Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Every Open Eye | Chvrches

If it isn't broken, why fix it?

This seems to be the approach for Scottish electronic outfit Chvrches. Their debut album, 2013's The Bones of What You Believe, introduced listeners to a tinny, sparkly brand of synthpop. Lead singer Lauren Mayberry's voice, a bright soprano that would have churned out quite a number of hits during the late 1990s pitch-shifted days of eurodance bands like Aqua, sealed the deal on the group's sound, adding a punchy energy to each song. Their sophomore attempt, Every Open Eye, delivers more of the same: bouncy, hook-oriented electropop with a refreshed sense of urgency.

Hyperactivity is kind of Chvrches' thing. Ten of the album's eleven tracks blur together into an uptempo whirlwind that leaves a vivid, but certainly not audacious, impression. Not to be pigeonholed with encompassing power pop acts in the Top 40 vein, the band sits somewhere between Grimes and M83 on the spectrum. And unlike those chart-topping, bass-powered bangers, synths and heavy drums bear the brunt of the instrumental workload here. In "Clearest Blue," they build towards an exuberant breakdown and dance around Mayberry's voice, and in "Bury It," they flower into the album's most noteworthy choruses under her shouts of "Bury it, bury it, bury it and rise above."

Lead single "Leave a Trace" ushered in the era on a strong note, with a strong focus on Mayberry's confidence and brazen lyrics. "I know I need to feel released / Take care to tell it just how as it was / Take care to tell on me for the cause," she sings, admitting her own faults but cursing love. A majority of the songs on this LP chronicle the highs and lows of the same relationship: "Never Ending Circles" begs for the end of a relationship ("If you want another / Say you need another"), while sentiment soaks the dull "Make Them Gold" and the driving "Keep You On My Side." Walking the same lines as the latter, "Empty Threat" gleams with a strong melody and confident vocals to mask underlying vulnerability.

Just like their debut, this record has one random track that swaps out Mayberry's vocals for those of Martin Doherty, one of the trio's two instrumentalists. "High Enough to Carry You Over" is a refreshing change of pace, whereas "Under the Tide" of The Bones of What You Believe was just a forgettable disruption. The album's closer, "Afterglow," also twists the album's formula, being the only track to step away from the super-produced speaker-shakers. It is a glistening sendoff for an album that spent nearly 40 minutes in overdrive; "I've given up all that I can," Mayberry repeats at the end of the track, reminiscing on the storm of feelings that conjured every other song here.

Every Open Eye definitely has both eyes focused on energy; the material here is sure to keep Chvrches towards the top of festival billings for a few years to come. Distinction is the downfall here, just as it was on their debut album; fingers can be pointed towards fixed production habits and Mayberry's one-track voice. Despite her solid projection and strong grip on dynamics, Mayberry can't overcome her voice's lack of versatility (or she just hasn't been given the platform to display it). Although the unwavering abuse of the same sounds and vocal techniques kills individuality of each song, the album as a whole tells a clear story. The installments of that tale may blend into one nondescript event, but when digested in one sitting, it's a relatively enjoyable experience.

Every Open Eye is out now under Glassnote Entertainment.

Singles Summary: September 2015

Disclosure feat. Lorde // "Magnets"
Caracal, Island

Lana Del Rey // "Music to Watch Boys To"
Honeymoon, Interscope

Foxes // "Better Love"
All I Need, Sony UK / Sign of the Times

Selena Gomez // "Same Old Love"
Revival, Interscope

Ellie Goulding // "On My Mind"
Delirium, Interscope

Lady Gaga // "Til It Happens to You"
from 'The Hunting Ground' documentary, Interscope

Sia // "Alive"
This is Acting, RCA

Tinashe // "Party Favors"
Joyride, RCA

Bleona // "Take You Over"
*This was a Twitter request addition

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Honeymoon | Lana Del Rey

Just over three and a half years ago, we were introduced to a fresh-faced Lana Del Rey. She was initially ripped to shreds by critics after an awkward television debut on Saturday Night Live and scrutinized for the huge digital footprint of music released under different monikers that she left behind when she signed to a major label. Two albums, one extended play, and multiple soundtrack features later, here we are; she is now an unstoppable viral force and an unrecognizable live performer. Wasting no time atop her wave of popularity, Del Rey announced the release of Honeymoon, her third major label full-length album and fourth overall, last month. Just when her critics thought she was running out of steam, she has restocked her arsenal with all of the idiosyncrasies that set her apart.

