Thursday, February 18, 2016

Don't You | Wet

Don't You, the debut album from dreamy synthpop outfit Wet, rarely leaves a hushed whisper, as if it is a lightly-treading vessel that is to make no more than a few ripples on the surface of a calm lake. Frontwoman Kelly Zutrau, a wispy vocal reincarnate of Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry, makes her job seem effortless; she nearly breathes, rather than sings, her way through lyrics soaked in her own heartbreak and longing. (Not to mention that those lyrics are also literally -- and fittingly -- wet; they make more references to water than Florence Welch has to date).

As opening number "It's All in Vain" closes, it leaves listeners with an accurate taste of what Wet serves... and leaves them with a craving for more, which is great, considering the album consists of similarly glimmering moments. In fact, that's all the album is: the magic of one successful track stretched across ten more tracks, each only slightly different from the next, that are all derivatives of the same cross-breed of PBR&B, dreampop, and synthpop. A careless ear may argue that the tracks stagnate as the album runs its course -- but attentiveness will grant the discovery of some subtle sonic blossoms that add a little sparkle to each track and that, in some cases, take most of a track's length to make themselves apparent.

Zutrau and her two bandmates, Marty Sulkow and Joe Valle, have condensed familiar sentiments into straight-forward, yet still quite poetic, stanzas. Her voice occupies very little of the ample room left for her in the sparse soundscapes as she whimpers through the stages of a dying relationship and subsequent break-up. We hear it all unfold: the final flickers of the honeymoon stage ("Weak"), the anticipation of the break-up ("All the Ways," "All in Vain"), the realization of the end ("Don't Wanna Be Your Girl"), and the remaining fragility long after it's all over ("These Days").

A common downfall of albums with dreampop sensibilities, the overall atmosphere is of higher importance than distinction here; all twelve tracks are close cousins -- perhaps a bit too close -- and the trio doesn't present a distinct personality outside the heartbreak of which Zutrau sings. Without sharing much about herself, she embodies feelings that many can empathize with, though. As was the case with Say Lou Lou's Lucid Dreaming last year, entranced listeners can sit back to enjoy the entire 40-minute experience without a worry over what each three minute increment of the journey is titled, but by the time it winds to a close, defining specifics of Don't You will be all but a haze. 

Don't You is out now under Columbia Records.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Peace is the Mission | Major Lazer

Diplo was a busy man last year. He produced a number of tracks on Madonna's Rebel Heart, released a collaborative album with Skrillex under the moniker Jack Ü, and dropped a third studio album, Peace is the Mission, under his Major Lazer project alongside Jillionaire and Walshy Fire.

Peace is the Mission, for the most part, is inconspicuous cultural appropriation embodied in a bundle of club-pleasing bangers. Jamaican reggae is the typical target, with Jamaican artists Tarrus Riley and Nyla and Swedish rapper-singer Elliphant, whose blaccent is 20 times more extreme than Iggy Azalea's will ever be, included to give the album of a cloak of authenticity. However, Bollywood vibes find their way onto the group's breakthrough summer smash "Lean On." The song features Danish singer-songwriter MØ, who rebounded from her tragic Saturday Night Live appearance and, as of late, seems to have a desire to be of any race but her own, and creates a breakdown using contorted vocals -- the same tactic Diplo used in the Jack Ü collaboration with Justin Bieber that offers a level of exclusive uniqueness that cannot be replicated by any synthesizer out there.

The thick, sticky productions are fine for faceless tunes to be blared over club systems on blurry drunken nights, but they teeter on the lines of true memorability only a few times ("Lean On," "Too Original," and the original version of "All My Love," where the breakdown shines without Machel Montano's nonsense cluttering things up). Unlike contemporaries like Calvin Harris or David Guetta, Diplo and the rest of the Major Lazer team don't tailor music for Top 40 success -- but considering the memorability of their more pop-formatted tracks, perhaps they should think about it.

Peace is the Mission is out now under Mad Decent Records.

