orchestra is locked and loaded with extra vocalists; in fact, only half of tracks are solo efforts. But hey, maybe all of the collaborations are here to mask the fact that Young has become relatively uninteresting by himself. The closing track, "This Isn't the End," (which was pulled from last year's Ultraviolet extended play) may be the only solo track here that offers something of depth lyrically as it tells the bittersweet story of a woman still coping with the fact that her father committed suicide when she was young - that is, until Young breaks out the line "The role of a father he never deserved / He abandoned his daughter and never returned." Ouch. Perhaps next time, let's not imply suicide victims didn't even deserve to live the lives they unfortunately terminated.

This ten-track suite can (and should) be deemed half-baked by the standards of fans and critics alike. Young wasted away three years to craft a record that not only boasts a measly 35 minutes running time, but also has nothing special to offer. His past works, especially Ocean Eyes and All Things Bright and Beautiful, were stamped with sentiment and naïveté. While suggestions of those qualities still make appearances on this record, gone is the wonder-struck attitude that once made it all feel genuine; the best Young could do to replicate this magic is on "Unbelievable." Otherwise, he has morphed into a bogus religiously-charged motivational speaker - a card he plays often on Mobile Orchestra, but one that he cannot play well. If nothing else, let this album prove that an orchestra shouldn't be composed of a one-man band - especially when that one man is already on his last creative leg.

Mobile Orchestra is available now under Republic Records.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Kiddo | Tove Styrke

The Scandinavian country of Sweden is commonly known for very few things, but I would bet a fine chunk of change that ready-to-assemble furniture retailers and quality pop music are the area's most popular exports. New Swedish acts such as Avicii, Elliphant, Icona Pop, Robyn, and most recently, Tove Lo have all tasted fame after breakthroughs outside of their homeland's reaches. She may have placed third on Swedish Idol and landed a platinum debut album in her native country in 2010, but 22-year-old Tove Styrke never experienced the same big break that her peers received. Her sophomore attempt, Kiddo, has been five years in the making, complete with a reinvention of her image and sound, and although it may not send her to the top of airplay charts, it should direct Styrke straight to headlining slots on indie blogs across the web.

Her eponymous debut album was a bit easier to digest, with more pep in its dance-powered step. Kiddo, on the other hand, is an elaborate, indie-leaning affair that throws Styrke towards the territory of fellow Swede Lykke Li. (Ironically, Li wrote Styrke's debut single, which was cloaked with a mainstream pop coating.) Styrke's voice, while not extraordinary, is idiosyncratic enough to give her distinction, but it is the attention to instrumental intricacies that truly sets the record apart from others lost in the indie-pop haze. The Beyoncé-referencing "Snaren," an AlunaGeorge-meets-Lykke Li track layered with drum and synth lines, clusters of altered ab-libs, and flying bullet sound effects, perfectly exemplifies why her immersive, fine-tuned productions should not be listened to without a pair of quality headphones.

Once again, her voice won't make a jaw drop, but it does have the ability to take on many different personas. On "Borderline," she spits out, "I'm borderline happy and I'm borderline sad / I'm borderline good and I'm borderline bad," with a nasal-tinged sneer over an entrancing backdrop. For tracks like "Ego" (which is an alluring slice of indie-pop heaven, by the way) and "Who's Got News," a paper-thin upper register is put into play. Then there are her most animated tracks, "Number One" and "Even If I'm Loud It Doesn't Mean I'm Talking to You," on which she tramples with youthful half-spoken, half-sung deliveries. The latter of those two runs along the strange border of The Ting Tings and Icona Pop, especially thanks to Styrke's punchy vocal play.

She channels an endless list of influences, but she does so with enough precision to craft a unique identity. Lyrically, though, she can be compared to no other. She favors quirky phrases with necessary touches of feminist and pro-pop music messages: "I got my half ass rhymes to set me free / That's why you never ever can get to me," "Hijack the idea of a girl that obeys,and the all-important "Your tears don't shake my world like Britney Spears / She's fierce." (The best part about that last line is that it is wholehearted, without the intended smirk of most novelty lyrics. The same could be said about her use of the phrases "When did you decide to get shady?" and "You better scooch for a queen bee.")

All Kill Bill references placed aside, the title Kiddo may imply Styrke is a fresh-faced lass, when in actuality, she possesses a level of maturity that is not as hyperreal as Lorde's, yet not as underdeveloped as Charli XCX's. (If anything, her lyrics are on an eccentric middle ground between the works of those two ladies.) With this album, she has set herself up with all she needs to pave her way to viral success: superb production, an identifiable voice, and a decent balance between striking messages and pop-centric lyrics. Furthermore, any artist that praises Britney Spears and samples Beyoncé on one album is already on the path to becoming a legend in my book.

Kiddo is available now digitally through RCA Records.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Bombastic EP | Bonnie McKee

It's hard to believe that it has been two long years since we heard from Bonnie McKee,  an American musician who made a name for herself as a songwriter in Katy Perry's camp for Teenage Dream. Her career has been a bit rocky: she released an ill-fated studio album eleven years ago and was dropped by her first record label soon afterwards. In 2013, she tried to spark some life into her career as a fresh-faced "American Girl" under a contract with Epic Records before departing from that label, too, alongside pop duo Karmin and X Factor UK contestant Cher Lloyd. But, it seems that the third time is the charm: McKee has taken the reins of her own career as an independent artist and produced the four-track Bombastic EP.

All of McKee's most memorable products post-2010, both for others artists and her solo career, have been pop gems without extra frills or experimentation. As the title of the extended play may insinuate, McKee adds a little flair to her sound without rumpling her effective, simplistic pop base this time around; her synthpop tracks have been amplified and layered with loud, gritty rock coatings. In fact, "Bombastic" fits every meaning of its title's definition; claustrophobic synths, grinding guitars, and McKee's sassy vocals make it the extended play's brightest track. (Not to mention that its accompanying music video, a sexy mock-up of an '80s instructional work-out video, could be a front-runner as one of the best pop clips of the year.)

The electrifying "I Want It All" marks McKee's most striking departure from "American Girl," "Sleepwalker," and the like. She adds an assertive, jagged edge to her vocal delivery to compete with the track's heavy rock backdrop. "I want your touch / I want your kiss / I want tough love / I want it all / I want your fear / I want your life / I want your mind / I want it all," she roars. Oppositely, the final two tracks of the extended play, "Wasted Youth" and "Easy," allow McKee to tone down her high-energy attitude and reveal a flatter style of synthpop. They both also deliver some of her more reflective lyrics; the former revolves around a recurring theme in pop music of 'getting it while we're young' ("Hold on, hold onto your wasted youth / Hang on, hang on, 'cause it's going so soon / And shine on, 'cause we'll never be the same, we'll never be the same"), while the latter gives way to a typical love song ("You were a candle, and I'm scared of the dark").

Bonnie McKee has the talent and the credibility to be successful, but it seems that this extended play is not enough to shape a unique identity. It's clear that she's the perfect hybrid of Ke$ha and Katy Perry (two artists that she has written for), but that's about it; only "Bombastic" matches the level of bubbly attitude exuded by "American Girl." That's not to say that the songs aren't ear-catching, though, because they're sufficient products. McKee hints that the release of a full-length album circa the Epic Records days is still possible, which could do her a whole world of good, but for the time being, the Bombastic EP should be enough to hold us over.

The Bombastic EP is out now digitally through an independent release.