Sunday, February 26, 2017

All Your Fault, Pt. 1 | Bebe Rexha

Two years ago, when we last received a full body of work from Bebe Rexha, the Albanian singer-songwriter wanted the world to know that she was a bad bitch. Her I Don't Wanna Grow Up extended play introduced us to a stubborn, rebellious misfit archetype – a self-proclaimed bat-shit psychopath. A few years and a taste of commercial success later, Rexha has redefined her own idea of a bad bitch, playing the marketable, platinum-headed conformist with a Beats by Dr. Dre sponsorship on the first installment of her debut album, All Your Fault.

Closing the six-song teaser of the album, the aptly titled "Bad Bitch" finds a braggadocious Rexha listing off things that make her the baddest gal to ever step foot into some Adidas-branded undergarments: She pays her own bills. She buys her own rings. She knows it isn't fair that you can't touch her – but feel free to look. And when she's not priding herself over some glossy urban-tinged backdrops, she's making far too many parallels between love and drugs than should be contained in a six-track extended play. (Regardless of their titles, "Small Doses" and "Gateway Drug" aren't particularly memorable, if you're wondering.) It all comes off as a forced charade that, after acting as the basis of most of this album's tracks, is exhausting by the time we reach the sixth track.

Luckily, if nothing else, she hasn't lost touch with the distracting electronic atmospheres that agree best with that voice of hers – usually overmodulated in these studio tracks, it's one that carries a shrill, polarizing tone – in her image transition. In fact, while the pinched runs in the post-chorus of "I Got You" are bound to leave rug rash on some listeners' eardrums, its chorus is perhaps the most ear-catching moment of this extended play, when the punchy synthesizers and drum clips take precedent over the static melody line that doesn't demand too much from our ringleader. (In short, it employs the same tactics that made most of the songs from her first extended play so enticing.)

Now, with a direction that relies on a submissive conformance to contemporary Top 40 trends, Bebe Rexha seems to have stalled. For this phase, she's jacked Meghan Trainor's lyrical staples of ego-centrism and love and painted them with Tove Lo's explicit façades. Even MØ, who underwent an equally drastic image reinvention in the wake of worldwide commercial success, has enjoyed a smoother, more authentic transition – an astonishing thought when examining just how decisive MØ's long-winded new era has been for her earliest fans. In her defense, Rexha did wave a bellwether track at us last year to indicate the winds of change – the Nicki Minaj-featuring "No Broken Hearts" – but in my defense, I knew even then that it was indicative of a change in the wrong direction for work to come.

All Your Fault, Pt. 1 is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

About U | MUNA

Spare the relentless synth line lurking in the basement of MUNA's "Crying on the Bathroom Floor" that is purposely reminiscent of Robyn circa Body Talk and the band's fancy for synthesized vocal lines from Imogen Heap's playbook, not much about the Los Angeles-based trio grants direct comparisons. Fusing the best of pop-rock, synthpop, and contemporary alternative R&B without wandering through their contemporaries' narrow field of drum machines and dingy synthesizers, MUNA (like Lady Gaga with ARTPOP, they insist on all caps for their title) rests within a malleable niche that lends itself to every mood of the hour.

Comparisons to the likes of Haim, Tegan and Sara, and Shura have been slugged their way, and the best words that most mainstream journalists can pull out of their hats to describe them are "honest," "dark pop," and "girl band," but the members of MUNA are no more than proud queer women who have stories to share and aren't afraid to wear a rainbow-colored pride on their sleeves while telling them. As an outward hand towards the LGBTQ community, they steer clear of gender-laden pronouns, opting for second-person references to the past love affair that inspired this album.

Largely revealing what was once a comfort found within the waves of a troublesome relationship and an overwhelming sense of loss and indecision when the turbulent cycle is finally smacked off balance, About U follows lead vocalist Katie Gavin as she sways from detachment to false hope before accepting grief, a feeling spurred by a lack of true closure. While the moment of realization, the self-confrontational "Crying on the Bathroom Floor," appears late in the track listing, it's a triumph for a narrator who had placed the entirety of the blame on her own problematic tendencies just one track prior.

Through the sunny highs and the desperate lows of this record, Gavin remains the humanistic constant, gluing the album together. Whether her disposition juxtaposes an energetic backdrop ("Around U," "Loudspeaker") or she is encapsulated in layers of her own synthesized vocal lines ("Winterbreak," If U Love Me Now"), her voice remains a smooth stream of water, rippling as if a light breeze caught it amid multi-note runs. She is at her most exuberant on "I Know a Place," an upbeat tribute to gay dance clubs that found newfound significance in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the recent installation of a conservative presidential administration, yet she retains her cool presence to keep the track in line with the album's soundscape.

The scope of this album's sonic horizon stretches from the dusky tones of "After" to the atmospheric euphoria of "Around U" and "End of Desire." In theory, it could seem like an overarching goal of a hyperactive group in a rush to show the world what they're capable of delivering; In practice, though, it's a well-executed display of every emotional turn in the trajectory of an ill-fated relationship. These songs follow the organic fluxes and flows of the story arc, which, while not the clearest an album has ever brought to the table, is more than intriguing enough to pull listeners into MUNA's gaze and lock them there from beginning to end.

About U is out now under RCA Records.