Monday, February 15, 2016

All I Need | Foxes

It's becoming increasingly difficult to recount the jagged career trajectory of English singer-songwriter Foxes. After she became an overnight sensation as the voice of Zedd's "Clarity" and grabbed a Grammy for the track a few years ago, she turned her focus to her solo career. The launch of her debut album, Glorious, faltered after having its release delayed, but the set still managed to spawn three top 20 singles and to scratch silver status in the United Kingdom. Her follow-up, titled All I Need, has been served an even more frustrating release, with the momentum of the album's announcement and accompanying promotion blitz being killed by a label-initiated release delay.

Fortunately, though, the mismanagement doesn't at all affect the integrity of her album's evident quality.

All I Need, while a move in a different direction, reaffirms that Foxes cannot be pigeon-holed into one genre -- unless it is one of her own; billed as pop with an indie core and its own set of sonic idiosyncrasies, Glorious, too, was hard to pin down. Sure, it's pop, but her wide range of influences very clearly affects the cultivation of her sound, which sometimes takes a gospel turn, sometimes an electronic feel, sometimes a bombastic pop approach, and sometimes a disco tinge. The best part? She can execute every style with precision.

The only dense, synth-soaked track of the album, lead single "Body Talk," is a neon-lit, '80s dance floor filler. Its sound is just a stone's throw away from what made Carly Rae Jepsen's E•MO•TION one of the most memorable albums of last year -- but whereas Jepsen's album is a crisp and cutesy homage, "Body Talk" takes a gritty, sexy edge that seems more authentic to the era she channels. It and "Cruel," a bouncy little track, are the only tracks on the album that feel as if they've been produced with the synthpop sensibility that flourished on her debut.

Everywhere else, this album is actually very much organic, zeroing in on her voice. While they lack the ambiance and slight vocal imperfections of Lana Del Rey or Alabama Shakes' most recent records, which gave the impressions of being recorded live and in just a few takes, tracks like "If You Leave Me Now," "Devil Side," and "Scar" lend themselves to mental images of Foxes recording vocals in the same room as the acoustic instruments playing underneath her. Even at her most climatic, on what is indubitably the best track of her discography, "Amazing," the production feels natural and uninhibited, yet not overwhelming.

Perhaps most refreshingly, this album feels wholehearted -- not gimmicky or rushed. She takes pop music back to the basics, with vocal sampling and synthesized sideshows kept to a minimum. Resonating from the chest, her voice bleeds emotion and grasps the attention it deserves with ease, even when competing against strings, keys, guitars, and drums for sonic space. She soars over a chorus of Dan Smith's (warmly welcomed) voice on "Better Love," begging for listeners to belt the anthemic chorus right along with her. On both "If You Leave Me Now" and "On My Way," her voice pleads yet still leads the way; the strings and keys swell upon her command, not vice versa.

The execution of emotion makes this album something special; these songs would be nothing without the voice. Each song tells a separate story of love, regret, or longing, and Foxes wears her heart not on her sleeve, but on her vocal cords. Once again, she veers from the original blueprint that she set for herself on her debut, which allows this album to stride against the dense, overproduced, synth-heavy grain that we've come to love. If it had been released even 15 years ago, the album wouldn't be nearly as refreshing as it is in today's musical landscape -- but luckily, we're living in the now.

The biggest disappointment here, besides the fact that the deluxe edition tracks weren't included on the standard pressing, doesn't even have anything to do with the album itself -- it is easily the mishandling of Foxes' American career after her overnight success. "Clarity" is the biggest that Foxes will ever balloon Stateside, voiding the chance for a large audience to tap further into an immense talent that most will forever write off as a quick-lived shooting star on the Billboard charts. Through this album, the artistry speaks for itself and demands attention: let's just hope that more people listen.

All I Need is out now under Sign of the Times and RCA Records.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Nine Track Mind | Charlie Puth

You know, Charlie Puth is a pretty popular punching bag for critics.

