Monday, February 5, 2018

Someone Out There | Rae Morris

Although Rae Morris' potential to become a power pop artist has been apparent since her career's beginning – even if she always has skewed a bit left field – her sophomore effort is a surprisingly fluorescent record for an artist whose last album was an overcast approach to pop with a singer-songwriter state of mind. Today's Rae Morris rides the waves of the most recent high-gloss pop revival – an era of newfound appreciation for bouncy beats and sugar-coated melodies. She, however, dials back pop music's typical titillating bombast, bending instead toward a Kate Bush quirkiness as she undertakes modern pop aerobics.

In that regard, Morris may also be the first artist to be an unabashed Björk fan Рand sound like one. Her songwriting is catchy in an unorthodox way, and to boot, her voice is a distant echo of the strange Icelandic artist. It becomes most obvious when Morris' voice is stretched at the piercing midrange on Someone Out There, like on unfurling lead single "Reborn" and slower cut "Physical Form." And often enough, she's given clearance to smudge the pop music blueprints more than most label-label acts Рexcept for maybe the very safe, two-stepping title track. It's admittedly charming in its own way, sounding as if it's meant to soundtrack a lonely wintertime scene in a mid-aughts drama movie.

"Do It" was lauded as the best stab at a tropical pop banger in a good without being a banger proper, but more striking dance tracks do exist on Someone Out There. On "Rose Garden," Morris' vocal lines stack on top of cascading string lines and build to the dissonance of a train whistle, triggering a pulsating pop beat to come alive. "Lower the Tone" politely – perhaps too politely – suggests mutually desired sexual advances, but it also grows into a hypnotic dance track as more elements skitter below Morris' digitized vocal line. And in a more traditionally catchy fashion, "Atletico" and "Dip My Toe" dance with sharp drum machines and lively melodies.

Someone Out There proves current, fun, dance-conscious pop music doesn't have to be topical or trivial. Written and recorded just before a romantic relationship formalized between Morris and primary collaborative songwriter and producer Fryars, the album bleeds the excitement that comes with a blossoming relationship. Yet when Morris is giddy, she's still composed ("Atletico," "Dip My Toe," "Do It"). When she slows the tempo, she remains hopeful ("Dancing with Character," "Reborn," "Someone Out There"). And regardless of her tone on this record, she's absolutely mesmerizing.

Someone Out There is available now under Atlantic Records.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Synthesis | Evanescence

A hiatus can be so unkind to a musical act. A personnel change can be, too. Rock bank Evanescence has had a lot of each.

Just six months after having won the battle for a green light on Fallen, their major label debut album, the band said goodbye to songwriter and founding member Ben Moody. Three years after Fallen's release, a second member had left, another had suffered a stroke, and the band was still without a sophomore record – which would arrive in the fall of 2006 in the form of The Open Door, a stylistically adventurous (and impressive) endeavor with a smaller commercial return on investment. It was another half-decade later before Amy Lee, the band's powerhouse figurehead, bandaged her passion project back together for a self-titled record in 2011. Released amid more band member and producer shake-ups and at the height of the career-long tension with Wind-up Records, the album was a splash compared to the tidal wave that was Fallen.

In the band's lengthy lag times, Evanescence fell into near-meme state. Breakthrough hit "Bring Me to Life" has been dragged through the mud for its rock-rap aesthetic and wonderfully 2000s music video – and the mockery peaked with a popular cover by a guy who can contort his voice to sound like Goofy. "Going Under" was the soundtrack to the iconic goth parody that stars Raven, the acid bath princess of the darkness, and her friends, Tara and Azer. And "My Immortal" shares a name with an equally iconic, infamously terrible, 44-chapter Harry Potter fanfiction about a girl named Ebony Dark'ness Dementia Raven Way – no relation to Gerard Way, but she does conveniently look like Amy Lee. Their reputation in meme culture began to outpace their legacy as a Grammy-winning band that reintroduced the female voice to rock music.

For an act that had been silent for six years and hadn't produced a true hit in over a decade, Evanescence returned in 2017 in the best way they could have: They planted themselves as a nostalgia act, releasing an unorthodox greatest hits collection of sorts. Synthesis – kind of their fourth studio album, kind of their first compilation album – is a hodge-podge of new tracks and reworked songs from their back catalog, all molded into an electro-orchestral experience. (So basically what we all should ask of Ashlee Simpson's return to music, should that ever happen. Or a Lindsay Lohan comeback album, featuring 12 different orchestral versions of "Rumors." Man, a lot could be done with the bridge on that one... But I digress.)

