Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wild World | Bastille

You know, we don't know much about Bastille's Dan Smith other than the fact that he's much like us: his Twitter account doubles as a source for Bastille updates and an outlet for his love of Frank Ocean and Jillian Banks, self-disparaging humor is kind of his thing, and he really enjoys the cinema. He's never been a Taylor Swift type of personal storyteller: on Bastille's first outing of original material, he held onto a respectable vagueness in musical references to his life as he employed emotional metaphors of ancient mythology and retro popular culture. For the band's second album, however, he has shifted his focus to the here and now.

Wild World is a concept album of sorts that exaggerates the current state of affairs across the globe, complete with a rather cryptic Wild World Communications interactive experience that was embraced in a smaller capacity than expected for a promotional tool leading up to the album's release. Although the thematic scheme lends itself only to the cultivation of a cold, frightening view on society at first thought, the record takes the road unexpected and makes grander statements on the world through the scope of intra- and interpersonal interaction. And it through that theme that we also get a good gauge for Smith's emotional intelligence – something we knew he had all along but he tended to downplay the first time around.

With that in mind, perhaps it's most important to listen to this record with the lyrics of "Warmth" in mind: "Hold me in this wild, wild world / 'cause in your warmth, I forget how cold it can be." Or maybe better, with a similar ideal to the opening lines of the album's lead single: "Watching through my fingers." After all, these tracks are fueled on a fascination with human reaction to an explicit, dominant society, leading to an album that, while an ambitious 19 tracks long, is one of the most conceptually focused in recent history. Social commentary isn't anything new in popular music, but Bastille took on the concept with ambitious goals – and they fulfill those goals through tracks disguised as same old Bastille at surface level.

Of course, the horrific society of Wild World is based on our reality today, spiked with an extra dose of dystopian ideals through the magnification of overexposure to violence, crime, and tragedies in both popular and news media. (Regardless of overall concept, it wouldn't be a Bastille album without some tragedy in the mix, anyway.) While I'm inclined to believe that film dialogue samples were scattered across the album based on Smith's aforementioned liking for film, I believe those samples inadvertently enhance the album's concept, emphasizing the pervasiveness of the media.

On the sonic front, Bastille continues to do what they do best: alternative rock products with pop intentions. Man, do these guys know how to come out of the woodwork with some unbelievable choruses, ranging from surprisingly expansive ("Good Grief," "Send Them Off!") to unexpectedly captivating ("An Act of Kindness," "Fake It," "Four Walls"). Granted, they do lack a sense of conciseness here, giving way to tracks that could have been given some more tender loving care. Most noticeably, in the case of underwhelming melody lines, they throw out a new element to distract listeners; on "The Currents" and "Snakes," it's the newfound reliance on guitars and on "Lethargy," it's the rat-ta-tat of a peppy little drum. I would argue, though, that with an album of this size, areas of redundancy, while not inexcusable, should be expected.

Consider the album like a cake: Smith and the guys were so worried about extraordinary decorations that they forgot to ensure the cake itself baked all the way through before frosting it. It's the same issue that Coldplay, the band that Bastille has been long vetted to replace when Chris Martin decides to throw in the towel, has been slammed with. But as was the case on most of Coldplay's albums, the frosting is the best part here, so a few gooey parts of the cake can be endured for the greater good. I suppose those half-baked portions would represent a bigger problem in an album that isn't smart, but Smith is a ponderer. And through these tracks, he begs that we all become ponderers, too.

Wild World is out now under Capitol Records.

Friday, September 16, 2016

I Remember | AlunaGeorge

Upon their entrance to the industry in 2012, Aluna Francis and George Reid were the quirky cousins of electronic pop music. With their chunky club beats and slew of influences, the two were the haughty alterna-man's answer to pop music. Reid has since taken to seclusion, contributing only to production value and leaving Francis to brunt most of the touring and promotional manpower behind the AlunaGeorge moniker, but the duo's second album shows signs that they have only grown stronger – and closer to the heart of the genre they once side-stepped.