"See You Again," the sappy single pulled from Furious 7 that blasted him to overnight stardom, was shut out of the Oscars. The Meghan Trainor-featuring "Marvin Gaye" was a staple of many year-end worst lists, with critics taking a (relatively enjoyable) novelty song a bit too seriously. Now, we've been handed his full-length, Nine Track Mind, (which is strangely twelve tracks long, by the way) and his critical history has repeated itself once again.

So why does his album currently sit at a devastating 37/100 (ouch) rating on review aggregator Metacritic? It couldn't possibly be that bad, right?

Well, he's a talented kid; after all, he obtained a Berklee degree, produced five of the tracks on this album by himself, and shot to the top of the charts with "See You Again" thanks to the charm of his smooth, fragile voice. The problem lies in the fact that the boundaries he sets for himself ultimately constrict him, resulting in an album that's just more bland than bad. He taps into an old school crooner style and runs with it, much like collaborator and friend Trainor did with her own debut album last year. While Trainor's release didn't fare too well critically either, hers was idiosyncratic enough to set itself apart (and set the trend that Puth followed). Puth's, however, is far too formulaic and perfectly polished to strike listeners as trendsetting or wholehearted.

"One Call Away," his first single post-breakthrough, plays it painfully safe -- sonically, he delivers a simple re-hash of the elements that made "See You Again" an overnight hit, and lyrically, it's unbearably cheesy ("I'll be there to save the day / Superman got nothing on me"). "Then There's You," another of Puth's many tracks that would flourish on adult contemporary radio (a.k.a. white mom radio), is even more painful: "When you opened up the door, my life completely changed / There's beautiful, then there's you." Oh my gosh, gag me with a spoon. And "Left Right Left"? Just flat-out stupid: "We’re almost there, baby, one more step / Woah, left, right, left, right, left / We’re moving on, we got no regrets / Woah, left, right, left, right, left."

When he loosens the grip on his schtick, though, the results are surprisingly refreshing -- and reveal further potential to be tapped into. "We Don't Talk Anymore," featuring Selena Gomez and her new favorite vocal style (it's breathy and surprisingly amazing, if you haven't noticed), nearly merits the purchase of the whole album. A bittersweet break-up song fueled by a looped guitar line and an infectious melody, it echoes the familiar sentiment of hope that an ex-lover is happy with someone new despite the regrets of the former relationship: "I just hope you're lying next to somebody / Who knows how to love you like me / There must be a good reason that you're gone."

"Some Type of Love," one of the four tracks carried over from his extended play of the same name to this album, stands out with its running vocal hums and encompassing chorus despite dancing dangerously close to the theme of Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" ("When I'm old and grown / I won't sleep alone / Every single moment will be faded into you / That's some type of love"). And "My Gospel," while still conforming to Puth's cheesy, exaggerated ways, somehow works alright; it might have something to do with the (still Sheeran-esque) sing-rapping in the verses.

So is the album really that bad? No, but it really isn't an exciting listen. Showing signs of his inexperience behind the production boards, Puth crafts climaxes that are as thin as his voice and beats that are about as frustratingly repetitive as contemporary a cappella beat-boxers. Moreover, he has the poetic talent of the archetype faceless male teen-pop sensation, relying far too much on his charm in place of true sentiment -- or personality, for that matter. When his downfalls combine, it results in all of the tracks, bar the Gomez collaboration, sounding roughly the same -- so the selection of highlights really comes down to the matter of which tracks have the most ear-catching melodies.

On the contrary, when taken at face value, Charlie Puth isn't the biggest evil introduced to the industry as of late. He's just another fresh face trying to tap into the dedicated adult contemporary and teenage female markets that fall for sappiness and fragility. Fellow critics, both amateur and professional, take note: accept him for what he's worth and don't get too hot and bothered over his existence.

Nine Track Mind is out now under Artist Partner Group and Atlantic Records.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Anti | Rihanna

Like a tourist lost in the bowels of dark city, it seemed as if Rihanna had made every wrong move possible in the past year.

