Sunday, July 17, 2016

I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it | The 1975

You know, I'd always been under the impression that The 1975's business model thrives on aesthetic over substance – a shell of flowery imagery wrapped around a big load of nothingness, if you will. And it turns out others felt the same: quotes pulled from critics and #haters flash to the beat in the music video for "The Sound." Comments like "there's no danger in this music at all," "unconvincing emo lyrics," "boring recycled wannabes," and "desperate, shallow, cringe-worthy" ensure that I wasn't alone in this train of thought. But after a coincidental listen to the band's material, I learned that while the glossy sensory overload schtick is employed in full force, superficiality isn't the name of The 1975's game: beneath that Tumblr-certified beauty, layers of late night thoughts and contemplative introspection wait to be dissected.

Their sophomore record, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it, is, by and large, a lot to take in. The 71-character title, the staggering number of tracks, the influences from every crevice of the music spectrum, the handful of sprawling five-plus minute songs that exist as high-gloss Instagram filters in musical form... it's just a lot. And an album this hefty is an ample space for the band's members to experiment however they please. Frontman Matt Healy admits the freedom of ambitious experimentation makes the album seem like three in one, which would become an issue if the foursome didn't know what they were doing – but for the most part, they know what they want to accomplish, whether they slide into slick pop-rock soundscapes or take it back to the basics with an acoustic base.

While the tracks that spare the production tools (the most powerful weapons in the band's arsenal) can become dirges at points, Healy becomes the focal point on them, stirring 'the feels' and giving a convincing sense of authenticity ("Nana," "She Lays Down"). But when they lean into their signature sorta synthy, sorta rocky funk on a good number of these tracks, they stick the landing with ease each and every time. Once again, filling sonic spaces with the smoothest production possible a good part of their craft – and on their most proper pop-rock tunes, they can do just that without losing touch with infectious melodies. At these points of the record, though, Healy's voice becomes a whole new demon: one that can hypnotize when dipped in a sea of reverb (most expertly displayed on "Somebody Else") or punch through soundscapes when thrown into electric pop-rock jungles like "The Sound" and "Love Me." (Even lengthy tracks that spare a vocal presence – the aforementioned Instagram filter reincarnate side of The 1975 – are worth note, given the unprecedented detail given to even the slightest details to cultivate a soundscape worth awing at.)

Many of their topics of conversation (fame, religion, sexuality, mortality, drug addiction, love, cultural barriers) could easily branch off into full albums of their own, but this album feels well-rounded and honest – and from a singular point of view, despite being written by all four members. And these songs read as both personal and empathetic; they are often composed in a storytelling fashion, leaving enough malleability for listeners to relate. Perhaps this is the department in which The 1975's following has drummed the band up a fair bit, seeing they tend to spice everyday thoughts with some unorthodox topics of conversation (smoking, sex, cocaine, mental disorders) that are most popular in these viral sensation musicians. This tactic often validates listeners' experiences while also pushing them into a degree of escapism – a sensation I would like to think we aspire to receive from our favorite music.

Against all of the insinuations that The 1975 is punk-leaning, the band is pop through and through. Yes, they've dressed themselves up with janky guitar licks and punchy vocals, but they're a pop-rock outfit at their core. Truth be told, their punk seal of approval is about as confusing as Paramore's nowadays. Their sound is crisp and pop hook-laden, and their lyrics spare angst for a sense of self-awareness and a basic look at the relationship between society and the human psyche – so much like The Neighbourhood or Melanie Martinez, only The 1975's imagery make them Hot Topic material. Even still, the band's appeal is understandable, and what matters most is that this album glows as warmly as the neon sign on its cover.

So my aesthetic over substance assumption? I stand corrected. This band is aesthetic and substance.

I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is available now under Interscope Records. An exclusive pressing can be found at Target department stores.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Nothing's Real | Shura

Lengthy wait times for debut albums have become the new norm, often delayed by an extended play to test the waters before an artist plunges head-first into the industry or by an artist's overly fastidious hand as she curates her single shot at an introduction to the world. Just ask English singer-songwriter-producer (the total package) Shura. In anticipation of her full-length debut, fans entertained themselves for two years with activities such as launching and asking why her magnum opus, a minimal piece of gold titled "Touch," wasn't available on iTunes. They were primitive days, weren't they? Times have certainly changed since the birth of Nothing's Real, an hour's worth of '80s-soaked low-fi synthpop, just last week.

Okay, so as previously argued, the illusions to '80s influences in modern day synthpop are becoming so prevalent that '80s synthpop and '10s synthpop are nearly sonically synonymous. But whereas queen of pop Carly Rae Jepsen delivered teen-pop tracks covered in a pristine gloss with E•MO•TION, Shura takes a stab at porous, gritty, spacey synthpop that leans more towards the Jacksons (Michael and Janet, that is) and early Madonna – an approach future tourmates Tegan and Sara employed on their latest effort in a lesser capacity. There's a certain authenticity in Shura's commitments to achieve this perfectly imperfect product: fuzzy layers of white noise, heavy reverberation, vocal filters, and succinct 808 hits make for an album that channels a decade with unbelievable execution for an maestro who didn't even live through it.

