Saturday, April 30, 2016

Low Kii Savage | Kiiara

Let's go back in time roughly six months together, shall we? I was enjoying a track embedded in a forum post from SoundCloud. Titled "Gold," it was a minimalist, yet entrancing, club tune fueled on a chopped vocal sample. Its artist, a faceless newcomer named Kiiara, was no more than a hardware store clerk at the time of its release. I clicked away and promised myself to keep an eye on her.

After what felt like the blink of an eye but ended up being half a year, I went searching for the song again. Today, it is certified platinum in Australia and New Zealand, boasts over 12 million streams on SoundCloud alone, and is slated to be sent to mainstream radio here in the States in May. Kiiara, meanwhile, has an Atlantic Records co-signature and a major-label extended play release, Low Kii Savage. They grow up so fast, don't they?

"Gold" was the track to break through for good reason. What makes it great is its simplicity; she has transformed the drum machine reliance of Lorde and FKA twigs into a confident, club-ready tune with a chorus that begs to be sang alongside -- even though the vocal sampling makes it nearly impossible. It shines so bright, in fact, that the remaining five tracks on this extended play come up short in comparison, seeming to try to recreate the magic of her magnum opus. This is not to say that it's an unappealing release; just not as charismatic as hoped.

If tracks like "Intention" and "Tennessee" teach us anything about Kiiara, it's that her production, not so much she herself, is essential to her tracks' success; it's only on "Say Anymore" that her voice and production find a balance in importance. The problem with that is a resulting facelessness; at least from what can be heard on these six tracks, her voice doesn't resonate with any striking idiosyncrasies and her lyrics are arguably the least important factor of her artistry. But for an artist who seems to vie for the title of an enigmatic club dweller than anything else, it's a format that might just work for her.

Low Kii Savage is available now under Atlantic Records.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Lemonade | Beyoncé

Beyoncé just out-Beyoncéd Beyoncé, the album that made the word "Beyoncé" a proper noun and a verb. How is that so? Well, mix that feminism with that #BlackLivesMatter movement and make a boldface visual album that acts as both a political statement and a personal exposé of your cheating husband -- after already causing a controversy a few months beforehand.

February's release of "Formation," a track lyrically dense enough to be dissected in a college-level literature course, turned her flirtation with social activism into a full-fledged, socially binding statement: her name is attached, for better or for worse, to #BlackLivesMatter and police brutality. Overnight, she became much more than the typical pop star she once was; she is now an advocate and an entertainer. British journalist Piers Morgan wasted no time in pointing this out: he published an editorial on April 25 criticizing the sudden onset of her activism for black visibility. The Queen B's fans (so essentially 98 percent of the world's population) have already ripped it to shreds, and while I agree that many of his statements are out of line (especially the parts in which he claims he liked her more when she didn't use her music to take stances on important issues -- because how dare popular artists be more than a voice and a body), my inner cynic wants to play devil's advocate.

Prior to her fourth album cycle, Beyoncé was just another singer, yearning the radio's admiration. Slowly but surely, she became an icon. One for whom people set aside time to digest an album as a full body of work, rather than give attention to only the singles that loom on Top 40 radio cycles, as proven with her fourth studio album, certified platinum without any bondafide mainstream smashes, and her eponymous fifth album, certified platinum after three weeks of sales (and before "Drunk in Love" soared on airplay and the Hot 100 charts). Not many people sit down to listen to an album in its entirety nowadays, especially fans of popular acts, but for her, apparently the possibilities are endless. And perhaps most importantly, this transition happened without anything out of the ordinary done on her part -- she had to simply be Beyoncé to become the one and only Beyoncé.

"Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" and "Run The World (Girls)" shoved her into the spotlight as a feminist icon, and she just kind of owned it. "***Flawless" concreted her status as Beyoncé, the poster child for feminism. Her next order of business? To latch onto another social cause and to exercise the feminism behind which she so proudly stands -- and what better way to do that than through an album inspired in part by rising above problems with a man? Sugar it with a coating of your new cause and release it in the midst of civil unrest (and ironically under a subsidiary of Sony Music Entertainment, infamously known for holding singer-songwriter Kesha in a contract with a producer who raped her), and the court of public opinion is sure to slap another social rights badge on your sash.