Each of her releases have been stamped with a defining sound. Born to Die, her 2012 major-label debut album, introduced us to a self-proclaimed "gangster Nancy Sinatra" surrounded by lush forests of trip-hop drum machine clicks, brass instruments, and electronics. She shifted the extended play companion to her debut, Paradise, towards sweeping productions, with all eight tracks resonating with listeners as if they were punctuated with cinematic booms. Then came 2014's Ultraviolence, for which Del Rey took a unexpected step off her predicted sonic path; most of the album's 11 tracks were produced in collaboration with the Black Keys member Dan Auerbach, who convinced her to take a more open, alternative rock-leaning approach.

Now we have been handed Honeymoon: the album that, despite being her least cohesive, might embody her persona better than any of her other past works. Before its release, she revealed  on Instagram that this album would have a blend of songs, "some with a muddy trap energy and some inspired by late-night Miles Davis drives." She originally lost me with the "muddy trap" comment, but it made perfect sense when she dropped lead single "High by the Beach" last month. The record expands more on this sound, but not as often as you may think; the record could be divided into three portions, with a smaller "muddy trap" middle portion dividing the "Miles Davis" beginning and end. Pull the production from Born to Die, take it all down a few steps gloomier, and finish it off with the ambiance and raw tone of Ultraviolence: You now have yourself a Honeymoon.

The triple-threat of "High by the Beach," "Freak," and "Art Deco" highlights the long-awaited return of those trap beats. Buried under layers of vocals, the drum machines aren't as prominent as they once were throughout Born to Die; now, they're blunt and implemented only as needed when choruses bloom. "High by the Beach," a vengeful declaration of independence from a man and the media, may be the farthest away from home base; her wispy vocal ad-libs are looped over a deep drum machine and a synthesizer straight out of a Las Vegas wedding chapel. And let's not forget "Freak," arguably the sexiest song on the record. (After all, it wouldn't be a Lana Del Rey original without a few overtly sexual songs, right?) "Baby, if you wanna leave, come to California / Be a freak like me, too / Screw your anonymity / Loving me is all you need to feel like I do," she sings in the sultry sonic companion to a midnight drive through a grimy city with a lover.

For better or for worse, she did retain a few tricks from her Ultraviolence sessions with Auerbach: muffled components of production, subtle imperfections in the vocals, and an overall ambiance that give listeners an impression of a certain authenticity. The intimate "Terrence Loves You" is the closest that she migrates back to that Ultraviolence feeling; the horns and keys brood and harmonies fall into dissonance in all the right places, allowing Del Rey's fragile vocals to gleam at the front and center of attention. In fact, Del Rey's voice takes precedence over the production as the main element of power on every track. Even in the denser production of "Music to Watch Boys To" and "Swan Song," her voice still doesn't get lost and makes itself a dominant force. She gives a low-key nod towards voyeurism on "Music," alternating thin high notes with half-spoken low ones as she sings, "I like you a lot / Putting on my music while I'm watching the boys / So I do what you want / Singing soft grunge just to soak up the noise." 

On a more passionate note, "Swan Song" may be few decades premature. She croons, "I will never sing again / And you won't work another day / I will never sing again / With one wave, it all goes away," over the ringing testament of her career, perhaps fueled by frustration with media intrusion. This isn't her only middle-finger statement to the industry and the media, either. We already talked about "High by the Beach," which is accompanied by a not-so-subtle music video that features Del Rey destroying a paparazzi helicopter mid-air with a machine gun, but I have yet to mention "God Knows I Tried." Through the hazy vocals and minimalist, guitar-based production, she reveals her adaptation (or lack thereof) to a constricting celebrity status: "I've got nothing much to live for ever since I found my fame." She's a far stretch from who we were introduced to as Lana Del Rey in 2012; while still an enigmatic character, her affinity for all things Hollywood seems to have been tainted in the past few years.

