Saturday, October 29, 2016

Joanne | Lady Gaga

When Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" topped the charts just shy of eight years ago, it was a pioneer of the popular music standards to come, irreversibly implementing electronic dance music into the pop landscape. Hand-in-hand with Britney Spears circa Circus revival and the Black Eyed Peas, Lady Gaga ushered in an era of domination for synth-driven club music on the Billboard Hot 100 that opened the door for acts like Kesha and Teenage Dream-era Katy Perry. She was an unstoppable force in popular music then, but little did we know that less than a decade later, Lady Gaga would be done with both the Billboard charts and the high-energy pop music that she popularized.

Her fifth studio album is her baby: she protects it, she shields it, and she holds it close. She has taken to Twitter to flip the metaphoric bird to any nay-sayers to her newest musical direction, including The Chainsmokers and The New York Times' music critic Jon Caramanica, in 140 characters or less. She hasn't bothered with traditional promotion, opting for a short, intimate promotional tour fueled by a Bud Light sponsorship and a few radio interviews. There's a clear refusal to let this album become her biggest commercial success. While she traditionally has treated all of her albums with this mother-bird mindset, Joanne is different. It takes an unprecedented leap of faith, displaying a bold confidence that Lady Gaga can retain popularity – and the idiosyncrasies that set her apart – despite a complete change of venue, from dance club to dive bar.

Gaga's reaction aside, Caramanica wasn't out of line for referring to her baby as an overcorrection from the fluorescent playground that was ARTPOP. When her boldface electronic dance experimentation was met with lukewarm reception, she retreated to the arms of Tony Bennett as his singing-jazz-since-she-was-four partner-in-crime. And it worked: without the distractions, people saw the real talent within. So onward bound she went, abandoning the complex outfits and opting for elegance as she took to the small screen on American Horror Story: Hotel and to the awards show circuit with "Til It Happens to You," a traditional pop-rock track penned for campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground. And wouldn't you know it: it was still working. So in pursuit of continued success beyond the expectation of just another radio hit or two, Joanne refutes everything Gaga once was; it is as organic and as orthodox as she has ever been.

Of course, she's not the first artist of her caliber to break the walls of pop star expectations this year: Rihanna swerved expectations with Anti, making an unexpected turn towards her first album free of any clear-cut hits, and still struck success. And in hindsight, it was abrupt but natural progression: if the past few years have proven anything, it's that the demand for Gaga's generation of singles-heavy, pure-pop divas is pretty well dead. Existing crowds of fans carried the latest Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani efforts to moderate success, while the next line of pop girls (namely Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande) have worked urban touches into their pop tracks to stay on top. Gaga, though, has taken to the waters Rihanna already tested by delivering a relatively consistent, left-of-center body of work. But whereas Rihanna took to hazy R&B, Gaga has taken her own natural trajectory, throwing rock, country, and pop into a paint shaker and pouring out a gritty coat of backroads tavern aesthetic.

With Mark Ronson's rock and funk influences dominating any signs of BloodPop's 21st century handiwork throughout, Joanne doesn't even remotely exemplify the modern definition of pop music. Now, that's not to say rock 'n rodeo Gaga isn't incapable of the infectious hooks that made her famous; "A-Yo" competes with the best of them, and that "Tap down those boots while I beat around, let's funk downtown" ditty from her third-generation ode to self-servicing, "Dancin' in Circles," is unbelievably hypnotizing. But there are times that musicality takes the backseat in attempts to force the 'totally not pop' vibes and straightforward lyrical symbolism to resonate, especially on her country-leaning tracks. It's a shocking change of pace for Lady Gaga, whose back catalog is packed with thick forests of intricate, nearly incomprehensible metaphors. While it could be argued that her complex lyrical content was the fatal flaw of ARTPOP, this album may be her most two-dimensional: no references to Jeff Koons, hookers, or the planet Venus. Strange, yeah? It's actually a bit refreshing, if we're being honest.