Even with all of this in mind, I would like to think that Beyoncé comes from a helpful place. After all, she has the power to take stances at this point in her career: she's built her empire and has the power to do what she wants without alienation. The fact this album came from someone as important as Beyoncé is part of its greatness, and regardless of intention, it still exposes wrongdoings (on both personal and systemic levels) on a platform to which not many people have access. Moreover, at the the end of the day, people want music they can relate to; they want someone to acknowledge and validate their feelings. Well over half of marriages in the United States end in divorce and African-Americans are begging to be heard again -- bingo, there's the target audiences who want, if not need, this album. It makes a statement, and that statement, whether intentionally or not, serves an altruistic purpose.

For the album's main event, Beyoncé asserts herself with reigning authority through her personal fable. She puts her husband, rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z, on blast for his infidelity (allegedly) while strutting pride in her roots. And although it took an army that outsizes the population of Wyoming to produce it and its accompanying film, the album reads like a book penned by a singular author, telling the story of discovery, forgiveness, and recovery through the scope of a strong, independent black woman. Despite a lack of sonic cohesion upon first listen -- the album is her most experimental endeavor, housing Southern-soaked acoustic twang on "Daddy Lessons," alt-rock amplification on the Jack White-featuring "Don't Hurt Yourself," and a fiery gospel sermon on "Freedom," among a slew of R&B influences -- it just makes sense as whole record, thanks in part to its story, where most of its power lies. In fact, it's undoubtedly her most enjoyable release as a whole.

Part of what makes this record great is the earnest execution. We hear Beyoncé go through every stage of coping with the realization of her husband's infidelity: denial, anger, sadness, and recovery. "Pray You Catch Me" opens her story, blooming into a melancholy melting pot of both vulnerability and vengeance. From there, we watch her pull out all of the stops. She delivers her lines of "Don't Hurt Yourself" with the aggression of a smoking gun, and she points, aims, and opens rapid fire on the Diplo-produced reggaeton track "Hold Up." By the time she reaches tracks like "Love Drought" and "Sandcastles," though, she's fragile and has adopted forgiveness; on the latter, her voice is at the rawest it's ever been, at one point sounding as if she's near tears in the recording booth. Then finally, the story arc resolves itself; on "All Night," she's back to her infamously dirty ways of Beyoncé's "Partition,"  and Jay-Z, granted her redemption, is back to being the object of her affection.

The Jay-Z chronicles take priority throughout the album, but some of Bey's most striking statements are the ones that advocate for change on a larger scope. As if "Formation" and its video didn't strike hard enough, "Freedom" makes a blatant cry for help within the African-American community. She rips through this track, crying, "Freedom, freedom, where are you? 'Cause I need freedom, too." Add Kendrick Lamar to the mix, and you've got yourself an unstoppable combination on a track that drives like a freight train. And on the album's obligatory anthem for hard working women, she's done the impossible: she got the Weeknd to put that voice of his to use on a track that doesn't veer directly into hazy sexcapades. A sultry track titled "6 Inch" with Abel Tesfaye as a credited songwriter and vocalist could be assumed to reference something six inches long -- not six inches high, as in the six-inch heels that an independent working-class woman wears as she stays on the grind and works to make a name for herself.

There are many reasons she slays, as she reaffirms many times throughout the album, and Lemonade provides roughly 90 new ones. A product of audience pandering or not, a good album is a good album. But this is not a good album; it's a great album. It feels like Beyoncé at her most sincere, her most exposed. And more importantly, it feels uninhibited. It showcases just how experimental a popular artist can get when she has unconditional support. The mainstream artist is an archetype that does not stray from the status quo in fear of draining her listener pool, but Beyoncé is not par for the course in stardom -- she's Beyoncé, in a class of her own. She just dropped an album that has set a new precedent for independent women without a third installment to the song of the same name. Life gave her lemons, and she did, indeed, make some of the world's finest Lemonade.