Whereas Body Music dipped its toes into the pool of mainstream pop, I Remember dives headfirst. Gliding through their stew of influences, Francis and Reid have their sights split between a good time and experimentation through downtempo rhythm and blues, warm tropical house, and most often, bonafide pop disguised as banging electronic dance. Meanwhile, the range of Francis' voice, once employed as just an immature, childlike pout, is tested. Her tone has matured ever so slightly through some stronger support as she's thrown into these new environments.

At the time of its release, the lead single from the set, "I'm in Control," seemed like AlunaGeorge's most ballsy move yet: alienating those fans who revel in viral oddity pop, they jumped aboard the tropical house trend after finding sudden overnight success Stateside with the DJ Snake re-work of "You Know You Like It." While the track didn't replicate American (or British, for that matter) radio success as it should have, the full album now reveals that "Control," though representative of the sleek, polished finish throughout, might be one of the safer tracks of the era.

"Mediator" and "Not Above Love" are perhaps their most experimental, both clutched onto rhythm and blues with all their might. "Heartbreak Horizon" pulls some horns and deep drums out of left field, making for a (strangely successful) marching-band-meet-club-banger aesthetic. But on more expected fronts, "Mean What I Mean" jumps into a full sugar rush, as Francis plays it cool over some pulsating beats before featured rappers Dreezy and Leikeli47 rip into their respective verses, and "Hold Your Head High" and "Jealous" get their kicks from trendy altered-vocal patterns.

In many respects, the twelve tracks of I Remember have rendered the duo's debut material, which was at one point deemed "futuristic pop," damn near obsolete. Is the material here a bit trend-chasing? Perhaps; by and large, the album is a prepackaged party. But it's executed with gusto, swinging smoothly from style to style without losing touch of home base. It's clear that the two halves of AlunaGeorge have grown exponentially – Francis as a vocalist, songwriter, and lyricist; Reid as a songwriter and producer – since we last heard from them, and this album is nothing if not proof of that.

I Remember is out now under Interscope Records.

Monday, September 12, 2016

AIM | M.I.A.

M.I.A.'s coming back with power, power one last time.

Well, kind of.

As an artist whose biggest waves in the United States have come from the flash of a middle finger at a broadcast football game and a radio hit that is one giant side-eye at American government and ideology, M.I.A. certainly has been known to be bold at best and abrasive at worst in the largest music market in the world. The controversy and ironic radio success aside, though, her creative output traditionally has been a respectable challenge the eyes, ears, and brain. While she carries herself with a cool, collected swagger vocally, she's always been one for aggressive mission statements through every other facet of her work: her album cover arts, avant-garde; her production choices, nonconformist; her lyrics, forward-thinking and politically charged. 

All of this in mind, her fifth (and reportedly final) record could be assumed to be her strongest, most resounding statement yet, even in comparison to her first two records, both of which spit a few rounds of controversial bullets through the fabric of American ideology. In hindsight, a certain age-old adage about assumptions comes to mind here.

Why? Because M.I.A. is ready to make peace.

Although it opens with last year's confrontational "Borders," AIM is a relaxed affair at heart: she admits that she's immune to criticism on "Finally" and brings closure to her departure from the industry with the likes of "Bird Song" and "Go Off." Her minimized political agenda still focuses on illegal immigration ("Visa," "Borders," "Survivor"), but this record feels much more like a personal outlet than an outspoken editorial. At points, that becomes blatant as she transfers to light conversation: on "Foreign Friend," she embraces a companion who was always there to watch Breaking Bad with her and console her in the wake of break-ups. Perhaps even more out of character of her, "Ali R U OK?" is an entire track devoted to an overworked Uber driver. A far stretch from the racial discrimination, modern politics, and wars she usually tackles, eh?

For an artist who has her sights on the end of a career after a decade of bringing light to global problems through club speakers, I suppose it's a natural trajectory to end with an afterglow for having done her part in respective social movements; it's just a very abrupt change for M.I.A. to end her statements in periods rather than boldface exclamation points, especially at a time when the political battlegrounds on immigration and foreign policy are hotter than even.