Seeing that she rid herself of the lyrical (and most other) antics, it seems that Gaga knows what made people listen in the past year or two: the fact that she had a voice, and a powerful one, at that. Her focus here, though, becomes projection and support as inflection falls by the wayside. Spare the title track, where a lighter, nasally tone prevails, she rolls full-speed ahead – and that works quite well on amplified pop-rock tracks in the vein of "Diamond Heart" and "Perfect Illusion" – but at a few points in the road, her lead foot comes at a price. That flaw doesn't become any more obvious than on "Hey Girl," during which she carries a conversation with proven vocal siren Florence Welch, who manages to upstage Gaga thanks to conscious restraint of her maximalist tendencies. This sacrifice is a small one, however, considering the artistic growth otherwise.

A far stretch from the disco-glam, post-Bowie antics of The Fame, this album has no place in the discography of a Top 40 artist. But perhaps that's the point; although it is not what we all particularly expected, or maybe even wanted, from Lady Gaga, her career was never built on delivering material that fulfills expectations. After following her for this long, it's easy to parallel being a Gaga listener to being the parent of a stubborn, fickle-minded child: she does as she wishes, and we, the listening public, just have to accept and love her regardless of the phase she's in. But let's be glad that Gaga is a child with versatile talents, because she does stick the landing on this album. It has its imperfections – it's consistently loud and shows signs of some growing pains – but it's nothing if not raw, honest, and 100 percent Lady Gaga.

Joanne is available now under Interscope Records.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Illuminate | Shawn Mendes

On the cover of his sophomore effort, teenage singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes has a good grip on the one instrument he couldn't survive as a recording artist without. He used it as a crutch throughout his debut album – Handwritten, his shaky lift-off from seven-second star to a regular teen idol – and it seems he isn't giving it up any time soon. Really, nothing in Mendes' formula has changed: teen charm and a guitar is all it takes. Well, all it took to score him a number one debut album here in the States. And he realized that if it isn't broken, don't fix it.

For those of you who were in the same boat as I was with Handwritten – generally unimpressed – that isn't the greatest news. But have no fear: he does manage to improve upon his model, even if ever so slightly.

"Treat You Better" came to us just as the very last sign of "Stitches," the best of his output last year, had been wiped from radio airwaves. He was fresh out of our minds and all was forgiven (or forgotten) regarding the sorely lackluster debut album, so the lead single from this set was not unwelcome; guitar plucks carry the song along as Mendes croons a smooth melody line until a chorus kicks some energy into things. And in context to the rest of the album, it sits at the end of the opening trio of quite impressive tracks. In line with it, opening track "Ruin" sticks the landing with swaying 6/8 time, and he gives one of his most convincing vocal performances to date on "Mercy."

Now, saying "his most convincing" is not all that grand of an accomplishment. After all, Mendes' voice isn't the most stunning out there. At the end of the day, it's an adequate voice that, without Vine, wouldn't have gotten him further than local tavern circuit fame in his hometown if he had launched his career in traditional form. But if he and Ed Sheeran prove anything, it's that sometimes, the young johnny one-notes with some good looks and a guitar can make it big if they play their cards right, and considering the debut chart position of both of his albums, I suppose Shawn Mendes is a fine poker player.

A fine poker player, sure, but not a striking one. As an acoustic songwriter marketing himself in a Top 40 market, Mendes tries to find a balance but often stalls in the middle of the road. He exhausts his strongest songwriting at the front end of this album, leaving the remainder of it to sputter: guitar chord, musky lower register, guitar chord, second-rate storytelling about love and hook-ups, guitar chord, pinched higher register, repeat. (The hook-up talk, by the way, is new to his craft.) The songwriting here, while not particularly terrible, doesn't lend itself to variation, melting most of these tracks into a solid block of wax that shines with slick, boyish charm. And that works for now, but without some evolution soon, he'll age into John Mayer's shoes before he knows it.