Lemonade is available digitally now under Columbia Records and Parkwood Entertainment. Physical copies will be released on May 6.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Junk | M83

With the release of M83's seventh studio, frontman Anthony Gonzalez is in some hot water with bullheaded fans and critics. Why? Because Junk is different. It has defined climaxes and a splash of pop sensibility, passing as a mutant lovechild of unpopular electronica (the kind you won't be hearing at your local nightclub, for better or for worse) and M83 of days past. It's not a grandiose concept album like the band's last, and it's certainly not what they know and love from M83. But the band's last album pointed towards the direction Junk took, so this shouldn't come as a shock. Furthermore, this set is still a strange one -- something else that shouldn't come as a shock and should make fans happier than they are.

In fact, his career trajectory has been nothing but strange. While it was the subject of critics' highest praises for almost a decade and already had five albums in its back catalog by 2011, M83 didn't truly break through until that year's "Midnight City," the crowning jewel of its massive double-disc album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming that is often cited as the track that set the current trends of quality pop music into motion -- the pop music, by the way, that he told Pitchfork "is just awful" and makes him "want to puke." (A little dramatic, he is.) 

Where did the band go after that? To the top of festival billings but to the back of people's minds, as the band made minor ripples on the surface with soundtracks for Oblivion, a Tom Cruise-fronted film received with lukewarm critical response, and a 2013 French film written and directed by Gonzalez's brother that IMDb describes as a tale of "a young couple and their transvestite maid [as they] prepare for an orgy." For its major return, Gonzalez and his gang dropped the cover art for this album and the odd banger "Do It, Try It," both reaffirming the band's eccentricity (as if that orgy movie soundtrack already didn't).

Junk is an experience, to say the least. It's part '80s television score, part intergalactic ambiance, part nostalgia trip, and largest part mess -- and it's unapologetic in being such. Gonzalez knows how to make even the set of his most formulated tracks seem unorganized, each new turn taken on a coincidentally appropriate whim. In the case of this set's lead single, a mess of piano keys and vocoder-laced vocals (he favors synthesization and heavy reverberation that make him and his feature vocalist sound as if they're singing in a cave, if you lot couldn't tell at this point) barrel into blaring synthesized extravaganzas. For "Go!," it means a smash-worthy chorus veering into a guitar solo integrated among the madness. And "Moon Crystal" goes for that coveted late twentieth century sitcom jugular; all it's missing are the awkward over-the-shoulder poses and title cards.

Moments of sticky saccharin and blasts of utter euphoria ("Road Blaster," the space-age "Laser Gun," "Bibi the Dog") are counteracted with glistening nostalgia. "Solitude" sprawls across six minutes, filled with an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Halfway through its run time, an orchestra of strings and guitars take the baton from the first half's cavernous, space-age production -- a transition that seems messy on paper but actually plays out quite nicely.  And closing out the album on its most somber reflection, "Sunday Night 1987" wraps up the introspective drive down memory lane before a sad horn solo draws the album to a close on a much more peaceful note than it began on.

Nowadays, it's easy to say that an artist borrows from the '80s. Taylor Swift did it, La Roux did it better, and Carly Rae Jepsen did it the best. But Gonzalez was specific in his target sound for this one: '80s television. Yes, straightforward, disposable 90-second tracks that have no business being compared in any way, shape, or form to M83-style complex blanket of production. Yet here we are, and he's done the impossible, revolutionizing the most basic of influences into orchestrated madness. It was a very strange target for which to aim, but as we've already determined, strange is nothing new for him. Mix in the space music and slurred, echoed vocals, and you have yourself a cocktail only M83 could throw together, even it is sometimes more blindly enjoyable than comprehensible.

