Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Masseduction | St. Vincent

Short of somehow begin misconstrued as a bigot, Annie Clark told Nylon magazine for her cover story in the publication's final printed edition last month, she doesn't mind being misunderstood. Of course, the 35-year-old musician, who does business as St. Vincent, has never been one for lucidity: Wrapped in erratic soundscapes and delivered in twisted, elusive poetry, the messages in her back catalog have ranged from satirical on a societal level to sentimental on a personal one. 

Masseduction, her fifth record, places St. Vincent in the midst of a sexed up, drugged up, messed up world and frames her personal woes as inescapable misfortunes that come stock with life in modern America. Damning west coast show business culture on the jagged "Los Ageless," she burrows into the problems it brings — an especially appropriate centerfold as we watch the destruction of a nation that overnighted an unqualified Hollywood elitist into the White House. But rather than lament on the obvious, she sews together her own experiences in today's frivolous world and proves she does not transcend the mess; Instead, she admits to being a victim of it herself and now fears what is to come.

Personal in nature first and foremost, Masseduction is open to alternate, grander significance secondarily. With "mass seduction" slurred into one word for its title and spandex-covered buttocks on its cover, the record delivers brutal honesty in regard to St. Vincent's lust, intensified by a neon-lit, leopard-printed culture: “Savior” is a disjointed recounting of role play in kinky leather outfits, while the title track delivers a double entendre on an unhealthy relationship and a toxic combination of sexuality and popular culture. "I can't turn off what turns me on," she sings on the chunky, beat-heavy title track, digitizing her voice to alternate "mass seduction" with "mass destruction" beneath its melody.

Sharp-tongued cuts like "Young Lover" and "Pills" spell out in somewhat ambiguous terms the ruins of her previous relationship with actress Cara Delevingne, who makes a surprising guest appearance on "Pills." "Pills to fuck. Pills to eat. Pills, pills, pills, down the kitchen sink," she chants with an uncharacteristic giddiness. The five-minute sonic representation of St. Vincent's experiences with sleeping medication, complete with jittering, jingle-like choruses and a spiraling comedown, wasn't intended to be — but sure does work as — a "finger-wagging" statement on a medicated society. Likewise, "Young Lover" tells the story of an addicted lover with leftover childhood scars, not to be an archetypal superstar’s portrait. 

When she cries, "How can anybody have you and not lose their minds, too?" on "Ageless," the suspect could fall not on a person, but on fame personified. As she towers to new heights in fame and mainstream appeal, having piqued interest as Delevingne's girlfriend and working with in-demand producer Jack Antonoff on this record, she finds herself wedged in an uncomfortable fold of fame. "And sometimes I feel like an inland ocean: too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction," her voice smolders on "Smoking Section," the album's finale. She simmers from the album's otherwise breakneck pace and looks in the mirror, reassuring herself she'll make it out alive: "It's not the end," she repeats in its final 90 seconds.

Though it is her most melodically impressive outing to date, Masseduction 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 it 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, her inner conflict is what hones cultural madness into a personal album that is much more socially aware than its master portrays it to be. 

Masseduction is available now under Loma Vista Recordings.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Double Dutchess | Fergie

Fergie could have enjoyed both the luxury of name recognition and the artistic freedoms normally granted only to brand new artists when she embarked on a solo endeavor in 2006. But settling on the philosophy that things that aren't broken shouldn't be fixed, she didn't go far from what she knew: will.i.am, The Black Eyed Peas ringleader and the executive producer of what everybody knows is Britney Spears' worst album, wasn't far from Fergie's side, producing and featuring on solo debut The Dutchess to immense commercial reception. And despite the album's wild success and what was once a widespread demand for a sophomore solo record, its long-overdue follow-up, Double Dutchess, is nothing but double trouble.

Double Dutchess feels so awkward largely thanks to its faulty timing. Between the releases of "L.A. Love (La La)" and the full-length record, I was able to earn a bachelor's degree. More importantly, though, the popular music industry has flipped what feels like 50 pages in its coursebook for success; DJ Mustard, whose production tag is sewn into "L.A. Love," fell out of style not long after the track's 2014 release. And by shoving the dated song alongside 12 unrelated, inconsistent ones produced amid a rocky promotion cycle and eventual record contract dissolution, she furthers the feeling that this haphazard pop album was forced together like a puzzle finished with pieces from six different boxes.

The Dutchess, even if ridiculous at times, maintained a grasp on a similar sonic palette: pop music built on retro-R&B production bases. Yet throughout Double Dutchess, Fergie cannot sit still – and it's hard to be taken seriously as the jack of all trades when critics barely considered her the master of one to begin with. Perhaps her least successful alter ego throughout is chintzy, second-rate reggae Fergie with "Love is Blind," but following close behind is adult contemporary Fergie, who hit the jackpot once on "Big Girls Don't Cry" but couldn't dare repeat it on acoustic-based tracks "Life Goes On" and "Save It Til Morning" on this album.

