Saturday, October 31, 2015

Singles Summary: October 2015

Adele // "Hello"
25, XL Recordings

Justin Bieber // "Sorry"
Purpose, Def Jam

Alessia Cara // "Wild Things"
Know-It-All, Def Jam

Ellie Goulding // "Something in the Way You Move," "Lost & Found," & "Army"
Delirium, Interscope
SITWYM: ★★★★☆ // L&F: ★★★★★ // Army: ★★★★★

Ariana Grande // "Focus"
Moonlight, Republic

Grimes // "Flesh Without Blood"
Art Angels, 4AD

 // "Kamikaze"

One Direction // "Perfect"
Made in the AM, Syco / Sony

TĀLĀ feat. Banks // "Wolfpack"
Malika, Sony UK

Tinashe feat. Chris Brown // "Player"
Joyride, RCA

Troye Sivan // "Talk Me Down"
Blue Neighbourhood, Capitol

Gwen Stefani // "Used To Love You"
TBA, Interscope

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Handwritten | Shawn Mendes

I thought the Shawn Mendes craze was over.

Vine – known for granting popularity to the talented and untalented alike – is the catalyst for Mendes' fame, after he regularly posted seven second acoustic covers to the app. His debut full-length, Handwritten, debuted atop the Billboard 200 in April before falling hard in its second week with a record-breaking 89% sales decrease. Somewhat surprisingly, though, his career revived itself as Taylor Swift nabbed him as an opening act for her 1989 World Tour and his eight month old single "Stitches" took off on American airwaves. The song currently sits at number five on the Billboard Hot 100. So, has this second life brought new attention to an album that matches the quality of his radio hit?

Eh, not really.

Guitar in hand, Mendes is ready for the title of a teen acoustic pop phenomenon; a junior replica of Ed Sheeran, if you will. Sheeran, however, has created a perception that all acoustic and light pop albums are intimate and produced almost entirely by one set of hands – a perception that isn't true with these up-and-coming kids. Sabrina Carpenter, Bea Miller, and Mendes all play mean poker faces with their vocals but rely on large behind-the-scenes teams. Mendes is credited for his hand in the creation of nine cuts on the twelve-track album.

So much of this album is stuck in a mid-tempo, acoustic dirge. The standard edition clocks in at just under 40 minutes, and that's about 20 minutes longer than is necessary. A finger can be pointed to his producers; too much focus is put on Mendes' voice – which sounds like a good concept based on his cover snippets, but the album reveals that his voice really isn't something to be spotlighted constantly for 40 minutes – and the hooks are disappointingly underdeveloped when compared to "Stitches" and "Something Big." Subtle climaxes fail in tracks like "Aftertaste" and "Strings," while they never come at all, despite being expected, in "Air" and "Never Be Alone."

Seven second installments of Mendes' acoustic works aren't bad, but the translation of those clips into a full-feature is pretty rocky. On the bright side, he is only 17 years old, so there's hope for him. With the right productions behind him, he should be able to craft an interesting body of work in the future. It seems that for his first outing, he was just too afraid to leave the warm companionship of his guitar. Post-puberty Justin Bieber has proven that guys with inflexible voices can produce interesting music, so now we just have to sit back and wait for Mendes to take notes.

Handwritten is out now under Island Records. Exclusive pressings can be found at Walmart and Target department stores.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Confident | Demi Lovato

"Well, you've had me underrated," Demi Lovato tells us in the title track of her fifth studio album, Confident. It's a phrase that sticks with listeners throughout the album, because we learn that she may be correct; that voice of hers had been mistakenly placed on our back-burners for a while. Her first three albums were admittedly in character of a Radio Disney-friendly star, but they failed to define her sound or highlight her voice. Her fourth studio album, 2013's Demi, finally put her on some production that offered her voice some competition: songs like "Heart Attack" and "Neon Lights" let her belt over soundscapes that actually stood a chance on Top 40 radio.

Now, Lovato wants to concrete her spot as a prominent pop powerhouse by going denser, heavier, and harder. She has discovered the power of a Max Martin co-signature, aiming her focus towards sounds that are as expansive and as aggressive as possible. "Cool for the Summer" introduced us to the new Demi Lovato in July, with licks of an electric guitar and layers of synthesizers grinding underneath lyrics that reek of lust: "Got my mind on your body and your body on my mind / Got a taste for the cherry, I just need to take a bite." She followed up strong, releasing "Confident" as the second single. As I noted in my review of Selena Gomez's Revival, confidence is Hollywood's newest favorite shade of sexy, and this track makes that very clear. It's an attention-commanding anthem led by blaring horns and militaristic drums that finds Lovato repeatedly asking, "What's wrong with being confident?"