Junk is available now under Mute Records.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Midnight Machines | Lights

"Get you a man who can do both," reads a popular new Twitter trend. Accompanying the phrase are two pictures of the same person in contrasting lights; in Gordon Ramsey's case, he can not only make a child laugh, but also slap a woman's head between two pieces of bread and call her an "idiot sandwich." As for Lights, she is a woman who can do both: she's a synthpop superwoman by day and a guitar-slinging songbird by night. Each of her album cycles have been given a send-off with an accompanying acoustic studio set, so it was no surprise when Midnight Machines was announced as an eight-track farewell to the Little Machines sessions.

As was the case with her previous acoustic releases, this album gives new life to some songs and completely new form to others. While its original counterpart was a highlight from Little Machines, "Up We Go" underwent an unbelievable rehaul; what was once a punchy, shouted anthem has become a subdued, glistening acknowledgment of the optimism that fueled the hyperactivity of the original. Her voice, which was the least important element among spiking synths and pounding drum machines in the first cut, becomes the focal point now that the song has been tamed to a lower key.

Also given key and tempo changes, "Same Sea" and "Meteorites" are now unrecognizable from their original underwhelming counterparts. I would be a liar if I said I didn't initially sigh when I saw that "Meteorites" was being pushed as the first taste of this album; after all, the song was arguably the most forgettable of the Little Machines tracks. That attitude changed within the first 90 seconds of the acoustic track's run time, though, and for obvious reasons. Dare I say it is her most striking translation of a song into an acoustic format since "Suspension" from her last stripped set?

Both "Running with the Boys" and "Don't Go Home Without Me" are simply spruced up for this package, but definitely not lazily. While "Running" was built atop a guitar base in its first form, it now sounds much more organic. "Don't Go Home," too, lends itself to an acoustic rework with ease, bearing much similarity to its studio sister. The track might even be more enjoyable this way, without the snapping drumbeat that added a spark to the original track that should have been more sincere than lively.

Two brand new tracks grace the track listing as an added bonus. "Follow You Down" might just be the shining star of this set, giving Lights' vocals room to echo with emotion as confesses her complete dedication to her partner. Although a strange comparison, the song would have fit perfectly somewhere on a Shania Twain record, which is a compliment of utmost distinction in my book; it's quite easy to imagine Twain nailing the emotive melody line of those verses and pre-choruses.

"Head Cold," meanwhile, may be the album's dullest moment thanks to its routine choruses, but it doesn't fail to shimmer in its own understated way. There's nothing wrong with repetition in high-energy pop, but it makes this down-tempo track seem comparatively lazy as it stands between "Running with the Boys" and a string-laden rendition of "Muscle Memory" in the track listing. That last track, by the way, doesn't disappoint. It's moody and mysterious, with 45 seconds spent highlighting the haunting backing vocal arrangement that originally sat behind the bridge. It's the treatment we all wanted for the fan-favorite track.

Pure. This release is nothing if not pure. Even when she breaks into her lighter-raising rounds of stretched vowel formations ("oohs," "ahs," and the like), as she does quite often here, Lights mesmerizes at nearly every moment of this record with no more than her voice and guitar. It's clear why she takes the time to produce these acoustic albums with care: she sounds great in a comfortable blanket of synthesizers and heavy drumbeats, but she sounds excellent in these soundscapes that leave her vocals fully exposed. And with pipes like hers and songwriting that doesn't need the electronic frills to impress, there's no reason that she shouldn't flaunt them.

Midnight Machines is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Open Letter to Carly Rae Jepsen

Carly Rae Jepsen, experienced tune architect and holder of the key to lifelong happiness through music.
photo copyright Interscope Records

Carly Rae Jepsen, we have to talk.

I just need to get a few things off my chest. I have some confessions, some apologies, and some praises I need to get out in the open so I can breathe easy again. To do this, I’ve decided to make a few major categories of conversation. It’s like our own little kiki, just the two of us. Except this is an open letter and everyone can see it. And you probably will never read this. That’s okay, let’s just do this.