It's only when Fergie stops taking herself too serious attitude that Double Dutchess reveals its best material. "Tension" dives into deep synths and a seductive guitar line, making for the album's most blatant highlight as Fergie takes to the dance floor. Interpolating the one-off '80s hip-hop hit "It Takes Two," the Nicki Minaj-featured "You Already Know" hypnotizes listeners into bouncing along to the classic sample and eventually rattling along with Fergie-Ferg and Minaj. Hell, even "M.I.L.F. $" is at least honest in its absurdity, making the relentless rap track at least ironically enjoyable as a party track in same sense as "My Humps."

But the attitude can be stretched only so far over poor songwriting. While fierce vocal delivery is meant to electrify tracks like "Hungry" and "Like It Ain't Nuttin'," Fergie fails to recognize that the ill-fated tracks, like many on Double Dutchess, should have been killed on the studio floor to spare everyone the trouble – three years of trouble for herself and a flurry of songwriters and producers. And so it seems that in attempt to convince herself that she didn't waste three years to produce weak melodies and uninspired lyrics for nothing, Fergie didn't even try to put lipstick on the pig that is this flimsy album – she just greased it up and let it loose on the streets anyway.

Double Dutchess is available now under Dutchess Music.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Younger Now | Miley Cyrus

Since her Can't Be Tamed days, Miley Cyrus has been pigeonholed as the poster child for hyper-maturity of child stars as they enter adulthood. With a fickle little muse on the hunt for the pop stardom's edgier sides, she went from sexy to absurd and from absurd to alarming. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, her 2015 passion project released online independently from her record contract two years after Bangerz ignited her public image, was a marijuana-laced call for attention... or help... or both. For what it's worth, at the era's peak, we watched Cyrus cover the raunchy "My Neck, My Back" on stage while wearing nipple pasties and giant butterfly wings.

Now, reversing the underlying desire for maturity that determined her career's schizophrenic trajectory for over a decade, Miley Cyrus is ready to come home. Denouncing her wild, albeit undeniably fun, days spent teddy bear-humping and wrecking ball-riding, she has scrubbed up her image to become an innocent, carefree, Nashville-bred girl once again. And in doing so, she has planted her sixth studio album, Younger Now, at home base, where she began years ago with crossover radio hit "The Climb" – country music, or at least the closest she go to it as a pop artist.

As she admits on the record's title track, Cyrus has never been one to stay in place for very long. And although country-pop is many worlds away from the hip-hop-drenched Bangerz and the psychedelic trip delivered courtesy of Dead Petz, her transition somehow feels as much natural as Lady Gaga and Kesha's moves to country and rock influences in the past year. After all, she is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus and goddaughter of Dolly Parton, who makes her umpteenth guest vocalist appearance this year on the peace-seeking "Rainbowland." They sing together in a jubilant but nondescript chant, with Cyrus' pipes overtaking Parton's muted warble.

Expanding upon the ignorant, escapist bliss of "Rainbowland," the record lives largely behind rose-tinted glasses, a natural viewpoint for a woman who has just fallen back in love. The breezy SoCal soft rock "Malibu," one of radio's most outstanding songs this year, breathes a sigh of relief after a turbulent past with once-ex, now-reconciled fiancé, Liam Hemsworth: "I never would've believed you if three years ago you told me I'd be here writing this song. But here I am, next to you. The sky's so blue in Malibu." But unfortunately, the album doesn't reach that track's level of outwardly infectious musicality again until "Thinkin'," a sassy, thumping cut toward the record's back end.

Cyrus has always ensured her voice is her music's headliner, never allowing even the heaviest beats of Bangerz to deduct from its power. And the same can be said here, even given how heavily this album relies on her newest image reinvention into a breezy, seemingly non-confrontational singer who is once again family-friendly and undeniably charming. But there are times when love just isn't enough; producer Oren Yoel can stretch the strings of the same acoustic guitar only so far before they break, especially when Cyrus demands on laying her average songwriting atop the same acoustic tone throughout. "Miss You So Much" and "I Would Die For You," for example, both drag listeners through their run times without the reward of a moral or captivating hook.

Younger Now starts and ends on its strongest notes, with the title track and "Malibu" at its commencement and back-to-back ballads "She's Not Him," a sparse reflection on her pansexuality, and "Inspired," a quaint acoustic ballad that shimmers with childhood memories and a bundle of hope, closing the curtains. In between those bookends, it begins to take a mushier formation. Like an undercooked cake, things begin to taste less appetizing than the first few tastes around the outside. Nevertheless, every bite is still sweet enough to take another, which is more than can be said about her last reincarnate. And if she spends more than few years in this new musical phase, she may be able to perfect it before her next outing.

Younger Now is available now under RCA Records.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Now | Shania Twain


Never has one guitar riff been so capable of igniting such a staggering excitement in every crowd it is played before, each one eager to respond with a resounding chorus: "Let's go girls!" Much like the album from which it originated, "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" adopted a life much larger than the artist who birthed it. By the time it was released in winter 1999,  singer-songwriter Shania Twain was already over a year deep in the promotion of Come on Over, a mammoth album that remains the best-selling album from a female act in the United States.