Lyrically, Del Rey has been, and always will be, a one-trick pony. Kiss me hard in the pouring rain under the pale moonlight while I drive fast in my red party dress with my bad baby, my daddy, my one true love, so on and so forth. If you hadn't picked up on this by now, what are you even doing here? This time around, she has scrapped her old, self-written book of Lana Del Clichés (trademark pending) in favor of just about anything that pleases her own aesthetic palate. Phrases like "You're so art deco, out on the floor / Baby, you're so ghetto, you're looking to score" and "So let's dance in slow motion / Tear it up, tear it up / Let's dance by the ocean / Ah, ah" are strange stretches for the sake of making a rhyme, but nothing outdoes the strangest lyric of them all from this record: "Salvatore can wait / Now it's time to eat soft ice cream." (It could be worse, though. A lot worse. We've all heard "Cola," haven't we? Yes? Okay, we're all on the same page here, then.)

Remember her favorite red party dress; the one she wore with her hair done up real big, beauty queen style? Yeah, forget about it; she sent it off to Goodwill. Blue is now Del Rey's go-to color. ("Give me all, got my blue nail polish on / It's my favorite color and my favorite tone of song," in "The Blackest Day," "Flames so hot that they turn blue" in "Freak," "All the lights in Miami begin to gleam ruby, blue, and green / Neon, too," in "Salvatore," and simply "Dark blue, dark blue, dark blue" in the title track. I left a few of the "blue" mentions out for you to find on your own. It won't be a hard search, I promise.) But where her lyrics fail or get repetitive, her vocal arrangements pull through, as is the case with "Salvatore" and "Honeymoon." The melody and production of "Salvatore" evoke enough striking Old Italian influences that they neutralize multiple mentions of soft ice cream, while the harmonies of the title track's chorus captivate everyone within earshot, even though she may only be repeating, "Our honeymoon / Say you want me, too / Dark blue."

Lana Del Rey sits pretty on her throne at the apex of the alternative pop pyramid, and Honeymoon holds her steady. While Ultraviolence drew her away from her comfort zone, this record lets her to bask in it. Perhaps that comfort comes with freedom, after already proving herself as an unshakable force with commendable album sales and a sold-out North American tour. Or maybe it comes from the safe haven of familiarity that the set was created in: the entire record was written and produced by Del Rey with longtime partner-in-crime Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies, minus her cover of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" and the "Burnt Norton" interlude. Together, the three haphazardly melt moody noir jazz and muffled alt-pop to create a very Lana-esque atmosphere. Equal parts melancholy, reflective, and soothing, Honeymoon doesn't bring anything bright or new to the dark blue (dark blue, dark blue) skies of Del Rey's world, but sunny days were never in the forecast to begin with.

Honeymoon is out now under Interscope Records. Exclusive vinyl pressings can be found at Urban Outfitters.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

I Cry When I Laugh | Jess Glynne

Remember the career development of British singer-songwriter Foxes? She broke through with a vocal credit on Zedd's "Clarity" a few years ago, picked up a Grammy for the track, and found solo success in her native country. I bring her up because it is strange how closely the breakthrough of Jess Glynne resembles that of Foxes. A fellow Brit, Glynne was the vocal power behind Clean Bandit's summer smash "Rather Be," for which she earned a Grammy for Best Dance Recording. Now that she can fly on her own, Glynne wants solo success with her debut album, I Cry When I Laugh.

Glynne's voice, which is luckily unscathed from a recent vocal cord surgery alike the necessary repairs to the voices of Adele, Sam Smith, and Meghan Trainor, is warm and soulful. As if her Clean Bandit collaborations ("Rather Be" is included on the American pressing of this album, and "Real Love" on the European variant) didn't prove this already, she can hold her own against any production element thrown her way with ease. Her voice is an unshakable element that adds life to nearly every song (minus "Saddest Vanilla," a duet with Emeli Sandé that brings this otherwise-enjoyable set to a standstill) and holds everything together. 

