Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Valley | Betty Who

As Betty Who's career was coming into its own four years ago, being a hidden online treasure had just become the new trend of choice, but artists who wanted to fit that mold were to shroud extravagant pop dreams and accept the sonic pigeonhole they'd be thrown in. For the Australian singer-songwriter, that meant curating her debut record behind the filter of fluffy, lush synthpop. And it worked: Take Me When You Go was an impressive introduction, and its respective touring runs through gay pride festival circuits gained her unbreakable connections in the LBGT+ community.

While she didn't seem uncomfortable within her debut, the record was fueled with the bombastic melody lines and vocal capabilities that indicated Who wasn't going to stick in that arena for long. And today, as a heavier reliance on streaming services has magnified online acts and narrowed the scope of truly underground viral stardom, she has been given the chance to make her move. With her sophomore record, The Valley, she has set her sights for two seemingly contradictory goals: to aim for both pure pop and pure honesty.

An inoffensive, romantic daydream, her debut album left an impression of a young gal who still had a tight grip on her teenage dreams. Her neon-lit cover of Donna Lewis' "I Love You Always Forever," released last summer as a stopgap in the lull between her two albums before its success earned it a place at the back end of The Valley, carried the torch of romanticism that her debut lit, but elsewhere on this album, Who's own stories evidence an effort for transparency: She's been through love and heartbreak, but more specifically, she's coped with those situations. She's craved the touch of an ex, partied through some pain, and watched friends and fans share her experiences.

And all of Who's stories play out on a polished pop platform. As a Millennial who grew up with a pop radio dominated by the age of teen dreams, she had plenty of exemplary role models when she aimed to break free of a stigmatized alternative to the shiny pop acts of the Top 40. The results shine with the lessons she learned, perhaps most brightly on "Mama Say," a tribute to the incomparable Britney Spears that drops lyrical hints of Spears' biggest tracks. The song even came packaged with a choreographed music video that shows Who operating on a level that should make Spears proud.

To strengthen an argument for her pop superstar transformation, Who also taps into the power of contemporary trends. "Pretend You're Missing Me," for example, positions itself as a first cousin to The Chainsmokers' biggest tracks, and Taylor Swift's "Style" paved the way for the creation of "You Can Cry Tomorrow," an '80s-tinted dance track with sultry undertones. However, both tracks, in addition to minimalist dance track "Human Touch" and the party-hardy "Some Kinda Wonderful," are infectious nonetheless, holding sturdy enough against comparisons to the tracks with which they vie to compete.

Some may see The Valley as a sign of selling out, but it's more believable to think of this as Betty Who's move towards a career that is more authentic to her own vision – after all, her back catalog point to the fact that she always has been a Top 40 songwriter at her core. Sure, this is no more than a fun, feelgood pop record. But the album's title implies a getaway of sorts – as its accompanying headlining tour clarifies, a party in the valley that most escapists need in times like these – and it markets itself without any implication of more sophisticated intentions. In short, with The Valley, Betty Who has embraced pop music for the light entertainment that it is, and for that, she can't be faulted.

The Valley is available now under RCA Records.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

So Good | Zara Larsson

Modesty really isn't Zara Larsson's thing. When it came time to announce the title of her international debut album, So Good, she told the United Kingdom's Official Charts that choosing such a brash title was easy, because "the album is so good." And her credentials merit a reason to boast: She hails from Sweden, a country that has produced pop royalty over the past few decades, where she found success as a child, winning the Swedish reincarnation of Got Talent at age ten, and surged in popularity with a regional debut album that was packed with signs of promise.

Soon afterwards, Larsson moved to break free from Scandinavia, haphazardly dispensing international singles like a faulty vending machine until one took here in the United States a year after its release. "Never Forget You," a nondescript party-in-a-box released under a dual byline with MNEK, gave the singer recognition but not an identity, which could explain why her follow-up singles have been thrown at a wall that is the Billboard Hot 100 and have bounced right back at her.

Nevertheless, Larsson is nothing if not persist on this album. An overabundance of commanding melodies is crammed into the album's singles, each of them painted with production that highlights the vocal ability that proved victorious on that televised competition show nine years ago. Now two years past its initial release, "Lush Life" has remained fresh with a deep, infectious groove that drives like none other on this album, and follow-up singles "I Would Like" and "Ain't My Fault" capitalize on the popularity of tropical house and shiny urban tones.

Despite its handful of midtempo snores in its latter half, So Good is nothing if not catchy and current. But by delivering music that is blatantly topical, Larsson refuses to solve the vital error in her career formula: She has yet to deliver us a personality worthy of our undivided attention for any longer than the run time of her most upbeat tracks. Like the ample Rihanna comparisons and dash of sex appeal, those bouncing beats and sweet melodies will carry her only so far – but luckily, at 19 years old, Larsson has time to prove just how good she really can be.

So Good is available now under Epic Records.