Thursday, June 30, 2016

Conscious | Broods

Georgia and Caleb Nott of Broods aren't quite the same duo that they were in 2014. They've opened for Sam Smith, Haim, and Ellie Goulding twice over, collaborated with Troye Sivan, and filtered themselves into the American market since the release of their debut album – their debut album that was created hand-in-hand with Joel Little and reflected the restlessness and naiveté of the two as they looked to expand from their root-bound positions in their native New Zealand. In turn, they've come back swinging with their second full-length effort, Conscious.

Whereas their debut, Evergreen, played out behind a smoke screen of subtlety, Conscious is declarative. It spurs its energy in all of the right places without leaving Georgia – a thinner-voiced woman than most who often employs double-tracks and vocal harmony layers galore to deliver truly magical moments – behind, gasping for air. She does, however, co-headline this album, sharing the spotlight with an infrastructure composed of layers upon layers of synthwork and dashes of elements that can be reproduced in a live setting without staggering differences in translation – and that's really what they set out to create here to begin with.

As a listener, it is sometimes difficult to decide which element of each song on which to focus – and I say that with the best of intentions. After all, the most notable tracks are the multilayered, grade-A bangers; "Hold the Line" throws itself into a fit of electronic magic at its chorus, while "Are You Home" does the same, with lighter results suitable for an all-out dance session. And the title track begs to be accompanied by a light show like no other as the finale of a sold-out show, with a haunting chorus of vocals droning between thick, gritty spits of synthesizers.

All the while, Georgia is embedded in these soundscapes, singing from her own and Caleb's perspectives on relationships – many of them turbulent and near their ends. Although they've ditched Evergreen's angle of maturity and growth, they haven't lost their poetic tongues in transition to this high-gloss, supercharged sound and strictly love-centric affair; they do submit to the most powerful pop weapon – the power of repetition – once, on "Recovery," but the song is so infectious that little attention is paid to the phrase they latch onto and beat until it's dead.

Rarely does this record find itself in the middle ground of its predecessors -- that moment comes most notably on "Heartlines," a Lorde co-signed track that sounds very... well... Lorde. (Georgia's delivery on this one all but guarantees a Lorde-fronted demo of it is tucked away in a hard drive far, far away.) Elsewhere, the Nott siblings either gallivant with the electric tracks that keep the record alive and well or wallow in sappy ballads, without transition to one mood from the other. The ballads offer give some sonic space for Georgia to explore the strengths of her vocals (spare "Freak of Nature," when Tove Lo, 2016's most popular featured artist, offers strong competition with meatier vocals), but as beautiful as most of them are, they do tend to pump the brakes a bit too often for an album otherwise kicked into overdrive.

Once again, let's not forget that these two are now accustom to opening for arena acts; they're not in New Zealand anymore, Toto. And as they have promised in interviews time after time, this album reflects that: these tracks, produced by Joel Little, Alex Hope, and Broods themselves, are stadium fillers, meant to reach every last inch of the venue. They've curated an album optimized for a live extravaganza, with the inclusion heavier beats, implementation of organic instrumental elements, and abandonment of lyrical coyness. It's the maximalist road down which tourmate Ellie Goulding traveled for her third album, and despite matters of diminished idiosyncrasies in such a move, they have proved that steps towards commercial pop are not always steps away from quality.

Conscious is out now under Capitol Records.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Death Valley | LP

bandwagoner (noun) a person who takes part in or becomes enthusiastic about something only when it is popular or fashionable

It's inevitable at some point in an artist's career: the influx of bandwagoners, usually triggered by an overnight radio remix success or the usage of somewhat unknown material in a show with a cult following. So when I heard the deep hums of an unfamiliar track accompany a dramatic still of a freshly killed-off character on the season finale of Orange is the New Black and immediately launched a Google investigation to find it, I knew I wasn't alone in flocking to singer-songwriter LP.

Listeners of Christina Aguilera, Ella Henderson, Rihanna, and Cher should be somewhat familiar with a bit of LP's work, probably without even knowing it; she's written songs for all of them and more. But all-out powerhouse pop really isn't where she resides: she's really a singer-songwriter with pop smarts and a rock 'n roll spirit. From the perspective of a college-aged music listener, her new extended play, Death Valley, takes the best of Alabama Shakes and Zella Day to create Western-tinged soundscapes that fit the title. And her shrill voice, most evidently comparable to the pipes of Gwen Stefani and Bebe Rexha with some grit on takes like "Lost on You" and the title track, cuts through the dry heat of these tracks with distinction.

