Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Skin&Earth | Lights

It's an ambitious move to create a concept record that lives in a fictional universe but is meant for mainstream consumption on this planet, especially when creative complexities overpower the record on its face. Dramatic story lines, overwrought characters, and songwriting contexts are revealed through social media posts and music videos at most, oftentimes leaving the concepts behind concept albums far too vague to digest before they're abandoned partway through a promotional cycle. Required of successful concept album creators are the willingness to immerse themselves into their fictional world completely and the determination to see the project through.

This being said, it's understandable why it was quite a shock to the system when singer-songwriter Lights, a charmingly low-maintenance synthpop artist who has inched herself closer to mainstream pop over the past decade, unveiled her fourth studio album through an intensive illustrated Instagram scavenger hunt earlier this year. Written from the perspective of a mirroring protagonist, Skin&Earth is an escapist pop project that is a derivative of an accompanying self-written, self-illustrated comic book series of the same name. In short, the six-part series follows a young girl in search of happiness in a wasteland nation.

And the record opens with a skydive into the thick of it, quite literally. Opening track "Skydiving" pulsates under Lights' tumbling vocal runs: "You said to me, 'Get a little unruly. No guts, no glory.' You got me skydiving," she sings as she plummets head-first into her make-believe dystopia. Although most of the record's tracks can exist independent of the comics' storyboard and pull towards mainstream appeal, the album as a whole does act as a product of the series' adventurous story arc. And to much surprise, the approach works because the record shares the comics' sense of adventure and optimism – and luckily, optimism isn't out of character for Lights.

The pick-me-up anthem, a staple of her craft, isn't entirely abandoned amid her comic books' underdog story. Though carrying a tempo change that makes for an awkward disconnect between its verses and its triumphant choruses, "Giants" best reconciles what she's known for and what she wants Skin&Earth to be. But in separating herself from her character, even if slightly, she is able to produce tracks that she may not have before. Never before one for a straightforward love track, she makes just that with "Kicks," a bright track that adheres to current electronic dance music. She also lets the clicking high-hats and darker synths roll on the album's ode to making history, "We Were Here."

Oh, and speaking of being en vogue, Lights now sits at the cool kids' table, banking behind-the-scenes collaborations to bend her sound towards a few different variants of glistening, radio-pleasing pop without becoming gimmicky or redundant. After having scored writing and production credits on Katy Perry's latest album, Purity Ring's Corin Roddick claims responsibility for the dancing tropical drums and groovy synths on Lights' trendiest track to date, "Until the Light." Meanwhile, Josh Dun steps away from Twenty One Pilots to drum on "Savage," a surprisingly bitter track with alternative rock undertones, and Big Data produces the jolting "Moonshine."

Packed with current production and melodic songwriting but embedded in the story board of a comic book series, Skin&Earth was wedged in a strange position from the beginning. Lights' goals seem to head in opposite directions: She aims not only to unleash her most accessible record to her biggest audience reach, but also to burrow into an existing niche audience that will purchase and adore both the comics and the record. And she happily dances the fine line between those goals throughout the album, creating 14 enjoyable tracks that can take dual meanings and provide equal entertainment to committed fans and casual listeners alike.

Skin&Earth is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Future Friends | Superfruit

The most prominent group to come from the rise of contemporary a cappella at the beginning of this decade, five-piece vocal outfit Pentatonix boasts a relatively routine success story: Three friends from high school stopped at nothing to chase their dream to become performers, picking up a few other group members along the way and singing their way to winner's circle of a singing competition show. But since the beginning it was clear that there were two members who were a bit more charismatic than the others: Scott Hoying, the original curator of the Grammy-winning group after experience in a collegiate a cappella group, and Mitch Grassi, who is most often granted the center stage to showcase a vocal range that spans over five octaves.