However, selections were plucked from the first three records based on how compatible they were with a Synthesis retrofit, not on their commercial success. Though fans will find plenty of goodies on the album, casual listeners who checked out after 2004 will be unhappy to recognize only "Bring Me to Life" and "My Immortal." One goes without its "wake me up" hype-man and feels a bit empty without him, even if he wasn't meant to be there in the first place; the other isn't all that different, given its basis was already a somber piano ballad. Other ballads, including power ballads "My Heart is Broken" and "Lost in Paradise" from Evanescence, are also stripped of their guitars and pianos for cascading strings to equally unchanged, albeit admirable, results.

Tracks from the band's eponymous album, their least striking and least recognized record, dominate this one: Five songs from it alone find second lives here, some of them outshining their hard rock origins. "End of the Dream" may have the most drastic overhaul on the record, freeing the melody that the original rendition buried beneath heavy, relentless guitars. The three tracks to appear from The Open Door do not outperform, but are free to unhinge just like, their rock counterparts –especially the Mozart-sampling "Lacrymosa," which tilts and creaks with jarring strings, and "Your Star," the last minute of which spirals into a madhouse.

Of the two new tracks, "Hi-Lo" is the brighter behemoth – although it does stand next to "My Heart is Broken" in the album's track listing and bleed some similarity in composition and tone. Regardless, Lee's vocal performance shatters through the track before Lindsey Stirling appears for a killer string feature in the bridge. "Imperfection," meanwhile, is perhaps the most reliant on the sputtering electronics that are otherwise subtle on the record. It's a bit more urgent than how Evanescence normally carries themselves, and it's certainly less hardcore than they're used to touting.

Synthesis is anything but lazy. Each detail of the orchestral arrangements seem to have been fussed over, and vocals for all of the reimagined songs have been rerecorded to emphasize Lee's refined vocal technique: a bit more dynamic and supported, but nothing strikingly different or any less dramatic than before. It's the type of project many fans dream to get from their favorite artists – and much like "part two" continuation albums, it's one that artists often promise but rarely deliver. Even if it doesn't offer transformations that are all that different, the record is an interesting capitalization on Lee's classical influences and desired sonic direction nonetheless.

Synthesis is available now through BMG Rights Management.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Don't Smile at Me | Billie Eilish

As if you couldn't deduce it from the irritated glare she shoots you from the cover of her debut extended play, Billie Eilish makes it pretty clear that she doesn't want you to smile at her. And she doesn't want to smile at you.

From a stranger's perspective today, it may be hard to believe that her earliest single, "Ocean Eyes," is a feathery, non-confrontational synthpop track that was recorded in her brother's bedroom for her lyrical dance group. Her fluid vocals run like a stream over lightweight production, and when the track found its way onto every trending playlist on the web, Eilish was deemed the world's next best do-it-yourself hit-maker. And although Don't Smile at Me makes a finale out of "Ocean Eyes," its remaining tracks are products of an unrecognizable Billie Eilish.

Despite a much more professional guise, Don't Smile at Me is an in-house product in its entirety. Her brother, songwriter and former Glee actor Finneas O'Connell, co-wrote the extended play and produced it himself, throwing his sister's pastel voice over a distinct mixture of acoustics and electronics. At her most intimidating, she can unhinge over low-riding bass that can shake the dead from their slumber ("Copycat," "Bellyache") or grab a ukulele and leave a twinkling musical voicemail to confront a boyfriend ("Party Favor"). In that last one, she's cool and collected as she twists the knife in her send-off: "And I hate to do this to you on your birthday... Happy birthday, by the way."

Eilish is edgy in the most marketable way – and she is perhaps the most believably edgy of her contemporaries. There really isn't a fictional character or grand conceptual schtick to her tunes. It's just her: a teenager who has seen some heartbreak, hates having her style copped, and uses her angst to write some fine viral pop tunes. Even when she does sing a fictional narrative, as she does on "Bellyache," it's with a tone that falls in line with the rest of her extended play: "I'm biting my nails. I'm too young to go to jail... It's kind of funny," she sings from the perspective of a murderer who regrets having slaughtered her friends and lover just moments prior to the song.

For someone so young, Eilish's swagger is unbelievably convincing. She released Don't Smile at Me at age 15, meaning she threatened to ignite a boyfriend's car and watch it burn on the swelling choruses of "Watch" before she could even drive herself. Her voice is light but is complemented, not hindered, by her brother's production choices, and to boot, their refreshingly casual songwriting is trendy without the overwrought poems many young artists tend to pen in their infancy. After all, Billie Eilish is not here to make you (or herself, for that matter) smile; she's here to make music that sounds badass – and that's exactly what she's done here.

