Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lust for Life | Lana Del Rey

If there were ever a pop star to release an album titled Lust for Life, American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey would seem to be the least likely candidate. Her earlier major label work, housed in the gloomy debut record Born to Die and full-length follow-up Ultraviolence, depicted life's most unspeakable and undesirable topics through song and video: suicide, assassination, prostitution, addiction, abuse, gang activitydrug manufacturing. She was, as a Rolling Stone reviewer once said, one sad tomato – but a popular one, she became.

The golden standard for a new classic archetype, Del Rey boomed as a bad girl. But as her brand grew, her lack of comfort was magnified. In the eye of her debut's storm, she performed a good deal of her live gigs on her knees in jeans and a crew neck sweatshirt, keeping her eyes locked on the ground in front of her. Going as far as once saying that she wished she were already dead to avoid having to continue in the limelight, Del Rey raised points for concern in her first few years as a mainstream musician.

Yet she has managed to grow into herself and her fame, coping with its reality with an elusive, if not nonexistent, public image and intermittent social media presence. The "gangster Nancy Sinatra" of 2012 was replaced with a nostalgia-saturated, authentic singer-songwriter quite quickly, making Lana Del Rey a mere name change for Elizabeth Grant instead of the separate persona she was originally groomed to be. She overcame critics' initial distaste and has since gotten them to eat from the palm of her hand, owning her on-stage presence and crafting a template for a generation of alternative pop artists to follow.

She built a career on being an all-American old soul then settled on becoming a comfortably familiar parody of herself to sustain her position. On her second and third albums, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon, she doubled down in melancholy and flowery language. And without the context of the full tracks they represent, the 16 song titles on Lust for Life seem to follow that trajectory – stitching them together, one may take an educated guess that this album is another look into toxic relationships and unshakable addiction, part autobiographic and part fantasy-based.

Though Del Rey has been too tangled in the thorns of unhealthy relationships with men (and with herself) for three albums to look outwards, something has shattered the importance of her small, turbulent world: the current federal administration. Life in Trump's America inversely affected her craft, now void of fantasized disaster and saturated, idealistic visions of 20th century Americana. No longer touting the American flag as a prop of pride and freedom, she extends "God Bless America" with a crucial em dash that reflects a political charge: "– And All the Beautiful Women in It."

"Life rocked me like Motley, grabbed me by the ribbons in my hair," she sings on "Heroin." On the six-minute track dressed in opiate metaphors, she realizes past ignorance to the real world and advocates for self-care and inadvertent protest through finding bliss in the darkest moment in modern America. After pondering whether we are faced with the end of America on another cut, she soothes herself with the thought of feigned ignorance: "When the world was at war before, we just kept dancing." And throughout Lust for Life, she provides the distraction that many Americans crave.

Contrary to her introductory stance that we were all born to land ourselves six feet under in the end, she paints daily life and love in a positive light for the first time. On lead single "Love," for example, she realizes her influence in glamorizing sadness and empowers fans with a timeless projection of love as a boundary-defying, all-healing element in life – a far stretch from her past philosophy that "sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough." While unexpected features from A$AP Rocky (on two tracks) and Playboi Carti make for the album's most heavily produced, least articulate moments, "Summer Bummer" in particular highlights Del Rey's newfound sunny, carefree nature.

Her cheery disposition isn't consistent – she and Stevie Nicks flow through the self-explanatory but gorgeous "Beautiful People Beautiful Problems," and "13 Beaches" revisits Honeymoon's wish for solitude as a celebrity – and there are times when her efforts to change her ways falter – "White Mustang" is Lana Del Rey at her most Lana Del Rey on this record, for better or for worse. But when happiness prevails, it's juxtaposed with Rick Nowels' production, which stabilizes Del Rey's sound in the same cool world as its predecessor. Lust for Life chisels away any excess lusciousness from its sparse organic base and spikes it with trap beats and electronic clips as needed. The soundscapes are designed to highlight her signature breathy highs and smoky lows – the same vocal techniques that many record executives told her ditch but attracted millions of hipster-chic listeners.