Together, the two funneled their excess time into Superfruit, a joint YouTube account on which they performed covers and posted typical fodder like vlogs and challenges. First hinting at a transformation of the YouTube collaborative into a major-label music duo with a credited feature under the moniker on Betty Who's sophomore record earlier this year, Hoying and Grassi dropped the first half of what would become their debut album in June. Three months later, the full-length arrives as the 16-track Future Friends, a technicolor pop introduction to a brand-new Hoying and Grassi.

Future Friends breaks the limitations of contemporary a cappella that has made Pentatonix's original material so stagnant – because, let's be honest, a backdrop of vocal percussion can go only so far. Adorned in a variety of everything that makes pop both chintzy and lovable, the album boasts banging beats and LGBT-oriented lyrics. "I'm so over James Dean. I'm more of a three-names queen," they sing on "Heartthrob," dropping some gay slang along the way. "Worth It (Perfect)," meanwhile, spouts a grinding bass line and carries a forward-thinking, gender-bending music video.

With an undeniable chemistry as friends, collaborators, and roommates, Hoying and Grassi often perform as a simultaneous duo: Grassi on the melody, Hoying taking to the harmony or to the melody an octave below. But under Grassi's often-androgynous tenor wails, Hoying too often allows himself to become Grassi's glorified hype man; his lower notes get drowned in the saccharin-coated electronic pop backdrop. Though not a damning occurrence, because Hoying's voice does add weight to Grassi's thing warbles, Hoying's muted presence does run the perception of weighted importance on the two members who otherwise have a great thing going.

A flurry of pop influences shaped the duo's final product. As members of the viral gay community that finds joy in the most banging bops from power pop divas, Hoying and Grassi craft their music either with dance nostalgia in mind or to remain in line with contemporary trends. They sift through a myriad of pop textures in the first half of the record, from mid-2000s pop-rock on "Vacation" to the sleek, rhythmic groove of "Imaginary Parties," but settle on minimalist electronic dance influences through the second half. "Hurry Up!" carries itself with an expected urgency, clanking its way into a wobbling chorus akin to a lite version of Cashmere Cat, while "How You Feeling?" is the outright party track that embodies Superfruit's underlying goal through the album: to have fun.

After all, Superfruit as a music group is the same as Superfruit as a YouTube channel: A bit frivolous and conscious of its status as light entertainment, but undeniably fun. It's easy to understand why some may not deem the duo as a viable force in the pop music world, but after having already proven themselves worthy of attention in Pentatonix, Hoying and Grassi don't seem to concern themselves too deeply in perceptions of their work. Music tailored for a certain group of consumers can work when done well, as Superfruit proves here with novelty, upbeat, rainbow-coated pop. Within their niche LGBT+ and YouTube-savvy subcultures, they're already superstars in their own right.

Future Friends is available now under RCA Records.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Lovers | Anna of the North

Anna Lotterud, one-half of the pop music duo Anna of the North and its only visible member, carries a voice with the density of cotton candy. It glides over minimalist electronic soundscapes fueled on tinny drums and cool, fuzzy atmospheres, an affinity for which originates from her upbringing in a household that cultivated a passion for '80s pop music. But unlike most acts touted as '80s-inspired, who often sort themselves as dance-pop or power rock, Anna of the North often dips the decade's warm aesthetic in a pool of hyper-real, synthesized backdrops while they cover heartbreak in its many forms on debut album Lovers.

Despite the implied tone of the album's title or its opening track, the driving, neon-lit "Moving On," most of the album copes with distress, both in singularity and in a relationship. As expected, Lotterud deals with personal heartbreak ("I'm in the dark," she cries on the title track) and loneliness ("I'm tired of being in love, always in the background," she sings on "Always"). And although she still hasn't recovered herself, she also lends support to others. The chanting, airy chorus on "Money," for example, warns another of a common gold digger: "Open your eyes, my love. She's not the one for you, just wants one thing from you: your money." 