Don't Smile at Me is available now under Interscope Records.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Camila | Camila Cabello

Begging for the spotlight undivided, former Fifth Harmony descant vocalist Camila Cabello wanted a hit on her own terms. But instead of running right into one a few months after leaving the girl group, she backed into another accidentally.

Last May, she released what used to be a foolproof move for any artist in search of a quick hit: ye ole Sia-penned power pop anthem. "Crying in the Club" and subsequent buzz track "I Have Questions" painted her debut album, then announced as The Hurting. The Healing. The Loving., as a promising little pop juggernaut. But as the track smacked itself only in the middle of the Billboard Hot 100 and slid down from there, Cabello learned that a Sia signature cannot guarantee the hit she craved in the current popular landscape, which rap and hip-hop currently dominate.

Then came “Havana,” the hit that wasn’t supposed to be. A humid slice of the tropics that is unfortunately outfitted with an ill-fitting Young Thug verse, the infectious little tune was released as one-half of a double-sided promo single... until she realized that it fits the bill of a 2017 hit. In an obsession with numbers and commercial success, Cabello all but abandoned anything to have been released B.H. (before "Havana") and renamed her debut album to the simpler, less inflammatory Camila. And in doing so, she also reconfigured its contents to hold the same qualities.

With a total run time that clocks in at just over half an hour, Camila is a short, inoffensive cross-sectional of Ed Sheeran’s acoustic nonevents, ever-popular trap beats, and her own humid taste of the tropics. "Havana" is blessed with younger siblings "She Loves Control," what sounds like a spiced-up outtake from Selena Gomez, and “Inside Out,” an island-lite number. Elsewhere, the album becomes more reliant on ballads than it should be: stripped acoustic instrumentation and adequate (at best) vocal stamina make for low-voltage tracks like “Consequences” and “Real Friends.” So really, it’s short-sighted commercial pop music adorned in its finest 2018 garb.

Seeing that it’s incapable of producing bangers that ignite ("Into It" really does try, though) or ballads that drive a knife to the heart (power ballad "Never Be the Same" tries just as hard), the topical mid-tempo production falls stagnant quickly and leaves Cabello’s voice to float to the forefront. Once known as the shrill shriek that pushed its way to the front of the mix in every Fifth Harmony track, her voice is revealed to be, well, still a shrill shriek that can also dip and flutter on occasion. Sure, she’s capable of leaning (just barely) into some moodier notes and maintains primary residence in her less polarizing midrange, but otherwise, it’s just business as usual. 

Business as usual certainly isn’t out of the ordinary for Camila Cabello, though. She made it quite obvious from Fifth Harmony's beginning that solo stardom was the end goal; her time with a girl group, the industry's most notorious ticking time-bomb of self-destruction, was merely the vehicle to get there. And she got what she wanted: a worldwide hit and a solo album that is the musical equivalent to vanilla ice cream, the lowest common denominator of all foods. Yes, everyone will stomach it just fine, but it would sure be a hell of a lot better if somebody would have added a little something more to it.

Camila is available now under Epic Records.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Ephorize | CupcakKe

The career began not with a bang, but with a moan. Actually, multiple moans.

By her own wishes, Chicago native CupcakKe is known for being nasty – even nastier than should be expected for someone who boasts dirty rap tracks titled "Vagina" and "Deepthroat." She humped, fucked, and slurped her way to viral notoriety with those two tracks (and more) by the way of digital platforms just three years ago. And what separated her from other sex-positive overnight sensations was a constant stream of full-body works – a combination of commercial mixtapes and studio albums – that kept her at the top of social media feeds.

Unlike Khia or Riskay, she wasn't damned to the status of a one-trick novelty act; In fact, soon after the release of Queen Elizabitch last year, the public perception of CupcakKe began to shift. Charli XCX picked her up for features on both of her collaborative mixtapes; she hopped on stage with Charli at Lollapalooza and got the whole crowd to moan along with her; and household magazines legitimized her place in rap music. She began to make headlines for more than her provocative ways: her skills, her donations to homeless gay youth, and her uncovered beginnings as a church poet.

So why did CupcakKe take off and stay afloat? It's a development that couldn't have been predicted when she was best known only as the young woman who moaned and barked in breast-less tops and nipple pasties, but a personality can be found behind CupcakKe's sexual antics: interviews and Twitter interactions reveal her to be a good-humored, self-aware young woman. Perhaps more important in regard to her success, though, CupcakKe has bars. Her deep, aggressive voice rips into every verse it encounters, as she proves time and time again on her third studio album, Ephorize.