Liking tweets mentioning her song in the show and discounting it to 69 cents on iTunes, she doesn't seem bothered by the flood of people who will listen only to "Muddy Waters" alone. But even one listen to Death Valley proves she's a force not to be defined by one track -- not when she delivered an extended play that is this solid. Do yourself a favor here, folks: dry the last of your tears after the death of you-know-which-character on OITNB, play you-know-which-track on repeat until you've finally tired yourself out, and then see what else LP has to offer. You won't be disappointed.

Death Valley is available through digital retailers under Vagrant Records.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Last Year Was Complicated | Nick Jonas

I think it's quite easy to see that we pop music listeners like to hear our males fragile and our females confident. Fair assumption? Maybe. Let's compare Sam Smith's debut or Justin Bieber's Purpose with Fifth Harmony and Meghan Trainor's back catalogs. When a female exhibits a sign of vulnerability, she is deemed weak. When a male does the same, he gets applauded for being adorable and in touch with his emotions. With this in mind, it was no coincidence that Nick Jonas plugged his new record, Last Year Was Complicated, as the result of his break-up with Olivia Culpo.

But what's strange is the fact that we never really get that promised rawness from Nick Jonas. Bearing the backstory it does, this album could be assumed to reveal him at his most vulnerable. At times, we start to see that, like when he employs a sentiment very similar to that of P!nk's "Funhouse" to destroy every last memory of his former relationship ("Chainsaw") and when he begins to look at himself as a potential source of problems ("Unhinged"). But much like was the case on Fifth Harmony's newest album, which was supposed to be authentic as can be and clearly wasn't, the material at hand here doesn't allow Nick Jonas to convey true emotion. In fact, if anything, these watertight pop tracks keep anything from spilling out. He gives us plenty of bonafide bops, but he doesn't portray the uber-serious Nick Jonas he thinks he does.

This is a very 2016 affair: a stretched vocal range that can make just about anything -- including the word "bacon" -- sound sexy as hell, a sea of drums to keep it alive, and some grinding post-Weeknd synth tones. It's all reminiscent of Zayn's solo debut, but a bit less focused and a bit more fun -- whether or not Jonas realizes that. He really shines the brightest when he purposely has fun (as in both sonically and lyrically, like on "Bacon" and "Champagne Problems"). He wants to be a top-billing commercial pop artist, but he wants to be taken with utmost seriousness. You can't have both, but it's clear he belongs in the former -- he clearly works the title well, even if the material he delivers is made too safe to fail.

When Avril Lavigne found herself in a complicated situation, we all remember the outcome: guitars, a loose tie, skateboards, a lot of black, and if my memory serves me correctly, the destruction of an unsuspecting shopping mall. It was a very angsty experience, dudes. As surprising as it may seem, it turns out that Nick Jonas did not break out his skateboard and black cargo pants for this album. Instead, he glossed over that complication with some banging tunes sure to be therapeutic in the sense that they make listeners feel good in the moment; who needs to mope about last year when we have "Voodoo" and "Under You" (this one, by the way, gives some nods to Taylor Swift's "Style," doesn't it?) to enjoy now?

Even still, I do feel like not going all-out Avril Lavigne was really a missed opportunity, don't you?

Last Year Was Complicated is out now. Exclusive pressings can be found at Target department stores and f.y.e. media stores.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Love You To Death | Tegan and Sara

So we're already all on the same page with Tegan and Sara's pop crossover, yes? The best possible move for their career? They probably should have been here all along? "Closer" is a timeless bop? Perfect.

Heartthrob, the Canadian duo's true crossover to the synthpop world, was packed with music made for every teen movie soundtrack under the sun. "Fool For Love" accompanies dramatic shots of the two main characters laying alone on their respective beds, staring at the ceiling and clearly thinking about each another. "Closer" plays behind dialogue on the dance floor at the inevitable prom scene near the end of the flick, eventually culminating into a full montage of dancers to signify the climax of the students' excitement. This painting a pretty familiar picture for you? It should.

And while I'm already asking for group consensus, can we just say that musical acts marketing themselves as a synthpop outfit and not channeling the '80s at this point are weird and can't sit with us? Really, the influences are so tightly embedded in today's synthpop that it no longer feels like a nostalgia trip (or for some of us youngins, an experience that we equate to feeling "so '80s" based on pop culture because we obviously didn't live through that well-loved decade).

With this said, Tegan & Sara have their membership cards to sit at the cool kids' lunch table. Love You to Death, produced in full by Greg Kurstin (pop music's cover-all producer, working with Kelly Clarkson, Sia, Ellie Goulding, and company), is chunky and percussion-heavy. It meshes well with the twins' voices, both quite shouty in manner. Granted, many of this album's tracks step on each other's toes sonically, but what they've got going here is quirky enough to pick the record up and give it a few good spins.