Up!, the album to follow after the turn of the millennium, was an ambitious reaction to her extraordinary fame. The mega-record went bigger, boasting three discs of 19 tracks dressed in different production styles: a country disc to pacify original fans who had stuck around since The Woman in Me days, a pop disc to cement the love from those who were swept up in her previous record's country-pop charm, and a Bollywood-style disc for the hell of it. It fanned hits, though not as many as its predecessor, across pop and country formats, strengthening her crossover appeal.

And when it seemed as if Shania Twain couldn't go any larger, the instinct was right. Not long after Up! and a subsequent greatest hits compilation, Twain's stage went dark. And behind the curtain, her world imploded. Her husband and sole musical collaborator on her largest three records, Robert "Mutt" Lange, was caught in an affair with Twain's best friend, a saga that rolled out to fans via tabloid magazine sidebars. Meanwhile, battles with dysphonia and Lyme disease almost stripped her of a vital luxury: her voice. Happiness ensued, though, when she found solace in Lange's mistress' then-husband, whom Twain married after both couples divorced.

Upon her return to the spotlight a decade after Up!'s release, she planted her feet as a nostalgia act – one with a Vegas residency packed with all the hits and a bit of pizzazz. She even took the act on the road, crossing North America on an all-time performer's high and a promise to follow up with new music. Making good on that promise, she has released her fifth studio album eagerly but cautiously, like a swimmer who dips her toe into the water to ensure it's a proper temperature before she cannonballs into the deep end. Titled Now, it's a pop-lite effort that burrows into glossy, streamlined soundscapes that hyperextend what country music can be.

It's a fitting title as we watch Twain find her place in today's pop culture, what must feel like fifty worlds away from what she left behind in the last decade. She once wrote a mix of remarkable love ballads and empowerment anthems with feminist intentions, leveraging herself as a titan for the everyday woman. Although accusatory tracks like "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" or "Waiter! Bring Me Water!" invoke quite a strange feeling in hindsight, never was it implied or believed that Twain, who worked on music only with her then-husband, wrote them from an autobiographic perspective. But damn, she delivered them with an attitude that made it hard to believe that she had to feign sincerity.

Playing a relatively similar role as she did years ago, today's Shania Twain prides herself on optimistic, self-motivating tracks. Just as informal and conversational as she was when we last heard from her, she now channels a personal place, loosely entwining leftover scars from her nearly decade-old divorce. Lead single "Life's About to Get Good," for example, carries a cheery disposition and not-so-subtle jabs at Lange over a thumping, awkwardly thin soundscape: "The longer my tears fell, the wider the river. It killed me that you'd give your life to be with her." Likewise, she sings, "Still can't believe he'd leave me to love her" on the not-so-country "Poor Me."

While it retains its cornerstones, her sound isn't as unmistakably Shania as before. Having sustained permanent damage after her battle with Lyme disease, her voice idles at a lower pitch and is blanketed with a nasally overtone. The gusto she has left is steamrolled into synthetic productions deemed thin enough to give her voice the competitive edge, even though she has proven herself capable of railing through her older, thicker tracks after they've been tailored down a half-step or two. Nevertheless, she delivers her sustained notes statically ("Swingin' with My Eyes Closed," "Soldier") and sounds most comfortable on the lowest rumbles of "Roll Me On the River" and "We Got Something They Don't," back-to-back standout tracks sparked alive by stern drumbeats and walls of instrumentation.

With thinner, lighter soundscapes and an even larger ratio of contemporary pop to country trends, Now proves that Twain is genuine when she says she has serious interest in collaborating with the likes of Nick Jonas and Nicki Minaj, be that for better or for worse. The chords that open "Poor Me" can be traced back to The Chainsmokers, and trendy island island beats breeze their way into dance-country hybrid track "Swingin' with My Eyes Closed." Luckily, the latter leans more towards her roots, sharing a warm, country-based sound with "Home Now." Nothing feels more familiar to Shania fans, however, than "Who's Gonna Be Your Girl," a mid-tempo country track that finds Twain's melody leaning into a soft pile of backing harmonies.

An album titled Now insinuates life in the moment, without the past's interference in thoughts and actions. Given her statements in the press during this record's promotion cycle, it seems that's what drew Twain to the title. But even as much as she refuses to admit it, the present is here only because the past paved the way – the chaotic past that she has referenced time and time again in her newest work, from the cheetah print revival from "That Don't Impress Me Much" to the direct nods toward her divorce. Ultimately, despite the reluctance to throw a "divorce record" tag onto Now, humility yields to honesty too often throughout the record for it not to wear the dreaded label.

In her past life, Twain created monstrous albums that had only two gears: slow-burning, unbelievably great love ballads and uptempo, unbelievably great firecrackers. Today, she stalls somewhere on middle ground, making one of her shortest records feel like her most bloated. But even given its sterile production that may be better off classified as adult contemporary rather than country, Now is also her most emotional and most honest. Penning the therapeutic album by herself, she doesn't play the everyday woman but proves she is the everyday woman – one who has been hurt and has managed to heal. So sure, it's certainly no Come on Over, but that's because it was never meant to be another Come on Over anyway.

Now is available now under Mercury Nashville.

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.