A less controversial M.I.A. record does not, however, make for a less entertaining one. If her last release taught us one thing, it's that she knows the ins and outs of today's club music better than most, so it's no surprise that the worlds of electronic and worldbeat collide on the disjointed madhouses of Skrillex co-signed tracks "A.M.P. (All My People)" and "Go Off," offering strong competition to the best cuts from Matangi. Additionally, in traditional M.I.A. fashion, she delivers some tracks that make listeners question whether they're unorthodox or obnoxious: most notably, both versions of "Bird Song" are backed by a forest of kazoos and bird noises (à la Kala's "Bird Flu") and constant hits of a sneering vocal ad-lib run across the ode to the Uber driver, "Ali R U OK?" (As is the case for most of her work, obnoxiousness is ruled out after a few concentrated listens to the tracks.)

Never did any of us predict M.I.A. would collaborate with someone like Zayn Malik ("Freedun" is an interesting little ditty that juxtaposes heavy drums with airy howls from Malik, by the way) or release an album as nonbelligerent as AIM, but the day has come, my friends. For better or for worse, streamlined, modernized production techniques and some unfocused lyrical concepts have rendered this the most accessible record of her back catalog. There's no doubt that sharp tongue of hers has been dulled over the years, but her abilities in the craft of party tracks have aged liked fine wine – and that queen of the club sensibility is why this record ultimately swims rather than sinks.

AIM is out now under Interscope Records.

Friday, September 2, 2016

E•MO•TION: Side B | Carly Rae Jepsen

Carly Rae Jepsen had quite the year last year, yes? I would say so.

For those of you with a bad memory, let's recap: Jeppo dropped "I Really Like You," a melodically-solid pop bit that declared her love for you seven times over. She then followed that up with "All That," an unusually somber little ditty produced by Dev Hynes, and "Run Away with Me," arguably the best pop song and saxophone-blaring Vine meme accompaniment of 2015. But best of all, she gave us E•MO•TION, her second studio album that set the newest gold standard for warm, glowing, '80s-influenced, teen pop for an audience a bit older and more diverse than expected. (I'd like to mention she blessed Japan with it months before the rest of us, by the way. Not because I'm still a little bitter, but because it's a necessary digression.)

Phew. Catch that all? Good.

So CRJ's next plan of action? Let 2015's fun carry on over to 2016 with something we pop fans wish most artists would do: a B-sides collection of tracks that didn't make the first cut. It's as if she read my open letter addressed to her earlier this year, which all but demanded access to some of the forfeited tracks from the E•MO•TION sessions.

Given the quality of their parent album, these B-sides were guaranteed to be merely good at the very worst, so it's no surprise that most of them are worth a listen... or ten. Despite being produced by a few producers who didn't touch the original album, the eight tracks here are so successful because they don't throw away what made E•MO•TION so grand: instrumentation calculated for pop perfection that dances around some infectious melodies.

Moreover, they don't feel like microwaved leftovers. In fact, this material is arguably more fine-tuned with what radio-chasing pop girls are passing as album material. Perhaps that's the difference between them and albums artist Carly Rae Jepsen, though: Side B solidifies her focus on quality over repeated radio success. Otherwise, she would have abandoned the less-than-commercially-successful era altogether and went away to work on another track with potential to land the assertive leap onto airwaves that "I Really Like You" was meant to make.

Unsurprisingly, Colin Jepsen's sister doesn't stray far from her thematic template: she still flirts with adult themes (love, heartbreak, and *gasp* two-timing on a man) via innocent lyrics with implied side-eyed glances. And of course, she wouldn't abandoned her favorite musical tactic, given its success in the past: the power of repetition in melodically superior hooks. Granted, when these choruses hit, they don't slap listeners quite hard enough to leave a five-finger hand-print across the face like hooks from the original album did, but most come close enough  and that's all we needed (and should expect) from a batch of rejects.

(By the way, not to distract from Carly Rae 'of Light' Jepsen's generosity or from the fact that this eight track release has us all shook, but we're still missing 225 others. That's more than enough material for the proposed MAS•TER•PIECE idea in that open letter. Please consider it, Carly? That concept may be my most prized idea to date. Just a little suggestion.)

E•MO•TION: Side B is available now under Interscope Records as exclusive streaming release on Apple Music and physical release on the Jepsenator's official webstore.