Singles "Hold My Hand" and "Don't Be So Hard on Yourself" showcase exactly what there is to expect on the full album: whirlwinds of disco and europop production, unbreakable layers of vocal harmonies, and a potent touch of soul. (She breaks that pattern on only the aforementioned "Saddest Vanilla" and the acoustic track "My Love," which is the only time we hear vulnerability tinge her otherwise boastful, confident voice.) The soul qualities really gleam through as each song blossoms and Glynne really unleashes the beast that is her voice. "Gave Me Something" is quality throughout, but really becomes ear-catching as the layers of her vocals build atop a gospel choir in the chorus repetitions. Something similar could be said for "Why Me," the closest Glynne gets to a deep house sound. Each chorus swells bigger and bigger with vocals, swaying synths, and that backing choir.

This album does a great job with consistency, but falls short when it comes to distinction between songs. The album as a whole does give Glynne an identity, mainly due to that voice; if I were to hear one of these songs on the radio, I could immediately point out that it is a Jess Glynne original. However, which Jess Glynne song is it? Take "You Can Find Me," a track that is meant to be the liveliest fusion of her sonic influences, but unfortunately lacks the spark and accumulation of some of the other tracks here; I wouldn't be able to pick it out of a line up of her other songs. It's hard to perfect the balance between cohesion and variety, so Glynne chose to focus on the former and let her voice do most of the talking, singing, laughing, and crying. She has the chops to go far in this industry; she just needs to make a longer lasting testament than this bag of dance floor-filling fun.

I Cry When I Laugh will be available on September 11, 2015 in the United States under Atlantic Records.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Wild | Troye Sivan

With over 3.5 million YouTube subscribers and 2.9 million Twitter followers, 20-year-old Internet personality Troye Sivan was guaranteed success when he dropped his debut extended play TRXYE last year. Without any promotion or a popular single on contemporary hit radio in the United States, the extended play found its way to number five on the Billboard 200. Just a year after his official entrance to the music scene, Sivan is ready to follow-up with Wild, a second extended-play stamped with the promise of more music to come in the near future.

TRXYE captivated audiences with dense, electronic soundscapes that enveloped Sivan's smooth, yet limited, vocals. He boasts the same appeal this time around, with his voice now floating to the forefront of sleeker productions. The title track is a brooding, color-by-numbers synthpop experience complemented by children's chants; this type of formulaic pop is Sivan's strongest suit. "Fools" and "The Quiet" were crafted from identical sonic blueprints, both featuring sultry, lonely verses that give way to sawtoothed synths and pitch-shifted vocals. While enjoyable, they are unfortunately indiscernible from one another. Co-written with Allie X, "Bite" also comes from a similar place, but layers of reverberated vocals and a sparse backdrop set it apart from the rest of the bunch.

The production formula is only toyed with on "Ease," a track written, produced, and sang by Sivan and Kiwi duo Broods. Caleb Nott brought sharp drum machines to the table while Georgia Nott delivered top-notch, airy duet vocals. This song proves that even the slightest sonic experimentation on Sivan's part, while not necessary this early in his career, is not detrimental; it is a refreshing step off of Sivan's usual path. On the cusp of minor viral success, singer-rapper Tkay Maidza claims the spot as Wild's only other featured vocalist on "DKLA." Her punchy delivery, which evokes Azealia Banks in the best way possible, contrasts Sivan's fragile pout and the dark production pulled straight from FKA twigs' playbook, but her vocals are reverberated and pushed into the distance to ensure the contrast isn't as harsh as it could have been.

Sivan has made waves as a YouTuber, a musician, an actor, and an openly gay celebrity. Many viral stars followed in the footsteps of Sivan and Tyler Oakley in disclosing their sexuality, but Sivan's 2013 coming out video was one of the first that I remember watching. Wild will be backed by a music video trilogy - the first part of which is already out in the form of the title track's music video - that zeroes in on a gay relationship that blossoms from a childhood friendship. Props to him for using his position to help further the normalization and representation of gay relationships in the media, especially with the portrayal of early homosexual feelings.