With a title that falls in line with her reputation as the staple anachronistic figurehead in viral pop music, "Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind" makes a seemingly adventurous reach to connect her generation's premier festival to the psychedelic storm that forever changed counterculture's prominence in sociopolitical movements. But in line with the rest of the record, it represents Del Rey's overarching goal to promote awareness of the world's real problems through music – and to encourage her followers to find time to flee into happiness within personal lives rather than vicarious sadness through her own overwrought stories of inevitable doom and woe.

The success of her image reversal relies on the integrity of Del Rey's authenticity. Despite the smile plastered on her face, Lana Del Rey still feels like Lana Del Rey – a happier, more optimistic one who has just entered a new chapter of her life. In doing so, she adopts a socially responsible view of her and her music's place in the grander scheme of the world, realizing she can shape pop culture present, not just wander through the memories of pop culture past. While she's still an escapist with a limited vocabulary of poetic language, she now wears the title to ignore a real-life disaster, not to dream up an imaginary one to transcend ordinary life. And it's this unspoken appreciation for everyday life that shows sincerity in her lust for it.

Lust for Life is available now under Interscope Records.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Like a Woman | Kacy Hill

A few intense trigger words are thrown into each of the few online conversations about American singer-songwriter Kacy Hill: Kanye West, dancer, American Apparel, model, more Kanye West. (Putting those pieces together, she was an American Apparel model, and later, a back-up dancer for Kanye West, who signed her to his GOOD Music record label.) There's a lot of gleaming, seemingly exciting fluff in her backstory, but when it comes down to it, Hill puts on the front of a relatively relaxed person.

Thanks to that background with American Apparel, she was asked if she would like to audition for a dancing position in West's Yeezus Tour. A self-proclaimed terrible dancer who had been staying in the living room of a woman she found on Craigslist, she responded to the offer with something akin to what a teenager would tell her friend who asked to take a midnight trip to Taco Bell: "Meh, whatever, I don't know what else I'm doing."

Peel back a few more layers, though, and she's a bit more pensive than she leads us to believe. Her debut album, Like a Woman, revels in the fact that it was a few years in the making. Meticulous and poetic, it doesn't seem like the album to open with a DJ Mustard production – although Hill made sure his signature "Mustard on that beat, hoe" tag is absent, rightfully refusing that to be the introduction to an album about being a woman – or one to boast Kanye West as an executive producer.

Composed of new tracks and some reworked takes of older tracks, Like a Woman was crafted to be scantily clad, sonically and metaphorically. Bonafide pop creeps through the crevices, particularly on the stomp-along "Arm's Length," but was nipped in the bud elsewhere, like on the unrecognizable reincarnate of "Lion." With a dark sonic palette that leaves wide gaps between its clean-cut beats for sensuality to swirl and linger, the record is a branch on the tree that FKA twigs planted. Hill, however, commands attention as a more versatile vocalist.

Left to be the centerfold of each track, Hill has the stamina to impress, whether quivering within the instrumental voids or soaring right over them. Her childhood background in classical music, playing a few instruments and singing in a choir, makes itself apparent in her technique and delivery. A clear, textured soprano, she often opens rich notes in her mid-range like a parachute deploying amid a free-fall; her voice is a butterfly with iron wings as it flutters through the chorus of "Am I" and becomes the merciless leader of a mechanical choir on "First Time."

Like A Woman carries a vague lyrical storyboard, acting more as a sketchbook than a painting of deep-rooted feelings. Without blatant storytelling or mention to any of her associated keywords, the record was built with mere snapshots of Hill's psyche. These aren't tracks meant to empower or represent; rather, they document personal experiences without looking outwards. Nevertheless, the alluring record affirms that there's much more to the complex experience of womanhood than Kacy Hill implies when not behind the microphone.