Both standing at age 36, Tegan and Sara are relatively young in the grand scheme things -- unless we're looking through the scope of the music industry, which really doesn't pay any mind to people over the age of 40 outside of the "living legend" category. And they're surprisingly self-aware, stressing the maturity of their lyrics while sticking from pop's favorite theme: love, of course (if you hadn't been able to gather that information from the uber cryptic title).

This maturity is well displayed on "Dying to Know." Tracks like it usually come packaged with a sentiment that the artist would be a better partner than anybody else to an ex. Tegan and Sara's tune, however, masks heartbreak and an underlying yearn with the guise of nothing more than curiosity. Revenge is never the point here. Sex, hook-ups, and one night stands, staples of pop music and mistakenly tied to love, aren't really prominent, either (minus on "Stop Desire," which begs for attention... in more than one way). Instead, these women want to build long-lasting, iron-clad relationships in which there is mutual respect and understanding ("Boyfriend," "U-turn," "Faint of Heart") or revive old flames ("That Girl," "Dying to Know").

Once again, as the record draws on, it does prove to be a bit... samey: a lot of drums and a lot of similar synth tones that make the tracks melt together into a giant, sticky lump. Even still, this is indisputably the duo's most pop-accessible release to date; the hooks are there, the drum machines are heavier than the heartbeats behind the love and loss, and the angsty undertones have been muted. It, even more so than Heartthrob, is of purely pop DNA -- and that I can really appreciate.

Love You to Death is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

How Beautiful Tour | Florence + the Machine with Of Monsters and Men

There are a multitude of terms that can be used to describe Florence Welch: Maximalist, loud, genius, the queen of the music festival circuit... But based on what she did on stage at Cleveland's Blossom Music Center on Saturday, I'm going to go ahead and say she's just damn near perfect.

Although her voice is a good chunk of what makes her so great, do I really need to talk about it? If you're here to read a review of her show, chances are that you probably already know that the human vocal powerhouse that is Florence Welch can be matched by so few. I had joked for months leading up to the gig that I expected to be deafened by her projection. Long story made short: I was... or at the very least, I sustained a bit of hearing damage. And I'm 100% okay with that. Her highest belts were awarded by screams loud enough to drown her out, which probably didn't help out the eardrum damage. Still worth it.

But don't think she's all vocals and no fun: she's top festival billing for a reason. She galloped from end to end of that stage more times than I could count, at one point bolting from the main stage to a small platform mid-amphitheater (and still nailing the vocals after running a small marathon to get there, mind you). On the cinematic, medieval-chic instrumental sprawls of some tracks, she hung up the microphone and threw herself around like a rag doll with contemporary choreography from The Odyssey film. And per tradition, she asked fans to climb on shoulders of others for "Rabbit Heart" (it didn't work so hot in the tight confinements of a seated venue, as opposed to her typical standing festival setting) and insisted we each take off an article of clothing and wave it like a flag in the heart of "Dog Days Are Over" (this direction, meanwhile, was listened to quite obediently). 

It rained through most of the show, quite fittingly for Florence -- we all know how much she fancies water -- but that didn't stop the folks on the grass slopes from watching in awe; most of them watched the entirety of the show from underneath a field of umbrellas. After all, a good majority of us were well committed, having followed Florence since the Lungs days. (After she inquired how many people were three albums deep in fandom, she ensured the newcomers that most everything is nearly the same: "I'm a little more drunk and shouty.") Those of us under the pavilion roof whose hands were free, though, spent most of our time with our hands in the air, returning Florence's welcoming reaches towards the crowd and clapping as long and as hard as possible.

While opening act Of Monsters & Men's set list seemed to drag on for ages (buried in their 11 tracks were only two tracks of real note, one being the band's breakthrough hit "Little Talks"), Florence's 16-track set seemed as if it went by in a flash. In that flash, however, a lot of memories were made: singing back-up with the rest of the audience for "Shake It Off," watching a guy get tackled by security as he ran on stage to dance with Florence during "Spectrum," and channeling her rage in the midst of "What Kind of Man." I left the premises that night tired and sweaty, but those facts were overshadowed by my beaming happiness from the show. She put her all into this performance, resulting in something quite stunning. How beautiful, indeed.