While the appeal of viral star-musician hybrids has been tarnished in the past few years thanks to people who crossover to music without visions of sustainable careers in the field (Carter Reynolds and Joey Graceffa are the first that come to mind), Troye Sivan is the real deal. Akin to overnight sensation Halsey, whose debut album Badlands opened at number two on the Billboard 200, Sivan packages new-age PBR&B and gloomy synthpop in a digestible format. Nothing here pushes his vocal boundaries despite the potential, but that's not a glaring problem: it's very easy to build successful music careers and craft quality pop songs with narrow vocal ranges (see: Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez). He's arguably still a kid, and he still knows what kind of music the kids like. If he can keep a grip on those tastes and continue to base his works off of them, Sivan will be here to stay for years to come.

Wild is available now under Capitol Records.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz | Miley Cyrus

The MTV VMAs aired nearly a week ago, and I'm still not entirely sure what kind of madness we watched unfold.

Let's recap, shall we? Two years removed from Twerkgate 2013, MTV invited Miley Cyrus to host the show. Nicki Minaj thanked her pastor and then called Cyrus a bitch as she accepted an award for the "Anaconda" music video. Kanye West delivered a cryptic, incoherent acceptance speech for this year's Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award and concluded with the announcement of his 2020 presidency campaign. The Weeknd was mildly annoyed with Cyrus and then performed "Can't Feel My Face" in a circle of fire. Taylor Swift swept up awards like a vacuum cleaner (but rightfully so after the success of 1989) and brought her whole "Bad Blood" gang with her. Justin Bieber cried during his first televised performance in two and a half years. It was a wild ride, but the world really wasn't ready for what happened in the final minutes of the show: Miley loaded the stage with RuPaul's Drag Race contestants, sang a song about how she loves marijuana, and announced the release of a free, independently-released album online, titled Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz.

While Bangerz was scandalous, Her Dead Petz is just legitimately weird. It's what the Flaming Lips/Kesha collaborative album could have sounded like, had it ever materialized: a hot mess, substituting Kesha's glittery, drunken party lyrics with plenty of references to Cyrus' longtime friend Mary Jane. She garnered more squinty side-eyes than shocked wide eyes as she performed "Dooo It!" during the awards show; the wonky trap-influenced beat holds the song together as Cyrus runs through the lyrics, "Yeah, I smoke pot / Yeah, I love peace / But I don't give a fuck / I ain't no hippie / Peace, motherfucker" and ends with an uncorrelated, "Why they put the dick in the pussy? Fuck you." (Don't you worry, either: the album is stocked with plenty more lyrics akin to those.)

The vocal production on the track, like many on Her Dead Petz, is rough and fuzzy to give it that "recorded on an economy-tier laptop while high in the basement" type of feel. (Or recorded by her father, as is the case with "Miley Tibetan Bowlzzz," a surprisingly relaxing track that is composed completely of Cyrus moaning over ambient synths. Father-daughter bonding time spent recording moans for a weed-fueled album? Unorthodox and awkward.) Her raspy vocals snap, crackle, and pop under her emotions like Rice Krispies cereal in a bowl of milk. She is perhaps too sentimental in a few of these tracks dedicated to her pets of the past, especially on a track titled "Pablow the Blowfish." It is, as you could assume, about Pablow the dead blowfish and Cyrus' overblown devastation after his untimely passing. The melody is admittedly beautiful, but the lyrics ("How can I love someone I never touched? You lived under the water, but I love you so much [...] Why does everything I love have to die?") and emotional breakdown in the last chorus repetition are a bit much. (Maybe I'm just insensitive, I don't know.)

The equally-overblown closing ballad, "Twinkle Song," sprouts from the death of her friend's cat and spirals into eardrum-destroying screams of "What does it mean, what does it mean? I had a dream." And how could we forget Floyd? Of course Cyrus' dead husky, who died midway through her 2014 Bangerz Tour, is memorialized through song: "The Floyd Song (Sunrise)." While "Pablow" is a piano-backed narrative, "Floyd" is a taste of psychedelic, ambient rock experimentation packed with flowery language. Drenched in reverb, she moans through the guitar-led ode to her beloved Floyd. The format also carries over to "Something About Space Dude." Both tracks are like most on this album and of this genre: great background drone to accompany your journey through an indie record store, but coma-inducing when actively listened to.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this album is the fact that it displays Cyrus at her most genuine. With the power of a record label out of the equation, her lyrics are uninhibited. She boasts sole songwriting credits on ten of the tracks, meaning that lyrics like "The sun is a giant spaceship tangerine / It shoots out rays of hopeful golden morphine / Tangerine, shooting beam" and "Yo, sing about love, love is what you need / Loving what you sing and loving smoking weed / Weed, weed, weed, weed / Sing about peace, being high and free" are pure, unrefined derivatives of Cyrus' thought process. I'm no expert in stoner counterculture or mental illnesses, but these sound like the ramblings of someone who is mentally unsound, not just high as a kite. But institutionalization may not be right around the corner: With her behavior and statements at the VMAs taken into consideration, this could instead be a giant manufactured move that will amplify the desire for her mainstream pop return under RCA Records. (This set doesn't count towards her contract with the industry giant, nor was its $50,000 worth of production costs fronted by them.)