Like Queen Elizabitch before it, Ephorize sounds professional in production choices. Gone are the cut-and-paste, do-it-yourself beats of her earliest tracks; here to stay are party tracks like "Duck Duck Goose" and "Crayons" that could have been passed over to Britney Spears or Pitbull. (Man, one of those artists could make a great CupcakKe collaboration, and the other, such a terrible one. We all know which one is which.) She even takes to the most popular sound of the hour: The Latin-pop "Fullest" closes the album of 15 relentless tracks that, unlike a few others in her catalog, can withstand CupcakKe's vocal attacks.

Since her first commercial mixtapes Cum Cake and S.T.D. (Shelters to Deltas), her persona-identifying filthy tracks have dwindled in numbers. And in the lead-up to this album, sex was minimized a great deal in comparison to past work; minus the mention of blue balls in second single "Cartoons," genitalia and bodily fluids were pretty well subtracted from the equation. It's a strange thought until "Spoiled Milk Titties," "Post Pic," and "Duck Duck Goose" enter the picture to remind us that it wouldn't be a CupcakKe album without a dose of ridiculousness and mentions of masturbation, downstairs hair, and a, uh, self-described "sinkhole." (And they're all mindless party bangers, mind you.)

While she may never be able to stray far from her specialty of dirty rap, CupcakKe still entertains outside of her sex-centric tracks – even if she may think otherwise. On "Self Interview," she says, "Most people already skipped this song because it ain't about sex appealing," which could be the first time CupcakKe hasn't spoken the gospel. People are listening, and they're listening in larger numbers than most would expect – just over one million people a month on Spotify alone. And if she continues to sharpen her game with each album and retain even a fraction of the absurdity, as she's done here, they'll always keep coming back for more.

Ephorize is available now.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Don't Kill My Vibe | Sigrid

First impressions are everything, especially for new artists. Just ask Sigrid.

The 21-year-old singer-songwriter's debuts single, "Don't Kill My Vibe," struck a chord with streaming audiences; It raced up the trending charts and racked up millions of plays across online platforms. Popular as it may have been, though, the low-voltage track was less than thrilling for those of us who expect our favorite bangers, well, to go somewhere. (Sure, it's badass and very much cool, but it doesn't quite reach the explosive highs that its verses and gradual build-up imply it will.)

Having given Sigrid the cold shoulder after a lukewarm introduction, I hadn't a clue what else could be found on the extended play of the same name as the polarizing single. And that's a shame, because the four-track outing otherwise reveals Sigrid's stunning potential.

Her voice is both musky and feminine. It grows charmingly hoarse as she builds in volume, like when she yells out the end of her prechoruses on "Plot Twist" and "Fake Friends" and triggers some ear-catching choruses – and man, as it turns out, she actually does have quite a knack for chorus-crafting. On this short but spectacular extended play, they range from headstrong ("Plot Twist") to tear-jerking (the acoustic "Dynamite," which reveals a smoother, operatic side to Sigrid).

While dressed to the nines in sharp pop magic, her songs are first and foremost melodically driven: a fact that the extended play's sole acoustic track proves. The affinity for strong musical cores gives her tracks an advantage over the thousands out there from artists of a similar caliber. But of course, her voice, self-assured personality, and stellar production choices only make me feel worse for having not allowed her to reintroduce herself to my ears sooner.

Don't Kill My Vibe is available now under Island Records.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017

10. Ctrl by SZA

With personal tales of conflict, sexcapades, and self-loathing, SZA doesn't seem to have it all figured out as her debut album unfolds. And as a coming of age record, Ctrl is striking in the sense that SZA never does figure life out by the end: "Only know fear. That's me, Ms. 20-Something. Ain't got nothin', runnin' from love," she sings on the album's acoustic finale. It doesn't hurt, of course, that her malleable voice navigates well through her soundscapes, which color a bit outside the lines of the typical R&B artist's template, and that the album doesn't have any shortages of solid grooves or melodies. But what really drives this record home is the young woman at the center of it all: SZA, a charismatic, honest woman who isn't afraid to splatter herself, her insecurities, her mistakes, and her secrets across a damn fine record. (Read the full review.)

9. Crawl Space by Tei Shi

Capturing the essence of the narrow, dank space Tei Shi often visited at night as a child to combat her fear of the dark, Crawl Space is an echoing pop record adorned with mysterious shrieks and extraneous spurts of energy. Insulated by a cloak of anonymity within the darkness, her ambient dreams and disruptive tendencies clash unabashedly, translating into a schizophrenic, albeit revealing and enjoyable, product of experimentation. Although her voice and demeanor were shrouded in reverberation and behind a wall of blaring synthesizers on past extended plays, they take command and become the guiding forces to hone a consistent vision on her debut record – an eccentric, honest vision from an artist who just conquered all of her fears in one zealous swish. (Read the full review.)