Illuminate is available now under Island Records.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Altar | Banks

Upon the release of Banks' debut record, its title evoked the image of a strong, unshakable female. But the 18 tracks housed on Goddess revealed the vulnerabilities of a young woman haunted by the ghosts of turbulent relationships past; it's no doubt we saw a goddess, but a goddess at her most emotionally taxed. Her sophomore release, though, bears cover art that breaks the barriers of what is traditionally expected from a self-proclaimed goddess: her hair is undone, her freckles are uncovered. But it's raw. It's real. And through embracing herself in purest form on this record, she resolves her former insecurities with the reigning confidence she promised to have all along. 

The Altar is far from a subtle affair – perhaps she made that clear when she dropped the bold "Fuck with Myself" as the lead single, complete with a video in which she manhandles (and then burns) a hairless effigy of herself. Over a beat that borrows from the janky antics of FKA twigs, she juxtaposes her prior statements ("You burn me with your words" of "Someone New" has been twisted into "Your words would burn me in the third degree" here) and proclaims her own self-worth. It's the attitude that opened this era on the right foot, for it is the attitude that prevails through most of the record as she backtracks on previous statements made in the heat of heartbreak – seemingly not out of regret for once having honest feelings of hopelessness or weakness, but out of pride for overcoming those thoughts.

At one point on this record, Banks puts her revitalized mindset into perspective: "I think you need a weaker girl / Kind of like the girl I used to be." And while I would argue that she was never the weaker girl for writing music based on her emotions, she's certainly nothing if not thunderous as she takes power back into her own hands. She becomes fiery with passion, especially when she rips through powerhouse choruses on tracks like "Gemini Feed" and "Trainwreck." The former, with its water-drop synth line and irresistible melody, easily asserts itself among the best tracks of the year, while "Trainwreck" jumps alive with an urgent synth sputter before our songstress enters with a matched immediacy: "When I come through, you were dark blue / And I saved you, from your darker days / Born to take care of you / Or I thought so, maybe it was just a phase," she bellows, once again side-eyeing her past self-image.

Banks prides herself on being a songwriter first and foremost, but she tends to downplay her ability to shape-shift her voice like an experienced contortionist. She offers something to marvel at in every soundscape, whether it's when she mimics bass lines, spurts ad-libs, or exposes a ragged-edge range during her infrequent journeys into minimalist territory. Aligning with the lattermost category, "Mother Earth" features a full Jillian Banks choir and "To the Hilt" leaves a singular fragile vocal line to its own devices over a synthesized piano (and, moreover, offers closure to both the 18 tracks worth of heartache on her debut and the other 11 tracks of vengeance here). Personally, I'm a sucker for the moments when her vocals are paired with a layer of vocoder-laden ones to create unhinged yet spellbinding results: the muttered snarls of "Poltergeist" in particular offer quite the ghastly kick. Likewise, "Judas" is tailored with vocal production that is, well, apt for a song titled "Judas."

Although still a sturdy record two years on, Goddess is admittedly a one-trick pony of an album, filled to the brim with brooding, downtempo electronics. This time around, Banks and her producers, both returning and new, stretch her brand of alternative R&B in all directions with expertise. At her most energized, she eyes trap and jungle beat with pop tendencies; at her most sensual, she veers towards a muffled drumbeat and a warm guitar riff; at her most intimate, she takes a liking to strings and implements organic elements into her world of mad electronics. What results is a record that is much more varied than her last record, but one that retains her signature sonic cornerstones and claustrophobic moodiness.

There is something to be said about not only the artistic evolution, but also the personal transformation displayed on The Altar. This is not the record that was expected from an artist who had been known, even if based on only one record, to wallow in heartache. It is represented by a title that, without context, hints at either of two extremes: unconditional or unrequited love. But because Banks opens the record with the snide "And to think you would get me to the altar," we enter the album with the understanding that the title does not represent the devotion (or lack thereof) to another. It is a devotion to herself: as an artist, as a sexual being, as a woman. And it is through that mindset that she truly reigns supreme.

The Altar is available now under Harvest Records.