The How Beautiful Tour makes stops across North America until the beginning of July.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

7/27 | Fifth Harmony

It looked like the Fifth Harmony girls weren't going to make it to the mainstream last year, didn't it? They pushed the drop date of their debut album around like a hockey puck and released some singles that really only took off among their established group of fans online. People just weren't here for a new generation of girl groups... or so it seemed, until "Worth It," the cocky, trend-chasing club bop, took off without warning. As the American career of Little Mix was left to R.I.P. (rest in pieces), Fifth Harmony finally found their footing.

Our girls haven't changed from Reflection: their music is still brash, they're still on top of the girl group hierarchy, and Camila Cabello still thinks the other four are just glorified back-up dancers. Even still, their transition to the new age Pussycat Dolls is undeniable. Remember 2013 Fifth Harmony? Camila wore Claire's hair bows, Ally had bangs, and all five of them donned tween-chic attire to match their squeaky clean tunes. A lot of things have changed, yes? Like Ariana Grande in her latest album cycle, the girls embrace their sexuality -- it may just be the basis of the schtick nowadays. But I have to argue that unlike Grande, who made her intentions clear that she kicked up the heat for her own merits, our Fifth Harmony girls might be doing so for the wrong reasons.

Sure, they're strong, independent ladies. On their last album, they told us that they were bosses, just like Michelle Obama, whose purse is said to be quite heavy with Oprah-emblazoned dollars. Nowadays, they're living the life poolside, getting lit and feeling rich. (This track isn't the grandest, by the way, especially considering Tinashe authored it. Bless that chorus for doing its best to save it.) Even referencing those who came before them, they're unabashed, self-proclaimed independent women, as noted on opening track "That's My Girl." (Also written by Tinashe, this track is actually unbelievably grand. That stomping beat and overworked horn go hard.)

When all of that business goes out the door so the girls can default to sexual submission, a split personality arises that could discount their "mad independent" statuses. All that talk of nudes, derrières, and bedroom shenanigans seem to be done for the benefit of the men on the receiving end more than for the girls themselves. But I get it, I really do: "Work From Home" is half Rugrats theme and half bonafide bop. In all honesty, it's one of pop radio's best offerings this year. "Write on Me," with its tweedle-deedle-dee synth pattern and light instrumentation, can be filed under the same category -- it masks reliance on a man with a melody line that is too infectious to pass up. Guilty as charged.

In other news, a Fetty Wap collaboration doesn't lend itself to much boasting. Nobody asks for Fetty Wap collabs, nobody wants Fetty Wap collabs... he's a special type of musical plague nowadays. In Fifth Harmony's case, the girls better thank their lucky stars that the chorus of "All in My Head (Flex)" saves the song from oblivion after he opens the track. I must note, though, that it isn't a song great enough to explain why it has 21 co-writers. That's a bit ludicrous, yes? Yet the girls did produce something here that is more impressive than a pop song written by nearly two dozen people, and no, it's not the fact that they found the most awkward word to describe a hug (of all of the words in the English vocabulary, someone thought "squeeze" was the best fit) in what is supposedly a vulnerable ballad: they scored a Missy Elliott co-signature.

Elliott, once more omnipresent than Nicki Minaj is today, has become much more elusive, so when she finally does appear once or twice a year, we know we better listen up. Here, she is embedded seamlessly into "Not That Kinda Girl," arguably one of the group's best tracks to date. A very clear nod to Janet Jackson, it finally flips the objectification to the men that they spent so many of these tracks pleasing (and it begs for a choreographed music video before the end of this album's cycle). Sure, Fifth Harmony is the best of their kind today -- because there's not much competition out there to give them a run for their money -- and they're sufficient in their purpose. But tracks like "Not That Kinda Girl," "Work From Home" (in all of its submissive glory), and "Gonna Get It Better" (it's one of the two pieces of midtempo magic here, alongside "Write on Me") prove that there's potential for true greatness that has yet to be fulfilled by a perfected body of work that truly packs a punch.

Camila's efforts to make a spectacle of herself on stage and on studio tracks aside, the group has yet to present itself with a true Beyoncé figure. While this could spell disaster for the girls post-Fifth Harmony (they have been very gracious in their public acceptance of the ultimate fate of every girl group), it makes for a well-rounded album now in regards to the attention to vocal talent. (Not to mention that sonically, this one is also a bit more focused than the last.) But what these girls lack is a true identity outside of being lady bosses -- identities that they poke holes in without even realizing it... really, without many of us listeners realizing it at first, either. To compensate, they've given us an album filled with songs that encompass a whole range of female musician archetypes. They may work (work, work, work, work, work, work) those personalities well, but I think we'd all really like to see Fifth Harmony be, well, just Fifth Harmony.

7/27 is available now under Epic Records and Syco Music in both standard and deluxe pressings.