8. Lovers by Anna of the North

It may be easy to write off Anna of the North as purely 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 toward 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. (Read the full review.)

7. Truth is a Beautiful Thing by London Grammar

When at their best, the members of London Grammar sound as if they make music while driving westward at dusk, forever chasing the radiant glow of the sun from under the impending cloak of night. A dark desperation looms over the trio's lyrics, but muggy undertones linger from the heat of the day, melting some of lead vocalist Hannah Reid's stern vocal impact. While the trio's debut operated on the successful creation of moods and vibes, their sophomore record, Truth is a Beautiful Thing, takes a more anthemic approach. The resulting product is a captivating record with stronger melodies that better exercise the skills of the dominating vocalist who delivers them. (Read the full review.)

6. Dua Lipa by Dua Lipa

With her eponymous debut album, Dua Lipa declares herself a conscious pop artist. She delivered a standard pop album in many aspects, ignoring the pressures of cohesiveness and albumwide storytelling. And spare perhaps a faulty moment of judgement when she thought it was a good idea to give a song the trendy acronym title "IDGAF," her unrestrained creativity doesn't lead her down any disastrous avenues. But more importantly, she proves to be a very human artist, with an alluring debut album that mirrors not only her musical interests that encompass every star and moon of the pop music universe, but also her exploration as to her place within that universe. She may not have found the answer to the latter just yet, but at least she knows that there are good chances that she could stick the landing no matter which way she jumps. (Read the full review.)

5. Lust for Life by Lana Del Rey

Despite the smile she wears on the cover of the strangely optimistic Lust for Life, Lana Del Rey still feels like Lana Del Rey – a happier one who has just entered a new chapter of life. In doing so, she adopts a socially responsible view of her music's place in the grander scheme of the world, realizing she shaped pop culture present as she wandered through memories of pop culture past. While she's still an escapist with a limited vocabulary of poetic language, she now wears the title as she ignores a real-life disaster – a striking change from just a few album cycles ago, when she would dream up an imaginary tragedy to transcend ordinary life. And it's this unspoken appreciation for everyday life that shows sincerity in her lust for it. (Read the full review.)

4. Something to Tell You by Haim

Haim's sophomore record is low maintenance, rhythm-heavy, and effortlessly rad. Juxtaposing its lyrics, which are tied up in a few love affairs, it rides a warm Southern California vibe and operates without any sense of urgency. Something to Tell You doesn't search for the enveloping climaxes that were scattered throughout its predecessor, but instead, it stumbles upon them by surprise. And through it all, the Haim sisters usher it all back into a singular vision – a vision of a warm, sepia-toned world – from behind their pairs of retro drugstore sunglasses. (Read the full review.)

3. Masseduction by St. Vincent

Though her most impressive outing overall to date, Masseduction undoubtedly finds its brightest moments in firecracker cuts like "Los Ageless" and "Sugarboy," when she commands her trusty guitar and zany synthesizers to unhinge around her soprano pipes. But sparse, surprisingly transparent ballads like "Smoking Section" and "New York," during which she seems more conflicted than corrupted, are equally important to the album's backbone. Because while her inner conflict is exposed only when St. Vincent comes down from the frantic highs to reflect on intrapersonal issues rather than on how widespread chaos affects her daily life, it is what hones cultural madness into a personal album that is much more socially aware than its master portrays it to be. (Read the full review.)

2. About U by MUNA

Fusing the best of pop-rock, synthpop, and contemporary alternative R&B without skirting 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. The scope of their debut 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 delivery; In practice, though, it's a well-executed display of every emotional turn in the trajectory of an ill-fated relationship. The songs of About U follow the organic fluxes and flows of a story arc that is more than intriguing enough to pull listeners into MUNA's gaze and lock them there from beginning to end. (Read the full review.)

1. Melodrama by Lorde

Lorde's sophomore record, Melodrama, paints the warm-toned portrait of a charismatic young woman who has cracked open her own reservations and granted herself the liberty to act her age. As the animated scrapbook of someone who dipped her toes into adulthood with the luxurious excesses attached to celebrity status at her disposal, the album's narrative reveals Lorde did a bit of it all in the four years between her studio albums: The drinks, the parties, the love. In fact, the only thing the album fails to mention is the secret Instagram account dedicated to onion rings. (Read the full review.)