Like A Woman is available now under GOOD Music and Def Jam Records.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Something to Tell You | Haim

When an act stumbles upon a gap in the spectrum of popular music and sticks the landing in it, the world goes wild. For Haim, a trio of sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana, a female-powered approach to sunny soft rock on their 2013 debut, Days Are Gone, was the ticket to viral popularity and near-the-top festival billing. Comparisons to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles in every introductory article to the band made the Haim women favorites among the elitist indie rock community, though the major-label outfit has Calvin Harris and A$AP Ferg collaborations and an opening gig for a Taylor Swift tour under its belt.

Regardless, when acts like Haim do something so well the first time, there's a fork in the road of expectations for a follow-up. They are to double down in what they know best or to exhibit versatility in their capabilities, two double-edged options upon which artists must walk fine lines. Switching gears often leads to some fans' alienation but can be well-received, yet staying in the same lane can give listeners an impression that there's a push to replicate the priceless magic of a debut album and can render external fears of pigeonholing, a concept that music journalists and fans utter more often than artists themselves.

Most of us are, of course, advocates for chameleonic artists – ones like Lady Gaga and Paramore, who refuse to stay in one lane of the musical superhighway. Sonic progression, even drastic in nature, is no sin. What is lacking, however, is an appreciation for those artists who are confident in their niche, carrying the same fundamentals from one album to the next and tweaking as needed to keep the spark alive. Perhaps that is what makes Haim's sophomore record so endearing; the sisters call back writer-producer Ariel Rechtshaid and lay into their nostalgic pop-rock groove, but they ensure enough evolution to return like a fresh breeze.

Something to Tell You is low maintenance, rhythm-heavy, and effortlessly rad, juxtaposing its lyrics, which are tied up in a few love affairs, by riding a warm Southern California vibe. It doesn't search for the enveloping climaxes that were scattered throughout its predecessor, but instead, it stumbles upon them by surprise. Most originating from an authentic kit rather than a machine, drums keep the otherwise disjointed spurs of energy in form. In the first 80 seconds of "Right Now," for example, Danielle's lyrics seems nearly off-beat over a muted snare, but by the final minute, the dissonance within the soundscape resolves itself in a valley of drums – an explosive climax written for the band's traditional "drum-off" at the close of each live set.

At its core, this record shares genetics with the last: light, acoustic-based rock akin to Fleetwood Mac in its heyday, especially resonating on "Nothing's Wrong," a track that counters its calls to be honest with sparkling production, and the slinky, mid-tempo "You Never Knew." While Danielle still takes the lead vocals, Este and Alana's backing notes are more prominent this time around. "Something to Tell You" finds the two backing members spouting the album's namesake behind Danielle with gusto, and they're just a prevalent on "Little of Your Love," a Haim track that proudly time warps the women back even a few more decades back.

Originally written as a contender for the soundtrack to Amy Schumer's Trainwreck and later previewed during Haim's 2016 North American tour, "Little of Your Love" shines with the fundamentals of '50s doo-wop in its rhythm and instrumentation. Oppositely, lead single "Want You Back," with its melodically focused chorus and subtle use of vocal manipulation, and "Walking Away," a cut that bounces with the rare drum machine, bleed modern pop influences. And through it all, Haim usher it all back into a singular vision: a warm, sepia-toned world from behind their pairs of retro drugstore sunglasses.

As fashionable as they are talented, the Haim women accent those sunglasses with high-waisted jeans and H&M-approved tops. They grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where most of Something to Tell You was recorded on tape in a historic studio that closed in the 1980s and reopened last year as a functional relic. Their music stirs memories of a time that came before both them and most of their listeners. In short, they're cool, but don't let all of the things that make them cool lead you to believe that they have to try to be. They just are. And Something to Tell You is merely a reflection of that.

Something to Tell You is available now under Columbia Records.