“Call Me Maybe”

Well, let’s talk about the start of the worldwide career of indiscriminate phone number distributor Carly Rae Jepsen. A hit on the caliber of “Call Me Maybe” is a blessing and a curse; you became a household name, but only with that song’s title attached to it. It’s just not fair, CRJ. Although the song is great, we both know you’ve done better. But unfortunately, most of the world’s general population doesn’t know that – with the exception of Japan, apparently, but we’ll talk about them later. What an ignorant bunch the rest of the world is. They're really missing out on the wonderful world of Leonard Cohen-enjoying, Bruce Springsteen-listening, Van Morrison-appreciating pop banger maestro Carly Rae Jepsen.

Kiss, the international debut album we all didn’t appreciate in 2012

We just didn’t take it seriously. To be fair, we were just coming off of “Call Me Maybe,” a golden pick-up song mistaken as novelty that was shoved into our ear holes three times every waking hour of every day for like six months. Moreover, the pop music stan population had just become obsessed with Lana Del Rey and Marina and the Diamonds. We had heard your voice on a loop for months and were a bit distracted by American daddies in the pale moonlight and home-wrecking, heartbreaking primadonna girls. There was just a lot going on, you know? We had no time to put Carly Rae Jepsen, the cultural opposite of Rita Ora, into our schedules.

I’ll admit that I’m guilty of discounting both the breakthrough hit and the album upon first listen. As time progressed, though, I began to see the light, just like many other people. So on behalf of everybody, I apologize, because Kiss is packed with bops. For real, albums artist Carly Rae Jepsen, you delivered so many bops on that thing. “Tiny Little Bows,” “Hurt So Good,” “Curiosity,” “Turn Me Up,” “Guitar String / Wedding Ring,” “Drive.” All bops. They reaffirm your well-deserved title of Carly Rae Jepsen, Pop Music CEO.

The free concert I didn’t attend in 2012

Chances are that you don’t remember this, but you played a free gig at the Ohio amusement park Cedar Point in the eye of the “Call Me Maybe” storm. Guess who lives thirty minutes from said amusement park, has a season pass, and didn’t take advantage of the free concert starring Carly Rae Jepsen, the Millennial pop deity who walks among us but exists simultaneously as a spirit that flows through all humanity.

That’s right. It was me. In retrospect, I hate myself for missing what would have been the event of my lifetime. The video that lives online still taunts me to this day, for I am not in the front row, yearning to come face-to-face with Carly Rae Jepsen, the single-headed organism and largely harmless banger magnate, as she hosts a sing-along of her number one smash at one of my favorite places to spend time in the lukewarm Ohio summers.

“Beautiful” and the Biebs

Okay, so you collaborated on a not-so-stellar track with Justin Bieber at a time when it was not cool to do so. Just so you know, you’re forgiven; everybody makes mistakes, even Carly Rae Jepsen, the Canadian. He did, after all, help jumpstart your international pop career, so I suppose you owed him one. But you know what’s cool nowadays? Collaborating with Justin Bieber. Ask Diplo and Skrillex. So look at you, you trendsetter; every cloud has a silver lining. You should know that already, though, seeing that you are Carly Rae Jepsen, the only source of light in a world otherwise shrouded in darkness.


So we’ve established that Kiss is a lot better than we all gave it credit for back in 2012, yes? Even still, E•MO•TION is undoubtedly on the next level. Where did this come from, Carly ‘Epitome Of All That Is Right In The World’ Rae Jepsen? How did you disappear for two years and come back with a body of work that became the pop album of the year without the sales of the typical pop album of the year candidate?

It bleeds its '80s influences, so immersed in the time period that it could camouflage itself as a multi-platinum effort of an authentic '80s teen-pop titan. And those lyrics, oh my gosh. You can feel the warm blood (feels good, I can't control it anymore) pumping through those heartfelt lines as sadness-in-her-voice pop behemoth Carly Rae Jepsen masterfully delivers them.

With E•MO•TION, you one-upped Taylor Swift, who named her album after the last year of the decade that inspired the both of you. (That one’s gutsy. She’s a powerful woman who wants to keep her throne. I’m surprised her team didn't break into the studio and delete the master files of your album before you could release it.) You won over the critics who normally despise all that is good and holy in pop music. You even got decent scores from Pitchfork and Anthony Fantano, that self-righteous YouTube lad who automatically discounts most major-label female artists. That’s some pop witchcraft that only critically vindicated tune alchemist Carly Rae Jepsen is capable of conjuring.