Tease a cryptic album once a month for over a year? Wonderful. Release three singles without a defined direction or clear promotion plan? Super. Pretend the first three singles just didn't happen because two of them failed to reach an expected commercial peak? Cool. Release a "new" lead single that clearly ponders to radio listeners to recoup the ground lost via the last two singles? Amazing. Announce a tour to accompany the album and then wait dangerously close to the start of said tour to drop the album? Awesome. Release the album randomly for free via Tidal, omitting every song teased up to release? Fantastic.

Rihanna's hopes of making an impact with this album seemed slim to none -- but then I listened to the album; her eighth, titled Anti. A breath-taking effort, it is not. An admittedly fascinating one, it is: and that's all she needs to make some waves.

Don't let the "new" lead single, "Work," fool you: in some aspects, Rihanna isn't the same girl that released albums at the speed of light between 2006 and 2012. While "Work" is a sleek, island-tinged track that seems to be included solely to ensure that the album houses a radio hit, the rest of the album has no other radio-worthy tracks in its reaches. Unlike her first seven albums, in which three or four surefire hits in the veins of "Rude Boy," "Diamonds," or "Disturbia" were sprinkled in between twelve filler tracks, Anti takes a stranger, artsier approach that isn't likely fly on airplay charts: there are no overproduced dancefloor bops, no overzealous breakdowns, and no drumbeats heavy enough to wake the dead.

For the years that she was out of the game, Rihanna seems to have taken notes from artists just outside the Top 40 spectrum, almost as if she is out to prove the worthiness of her artistry outside of radio airplay. For example, "Desperado" rips its chord progression directly from Banks' 2013 track "Waiting Game" without credit, but it turns out to be one of the best that the album offers; an underlying Western vibe and low, grinding synths keeps a level of mystique, and the melody of the chorus is strangely infectious. "Kiss It Better" is Rihanna at her sultriest, immersed in a hazy, old school soundscape that fuses the worlds of Aaliyah and Prince -- yes, it's pretty damn good. "Needed Me" dips into a janky synth pool that is blurry but still far thinner than the production we're used to hearing Rihanna on; it, like most of this album, is quite a different soundscape for our Barbadian songstress, who normally is buried in her own songs.

We know Rihanna can sing. We knew that a long time ago. This time around, she tries to up the ante: sometimes her voice is as smooth and reverberated as possible ("Kiss It Better," "Same Ol' Mistakes"), sometimes it's given a healthy dose of intentional pitch correction ("Needed Me," "Work"), and sometimes it's unfortunately grating. Her need to be heard as a gritter, rawer vocalist backfires towards the end of the album; she puts on the lightest little Aretha Franklin-esque touch she can on "Love on the Brain" and forces a ragged edge to her voice as she wails the notes of "Higher." She tries far too hard to achieve her desired inflection -- which is especially shameful when we know her voice is far from unsatisfactory any other time. (And if we need current proof of those quality vocals, "Close to You," draws the album to its end on a beautifully executed note after the one-two sucker punch of dreadful delivery on the two aforementioned tracks.)

It may be the most consistently-pleasing and the most boundary pushing of her eight albums, but those weren't the hardest title to win. In many ways, Anti still leaves just as many questions as the year leading up to it. Why are "FourFiveSeconds," "Bitch Better Have My Money," and "American Oxygen" the unloved stepchildren of the era, outcast and left to die? Why was the highly-anticipated track that samples Florence + The Machine cut to just 1:30 and pushed to the iTunes deluxe release? How did the Samsung-sponsored Anti Diary promotion tie into the album at all? Where's the foot-stomping, over-produced, radio-dominating Rihanna? Why did she wait so long in her career to make such a change? How did the music actually turn out alright after she dragged this album through the mud?

I guess some mysteries will never be solved. Let's just ignore the mess, bask in the new music we received, and keep quiet -- after all, it's surprisingly not half bad.

Anti is available now on Tidal, because apparently the era wasn't messy enough without that added to the mix. Physical copies will be released on February 5, 2016 under Westbury Road Entertainment and Roc Nation Records.

#JusticeForBitchBetterHaveMyMoney #JusticeForAmericanOxygen