Needless to say, rarely do '80s influences tickle me with a nostalgic feeling anymore – that is, until this album came around. After all, the title track positions itself at the crossroads of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," the Ghostbusters main theme, and the heart of disco – that's a bold assertion that demands bold results, which the song delivers with ease. It's a surprising turn of events, considering livelier bits weren't predicted to be in her wheelhouse after she had delivered a track as dreamy as "Touch" and an extended play filled with syncopated dance beats in the past few years – and while she still finds comfort in midtempo burners ("Tongue Tied," "Make It Up"), tracks like "Nothing's Real" and her most animated release to date, the Greg Kurstin-cosigned "What's It Gonna Be?," sure prove her unexpected versatility here.

But this album's influences aren't its only assets: its most unformulated moments blast it to another level. Two listed interludes and another hidden one at the end of the 11-minute cut of "White Light" add a touch of personality that can't be found in your typical pop album. (The banter from a home video in the second interlude – "What's your brother's name?" "Nicholas." "Do you love him?" "Not very much." – is undeniably adorable, by the way.) Also a gutsy move, the album's finale is an experimental bit that sprawls on for ten minutes. Fittingly titled "The Space Tapes," it slowly brings the set to its end on its most ambient, long-winded note with, well, spacey vibes – it's something that hasn't been attempted with notable success on a pop album since Lights closed out 2011's Siberia with nine minutes of diminishing synthesizer runs.

There are a lot of brilliantly ballsy moments here for an artist just regaining traction after a few years removed from her breakthrough hit – moments that really make this album more than your typical synthpop album. The space age meandering, the refusal to abandon a midtempo pace for a more marketable livelihood, the overt sincerity and pensive nature... essentially, Nothing's Real is Shura's very personal time capsule, crafted with care and filled with memories, home video tapes, and a heap of pop records that predate her by ten years, and we listeners have been invited only to marvel as it's cracked open.

Nothing's Real is out now under Interscope Records.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Dopamine | Børns

So I'm not sure if you lot got the memo yet or not, but apparently the new commonly accepted ideology in the music world is that pop or rock artists who don't make music that targets mainstream radio audiences are, for all intents and purposes, Lana Del Rey reincarnate. It's easy to draw comparisons to the original queen of longstanding viral popularity; she is one of the first artists of note to bypass one-hit Internet phenomena status ("Harlem Shake," "The Fox," "Gangnum Style," etc.) and build a reputable career without support of radio (until that remixed "Summertime Sadness" business kicked up some dust, of course).

And in regards to Yelich-O'Connor, Frangipane, Sivan, Martinez, and Co., I get it. The brooding electronic soundscapes and flowery lyrics are undoubtedly products of a post-Del Rey society. But Børns? Call me crazy, but I don't see it as much as other people do.

Sure, his career found its footing after Taylor Swift name-dropped "Electric Love" on social media and his indie pop-rock resonates strongest online and at music festivals. But other than that, the similarities between the career trajectories and sonic territories of gangster Nancy Sinatra and the artist at hand aren't strong enough to merit every review of his debut album to make mention of the former. In comparison to Del Rey's gentle waft through muddier sonic territory, Børns is a bit more crisp. Not to mention that his voice, especially when he drifts into sharp-edge wails as he so frequently does, is accompanied by a bittersweet aftertaste – much unlike the smokey serenity of a fast drive in the pale moonlight with my bad daddy by my heavenly side, yeah baby, dark blue, dark blue, dark blue.

Dopamine is a sunny SoCal affair that glows around the edges, spicing psychedelic rock influences with plenty of organic-posing 808s to create a pop-friendly experience; with this said, perhaps a much more fitting comparison could be drawn to Haim or Alabama Shakes – with a visual aesthetic that borrows from good friend Zella Day. Børns complements the light sonic surroundings with a voice that lives almost exclusively in his falsetto – an area that many men flirt with but never have stamina to make long-term residencies in. His carries a clear, piercing tone, adding a splash on androgyny to his tunes. It all makes for quite a relaxing record until his topics of conversation (a mess of love, drugs, and sexual frustration) come into consideration.

This album's tracks melt together like a pack of gummy bears kept in a car on a sweltering summer's day, thanks in part to their hypnotizing ways. With these tracks, much like warm chocolate chip cookies and much unlike Burger King's Mac n' Cheetos, just one is not enough: listening to "10,000 Emerald Pools" turns into also listening to "Dug My Heart," which then turns into listening to "Electric Love" and "American Money," which then leads to listening to the full album... twice over. There's something to be said about albums like this one – when the overall aesthetic voids the difference between the standout moments and lackluster ones, resulting in what feels like one undivided body of work rather than 11 separate tracks thrown onto the same disc. Distinction is lost between tracks, but long after one listen to the set in full, a warm, fuzzy afterglow remains.

Dopamine is available now through Interscope Records. Exclusive pressings can be found at Target department stores.