Dark electronic dance finds its way onto the middle portion of the album. The standout sparse EDM track "Waitin' for You" reassures her confidence: "Knuckles out / And the guard in my mouth / When you're hungry for the next round, I'll be waitin' for you." This one lets Lovato take the reins and generate most of the song's power. "Kingdom Come" finishes a trifecta started by Katy Perry's "Dark Horse" and Iggy Azalea's "Black Widow," complete with an identical deep bass and twiddling synth format. Disappointingly, Lovato's voice is masked behind a gritty filter when we need its presence the most in the build-up; the power behind "Oh, you're my kingdom come / So sit me on your throne" is completely lost in translation. On the other hand, "Old Ways" follows the same formula but puts her voice in the forefront. Lyrically, it's the final nail in the coffin for memories of her turbulent Disney days  and this obituary wasn't written with any sorrow: "I'm not in the same place that I was / And the best part about it / Is I'm the only who can do something about it."

"For You" is her best shot at recreating a sweeping Sia-esque sound without Furler herself being involved. Lovato fills every inch of the sonic space granted to her, but the song fails to garner the resonating boom that was probably meant to be created. What we do learn from the track, though, is that she wants to be the new token vocal powerhouse of Top 40 radio. And while she's not on the elusive level of Jessie J or Sia, she can easily one-up many of her contemporaries. The album's two ballads, "Stone Cold" and "Father," both cut the powerful pop backdrops from behind, leaving her voice in a vulnerable position. She delivers the former with a pinched tone, but lets loose on the gospel-leaning closer "Father." It isn't the first song she has released about her late father, who died in 2013 while the two were estranged, but it may easily be her most forgiving and raw tribute to him yet.

Lovato said that this album was to fulfill her desire for a Grammy award, yet not a single one of these track is worthy of the award. The Recording Academy doesn't even respect quality pop material anymore, let alone relatively average releases. But while it may not get her that coveted Grammy, Confident does flick listeners right in the sweet spot. It delivers that feel-good, radio-ready pop that we all wanted but were told not to expect. Pulling out all of the stops, she has amped up the sexiness ("Cool for the Summer," "Wildfire"), the boldness ("Old Ways," "Waitin' For You"), and most importantly, the confidence.

Confident is available now under Hollywood Records and Island Records. Standard and deluxe pressings are available.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Revival | Selena Gomez

A new year, a new record label, a new Selena Gomez.

"I dive into the future, but I'm blinded by the sun / I'm reborn in every moment, so who knows what I'll become," says 23 year old singer and actress in the opening seconds of her second solo studio album, Revival. It's a far stretch from the fragile, tear-drenched monologue featured in the video for last year's "The Heart Wants What It Wants," the sole single from her rushed greatest hits compilation, but the past eleven months required plenty of reflection on her part. After detachment from Justin Bieber, departure the Walt Disney-owned Hollywood Records, and diagnosis of lupus, Gomez's life has been changed remarkably since 2013's Stars Dance - and it shows through the music.

Confidence is the newest shade of sexy. While former Disney pal Demi Lovato has been even more up front with the subject (even naming her own upcoming album Confident), Gomez has made her own statements with a nude album cover and multiple tracks on the album. Lead single "Good For You" oozes with sultry radiance as her paper-thin vocals float over waves of bass vibrations: "Let me show you how proud I am to be yours / Leave this dress a mess on the floor / And still look good for you, good for you." This vocal delivery holds the tone for most of the record; it gives her voice some personality. Prior to this record, she carried her voice with a pinched, youthful tone. Now, we hear that voice give off a (very welcomed) warmer, natural inflection.

Her music has taken a new form; while still very pop, layers of the dense soundscapes of Stars Dance have been peeled away. The songs here - spare "Me & The Rhythm" and "Hands to Myself" - implement relatively subtle climaxes, relying on Gomez's vocals to brunt most of the workload. Even "Kill Em With Kindness," with its trend-chasing whistle chorus, and "Survivors," a sleek dance track, are relatively sparse when compared to past work. Gomez's vocals and the wonky piano line of the Charli XCX-assisted "Same Old Love" help keep the song alive despite the lack of an attention-demanding chorus, and that voice proves stronger than ever expected on the piano ballad "Camouflage."

Revival is a strong marketing ploy on Gomez's current state of affairs; it comes full circle, from the introductory number "Revival" ("More than just survival / This is my revival") to the hopeful glimmers of closing track "Rise" ("Yes, I know there are those who will want to bring you down / But you can rise with your mind and make your higher power proud"), to concrete Gomez's personal transformation. This confidence translates decently through song, but more so through her new found vocal confidence than through the album's transparent lyrics and fluid production. While not the best pop album to hit the market this year, it's an intimate affair that marks a bright new chapter in Gomez's story.

Revival is available now under Interscope Records. An exclusive deluxe pressing can be found at Target department stores.