Sunday, January 31, 2016

This is Acting | Sia

Forty year old Sia Furler never intended to become the industry's most applauded one-woman pop songwriting machines of her time.

"I think that the stuff I write for pop music is terribly, terribly cheesy, but I'm coming from an indie background," Furler told Rolling Stone's Brittany Spanos early last month. After listening to the effects of her 2011 collaboration with David Guetta, the empowerment anthem "Titanium," on young victims of bullying, however, the tides began to change: "I felt like I was jaded and cynical, and I felt like a bit of an asshole. I thought, 'Why don't you loosen up, you prick! This stuff that you think is cheesy is really impacting these kids around the world. Why don't you stop being so judgmental?'"

Five years after this genesis of Sia's behind-the-scenes Top 40 career and just under two years after the release of her own American breakthrough album, here we are; she seems to have embraced her place in the industry. Though still finding a way to hide behind mannequin heads and overgrown bobbed wigs of her 1000 Forms of Fear promotional run, she allows the dripping emotion of that album to dry in favor of embracing the detached spirit of her profession on This is Acting. Each track, spare one, was pulled from the rubble of writing sessions for other artists, including BeyoncĂ©, Adele, Shakira, and Rihanna.

There are songs here that she doesn't care about and songs here that are, as she would probably say, ultimately cheesy; her lack of detachment does show through the cracks a bit, but to her defense, the lack of earnestness is nearly expected considering the songs' original purposes. A few moments through the record, she carries her voice with a carefree, business-as-usual tone; on "Cheap Thrills," the bubbly vocal accent is mandatory to keep pace with the bounces of the automated drums, while the deliver on "Reaper" -- the track she never intended to place in the track listing -- is strikingly indifferent. However, even when that voice of hers is operating in at half-power, it's still much stronger than what could be offered on the track by any of her A-list clients -- nobody can match her, a raspy powerhouse who snaps, crackles, and pops like a worn, well-loved record.

But there are also songs here that she loved too much to give away; there are songs she knows wouldn't have worked for their intended artists and embraced herself. It is at these moments that the true magic behind this album's concept is seen: a good handful of these tracks more than deserve a chance to see the light of day. "Alive," the crowning jewel of the rejects, would have been the most gripping selection on the bland wasteland that was Adele's 25; the same could be said for the club-banger "Move Your Body" in relation to its corresponding album, Shakira's 2014 self-titled release. (On the latter track, Sia nails the Shak impression, by the way.)

Some tracks are admittedly faceless, without a strong direction towards any one artist's style. "Broken Glass," despite being a bittersweet highlight that benefits vocally from a few key changes, doesn't strike listeners with any defining characteristics of one certain pop princess; in fact, it may have felt at home on only Sia's 1000 Forms of Fear. Album closer, "Space Between," is far too fragile for just about anybody else to tackle; those gritty sustained notes are the most grabbing things about the track. And of course, let's not forget "Unstoppable," which tries to re-create the pick-me-up magic of "Titanium" and could have been recorded by just about anybody thanks to its dime-a-dozen lyrics. (I must say, though, that with its strong horns and drums, it would have been a perfect fit for Demi Lovato's Confident.)

There's something mechanical about all of this... in all the right ways; the detachment is to be expected from these recycled songs, the straightforward metaphors and over-reliance on powerful hooks are par for the pop radio course, and the dense production, heavy with electronic drums and synthesized flairs, isn't far from Sia-penned tracks recorded by our favorite pop queens. Perhaps a few of these ("House on Fire," "Sweet Design") would have been best if left to rest in peace, but if anything, this album is less of an impressive spectacle and more of an interesting look into Sia's inner workings -- how she chameleons herself into her clients to put their feelings into song. And even when she doesn't hit the personality of an artist right on the head, she still manages to leave with a few solid tracks -- or a pretty decent album -- to call her own.

This is Acting is available now under RCA Records. Exclusive deluxe editions can be found at Target department stores.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Wildfire | Rachel Platten

Upon first listen to her breakthrough single, "Fight Song," Rachel Platten is hard to identify. Her wishy-washy ode to her persistence in the industry despite a decade without mainstream success makes it seem as if she stands side-by-side with Christina Perri, Colbie Caillat, Sara Bareilles, Sheryl Crow, and Natasha Bedingfield in a musical line-up. However, once she is given 12 songs to showcase her craft, she somehow becomes even harder to identify.

With one song, Platten checked off nearly all of the requirements of an adult contemporary radio favorite; she could easily be pigeon-holed as another honey-voiced peach who makes vapid, innocent pick-me-up anthems that 30-something white moms fall in love with. And while that description isn't completely incorrect -- because her debut major label album, Wildfire, does include "Fight Song" and complementary, and equally corny, tracks "Stand by You" and "Superman" -- she tries to relate closer, both vocally and melodically, to teen-pop stars circa the mid-aughts.

The problem with being a folksy-pop singer-songwriter disguised as one of Top 40's next big things is, like making mountains out of molehills, Platten tries to make anthems out of clearly lackluster material. Her faceless vocals waver all over the spectrum, from a youthful bounce to a matured shout, and most of the album's power is expected to come from low-voltage, dime-a-dozen production. The only times she even comes close to that coveted anthemic status is on "Speechless," where her vocal delivery gets a bit more emotional and choruses are completed with sufficient swells, and "Astronauts," when her production takes a Owl City-esque turn in the song's choruses. Almost everything else here? Although it isn't awful as it plays out, it isn't commanding enough to convince me to ever actively search for it again.

I find it ironic that Platten's breakthrough song is soaked with self-pity over not being able to make a breakthrough to the mainstream, yet now that she has had her wish fulfilled, she has inadvertently proven why she didn't surface for so long. The material she offers on Wildfire is like cotton candy: enjoyable in the moment, but neither filling nor long-lasting. And unfortunately for Platten, who seems to be a relatively likable person, if easily-pleased adult contemporary audiences don't pick up on more singles from this thing soon (because we know nobody else will), her career is sure to follow the album's lackluster lead and flicker out quicker than it ignited.

Wildfire is out now under Columbia Records. An exclusive deluxe edition can be found at Target department stores.