The 231 songs we didn’t get from the E•MO•TION sessions

You said you had 250 songs for the album. All bonus tracks and new tracks on the Japanese remix album included, you’ve given us 19. That’s just not enough, Carly Rae ‘Of Light’ Jepsen. There has to be more gold sitting in that pile of 231 tracks. Okay, there may be a few duds in there, but I’m sure there are enough tracks to throw together a six-disc E•MO•TION repack titled MAS•TER•PIECE. (I’ve been dreaming of this for a while and have thought it through, if you can’t tell.) Don’t let your label tell you it’s not feasible, either; look at Ellie Goulding, releasing two-disc deluxe edition albums and 500-track album repacks every other year. This MAS•TER•PIECE proposal really isn’t that extreme in comparison.

That scrapped indie-pop album between Kiss and E•MO•TION

Alright, what kind of indie-pop are we talking here? Like folksy guitar stuff or just great pop stuff that would never break onto radio airwaves? Whether you've noticed or not, larger than life pop is kind of in your wheelhouse and you’re clearly slaying it. But non-amateurish songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen’s one-night stand with banging indie-pop à la Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence alternative rock experiment could be quite the experience.

“Run Away With Me”

Say what you want, but this song is the pop song of the century. All other opinions are incorrect. I want that saxophone solo to blare in the stadium as I walk across the stage to get my college degree next year, to play me down the aisle at my gay wedding a decade from now, and to soundtrack my casket’s decent six feet below the Earth many decades from now.

Actually, scratch that last part. I want it played at my funeral, where the saxophone will shake me alive from the grips of death for a 4-minute, 11-second dance extravaganza with my loved ones. I will drop dead once again as the final echoes of “ME” fade away. That is, unless someone hits replay. So what if I’m supposed to have an appointment with death? I can miss it for a second round of “Run Away With Me” by away-running force of nature Carly Rae Jepsen.

And as you’ve taken note, star of stage, screen and seven-second loop Carly Rae Jepsen, the song has also somehow turned into the meme of the century, which is completely okay by me. The ones that include someone getting nailed by a vehicle as the chorus hits are the ones I relate to the most; that’s honestly how I feel when I’m listening to it myself.

Record sales and radio hits

Both of your international albums haven’t done so hot commercially here in the United States and “I Really Like You” just didn't stick with American radio listeners, but you know what? Don’t even fret. You're Canadian Idol-losing strength of the human spirit prover Carly Rae Jepsen. You don't need to sell millions of records and be used and abused by Top 40 stations again for validation.

In a way, you’ve crossed over to viral fame, in the same vein as the two artists that cock-blocked you from our attention after your first hit in 2012, and for such an artist, you’re doing just fine. Even without a radio hit in the States, you have still garnered a fair amount of views on YouTube, retained a loyal cult following, and generated enough buzz to embark on a tour run here. Radio hits are overrated, anyway, especially when you have an incredibly solid album to stand behind. 


Goodness gracious, the Japanese really love you, don’t they? From what I’ve gathered, you and Avril Lavigne are all the rage over there. And you love them right back, Japan-favoring bonus track and remix album distributor Carly Rae Jepsen. So it looks like Japan is the country for me. I’m packing a bag (while everyone’s sleepin’, sleepin’) once I’m done writing this. The move will be worth it; I belong with my people, in a land that appreciates you as much as the United States doesn’t. All for you, Carly Rae Jepsen, the singer so good they named her three times. Or 72 times, but who’s counting?

In closing, anyone reading this who is not song-singing certified human Carly Rae Jepsen, go buy E•MO•TION today. And Kiss, too, if you'd like. Or at the very least, download “Run Away With Me” from iTunes. Or at the very, very least, watch the homemade, Instagram-chic video for “Run Away With Me.”