The intentions of Her Dead Petz have been fulfilled: it has polarized most fans and critics, leaving parties on both sides equally confused. We get it: little Disney girl image is dead and long gone. Since Can't Be Tamed, if not earlier, Miley has sought after our attention, but at least she delivered quality music to accompany the antics. This time around, she veered off-course with results that can be seen as try-hard by some, and uber-artsy by others. So where do I fall in that spectrum? I have to lend my support for the 'try-hard' camp. The vocals, while admirably emotional, are distant and ill-produced, the lyrics are unnecessarily ridiculous, and the majority of the songs are just half-baked (pun definitely intended). Were you one of the many that begged for the revival of "old Miley" when "Wrecking Ball" dominated pop culture? I bet Bangerz-era Miley Cyrus doesn't sound so bad right about now, does she?

Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz is streaming in full for free at via Smiley Miley, Incorporated.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Four Pink Walls | Alessia Cara

Inhabitants of the Internet, meet your newest overnight sensation.

Nineteen-year-old Alessia Cara has paved her own way to fame from the comfort of her own home. She found initial popularity online via acoustic covers on YouTube. The name of her debut extended play is inspired by her childhood bedroom. The cover for the extended play was shot with an iPhone. All but one of her music videos were filmed at home with a selfie stick and a gritty webcam. And of course, her mainstream breakthrough single is all about the desire to leave a party and go home.

Never have I related to a song more than I have to "Here." Far too often do we hear the typical drugs, sex, and party anthems, but not enough do we get songs for those of us who prefer late night drives with a few friends or solo Netflix binges on Saturday nights. "But really I would rather be at home all by myself / Not in this room with people who don't even care about my well being," she croons over a sultry horns, sustained keys, and a half-time beat. "Four Pink Walls" also thrives on throwback R&B vibes and taps into the coming-of-age, dreaming-chasing teenage mentality: "Oh, the universe aligned with what I wanted all this time / I knew there was a life behind those four pink walls."

Cara told USA Today's Sara Moniuszko in the August 31 edition of the paper that "it's hard to stick to one genre," which is evident from the rest of the tracks on this EP. Peppy drum machines and pitch-shifted vocals on "Seventeen" draw comparisons between Cara and fellow teen idol Lorde, and the easy-going doo-wop tendencies of "Outlaws" radiate some of the same influences as Meghan Trainor's Title, but Cara's voice molds to each style and holds the five songs together as one suite. Standout track "I'm Yours" embeds that voice in a lively production that is easily the most radio-friendly of the bunch. While "Here," "Seventeen," and "Four Pink Walls" are reflective, "I'm Yours" is the necessary radiant love song to balance things out: "Because I've had my heart broken before, and I promised I would never let me hurt anymore / But I tore down my walls and opened my doors and made room for one / So baby, I'm yours."

It's this type of infectious production, raw talent, and striking relatability that turns a teen singer into a massive star. Carefree party songs may be great sellers, but Alessia Cara proves once again that introspection is equally, if not more, powerful. With Four Pink Walls, she has kicked new life into the ever-popular 'alt-pop/R&B fusion' genre of music; the genre hasn't taken such an optimistic, lively form in a while. This EP is just a sample of her debut album, titled Know-It-All, to come, and if the album comes anywhere close to the quality of this release, Cara has a very bright future ahead of her.

Four Pink Walls is out now under Def Jam Recordings.