The complexities of being in love and the dynamic of a relationship are often conveyed in states of euphoria or disaster; Not often are such strong feelings presented in a soft, collected manner as they are on Lovers. On most occasions, the album rides on chilly vibes rather than outbursts or climaxes, just as the duo has done since their earliest tracks. "Baby," the only of their first tracks to make it to this album, doesn't even carry a defined chorus, and closing track "All I Want" gets its kicks from twinkling synthesizer plucks and Lotterud's breezy, double-tracked vocals.

But there are times when Lotterud and producer Brady Daniell-Smith spike the formula, most notably when listeners approach prepackaged party track "Fire" and "Someone." On "Someone," they are able to tie together the gap between Madonna and Journey that most cannot. Easily the duo's most encompassing use of an expansive soundscape since "The Dreamer," it commences with clean drum-machine hits and swells into the overwrought ways of '80s power ballads: blaring choruses, prominent guitar lines, multilayered vocals – oh, and a key change, which concretes the duo's successful effort to replicate the authenticity of an '80s radio behemoth.

It may be easy to write off Anna of the North as only an aesthetics act, capitalizing on viral appeal for sharp cinematography and living in a world colored in pastel pink and baby blue. While that may have been a more accurate description in the days of "Sway," the disjointed breakthrough track recorded on GarageBand, today's Anna of the North has a clearer trajectory. They've found their place along the musical spectrum, nixing their initial nods to hip-hop for feathery synthpop. Now to be considered the formal introduction to the duo, Lovers is a focused ten-track outfit with the sounds and substance to captivate.

Lovers is available now under Different Recordings.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell | PVRIS

Having built a name as a metal band before splicing electronics into their debut studio album, rock band PVRIS shares the niche allure of a cover band that transposes popular contemporary hits into edgy rock pieces – spare the fact that PVRIS's tracks are, well, enjoyable. On White Noise, lead singer Lynn Gunn and bandmates Alex Babinski and Brian MacDonald steamrolled sharp hooks with electronic rock and a voice capable of coarse screams and smooth warbles. Given the success of that guise, they created a sophomore album that proves mainstream rock and pop-punk, although more pop than punk, are still alive and well.

To understand the band's sophomore album, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, perhaps it is best to reference its title in its original context. Pulled from the final lines of an Emily Dickinson poem, it reads in full, "Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell." The phrase implies conflicting feelings of hope and doom, but lead singer Lynn Gunn errs on the side of hopelessness: "You took my heaven away," she belts on the album's opening track, a driving rock-leaning anthem engulfed in stern wails and heavy drums.

Splattering misery across the record's ten tracks, Gunn has been caught in a toxic whirlwind since the band's last record. The cause of her despair can be thrown up to a manipulative relationship and industry growing pains, but she ensures its severity is scaled to the utmost extreme: On "What's Wrong," she laments, "I don't need a metaphor for you to know I'm miserable." And from there, she burrows into herself, translating her tattered psyche through ear-catching melodies and soundscapes that shatter the barriers of pop sensibility and rock personality.

At times, in fact, it is hard to distinguish whether PVRIS is a pop-oriented rock band – as they present themselves on the jagged "No Mercy," which detonates in a screamed chorus – or a rock-influenced pop band – as we hear them on the dancing "Anyone Else" and forlorn "Separate," during which Gunn employs a slurred, Sia-like delivery. Though it bends genres further into a tailor-made mold for the band, the songwriting here is tighter and stronger than that on the debut: the melodies are more potent and pack a stronger punch to the senses, and the vision and storytelling offer a clearer vision into Gunn's world.

With the concept of coping as a reference point, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell offers a resolution that Dickinson was unable to provide when writing the phrase in regard to death. The album's closing track, "Nola 1," accepts ignorance as to where it all went wrong but realizes Gunn's ultimate purpose: "Don't know where I went wrong, but I keep singing." In a way, it is this phrase that ties Gunn and Dickinson's perspectives together: parting, regardless of context, can be painfully unfathomable, but when the storm clouds pass, it becomes clear that the world continues to turn. This record, of course, is just an explosive snapshot of Gunn as she weathers the storm.

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell is available now under Rise Records.