Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Sway | Tove Styrke

The rose shoved in a shiny aluminum soda can on the cover of Tove Styrke’s abbreviated third studio album is perhaps a genius representation of the Swedish singer-songwriter. Considering her previous album's detour into outlandish alternative pop succeeded in being intriguingly off-kilter, her imperfect, indie-bent vocals shouldn’t fit so well in a highlighted pop art picture book of concise love stories – but Sway does a damn fine job at proving otherwise. 

Sway is an eight-track collection of Styrke’s poppiest, most current-minded songs yet – six of which were delivered via drip-feed over the past year without confirmation of an album to come. Minimalist in nature, they are constructed with hallow instrumental centers. Stellar lead-in single "Say My Name" is built upon a scrappy ukulele and not much else. Her vocals on both "Mistakes" and her cover of tour mate Lorde’s "Liability" take the forefront, swooning in a watery vocoder; "Mistakes" blossoms into an ode to all the bad things she’d like to do with a partner, while "Liability" echoes Lorde’s feelings of doom by way of fame. 

Though bare, Styrke's production choices are infectious, and much like her last album, they warrant equal attention in the mix as her charmingly cockeyed voice. The chorus of "On a Level," for example, jerks listeners with abrupt false starts for its first two repetitions before it unfolds into a spacey dance break. And the sparse "Changed My Mind" jumps from side to side with a bouncy beat that is, in part, indebted to Sia’s "Cheap Thrills" – and tastefully so, not as if the beat were recreated with a Xerox machine à la Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You."

Sway is short, sweet, and straightforward, with clean-cut production and no-frills songwriting. It is lovestruck pop at its most refined, cutting away excesses and distractions for an unadulterated shot of saccharin to the jugular. Styrke keeps from falling into the status quo with the voice, which is still ragged at its edges but is often softened with vocoders and Auto-Tune, and the production quirks to keep us all swaying for the mere half-hour she demands our attention.

Sway is available now under Sony Music Sweden.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Dirty Computer | Janelle Monáe

Without proper representation or respect in the current federal administration, minorities have taken to the arts in droves. An important outpouring of female, black, Latino and queer experiences have played out in music in the past few years. For better or worse, rap and hip-hop have taken to the mainstream without pop stars being the vehicles to deliver it to the airwaves via samples and guest verses – for better, perhaps, because rap historically has been the platform for reform, but for worse, as well, because the commercial side of the genre is void of the struggle that makes rap resonate. After all, it seems the biggest struggles Post Malone has had are washing his hair and refraining from facial tattooing.

Janelle Monáe, meanwhile, is a triple minority American with a lot to say. After spending the first several years of her career tied up in a proposed seven-part concept story line of dystopian futurism and humanistic robots, she embraces her place in America as a pansexual black woman – and she does so in the largest way possible. She sidesteps from her Metropolis conceptual spread with the declaration of a real-life broken code: She’s a Dirty Computer with faulty hard-wiring that allows her to recognize and experience emotion, sexuality, and inequality in the here and now.

Monáe’s narrative unfolds over a pop record with a funk soul. The minimalist, disjointed lead single "Make Me Feel" wears its Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter co-signatures on its sleeve, but it sets itself apart with its wobbly, Prince-inspired synth line and overtly sexual intentions. The Grimes-featuring "Pynk" and Zoë Kravitz-assisted "Screwed" are equally fun and sexually liberating moments – true triumphs for the woman who remained firm on having an attraction only toward androids until this album cycle. "Pynk" embraces femininity and queerness with its reference to the "inside of your... baby" and its anthemic, wailing chorus, while "Screwed" is a bit brattier as it infuses wise digs toward American politics and the sexual assailant that the country calls a president.

Talk of her sexual experiences, self acceptance, and womanhood is triumphant but never flaunting; moreover, it often acts on behalf of grander commentary. (Only when Pharrell Williams was cleared to drop the line, "Yellow like the pee," on "I Got That Juice" does Dirty Computer graze distastefulness – and even then, Monáe recovers with a stern, "If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.") And though she is so often confidently defiant in all the right ways, she does allow fragility to prevail in the crevices of this record – especially when a romantic relationship is referenced, like on standout power ballad "So Afraid" and the less dynamic "Don't Judge Me." 

Dirty Computer acts not only as Monáe’s sexual awakening, but also as her rise to power. She ignites with pride in her identity on "Django Jane," a thunderous dedication to black girl magic, while "I Like That" and finale track "Americans" look in the rear-view mirror, back to national and personal history. "I remember when you laughed when I cut my perm off and you rated me a six. I was like, ‘Damn.’ But even back then, with the tears in my eyes, I knew I was the shit," she says on "I Like That." And "Americans" allows her to warp a nostalgic, wholly American sound into the ultimate satirical statement and call to action: "Sign your name on the dotted line," she sings as the final resonating line of the album.

In 2016, Beyoncé and Solange Knowles released two of the year's most prolific albums, both with the same thematic core: the black woman and the confrontation of her own existence in society. Beyoncé's Lemonade was filled with rage, provoked by both systemic racism and marital woes; Solange's A Seat at the Table, a bit more general in nature but still introspective. And in 2018, Janelle Monáe builds upon the Knowles sisters' progress with an equally important piece of work. She embraces herself as both a black woman and a queer American with strength and striking wit across this record's tightly-written, infectious tracks, then she directs action upon her experiences: "You fucked the world up now; we'll fuck it all back down," she promises. And that, we will.

Dirty Computer is available now under Atlantic Records.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Primal Heart | Kimbra

It’s high time that Kiwi singer-songwriter Kimbra is recognized on her own merit. Not as “Gotye collaborator Kimbra” or “‘Somebody That I Used to Know’ Kimbra,” but simply as Kimbra. She's a woman whose solo career far outshines her 30-second, vocally ambiguous guest spot in a stellar one-off hit that threw her career into an awkward, premature spike. And if there’s such an album that can convince people to pay attention, Primal Heart should be it.

Primal Heart, her third record and first in four years, explores the human condition through experimental synthpop tracks that are freakishly organic. Tribal beats, mocked up samples, and unraveling melodies run rampant over complex instrumentation – perhaps best exhibited on the stellar Skrillex-assisted single "Top of the World." She sing-raps just slightly off-kilter, signaling vocoders in and out of the mix to haunting results, before the song resolves into a chanted hook about the desire to conquer all who stand in her way. Over her soundscapes, she exercises her vocals expertly. She flexes her stronger middle and lower registers ("Black Sky,” “Human") and either double-tracks her upper notes for strength ("The Good War," "Like They Do On The TV") or buries them in the mix as a sound effect ("Lightyears").

Her previous record, 2014's The Golden Echo, was sewn with equally intricate patchwork, but it operated on the premise of idealistic love; this record reveals its cracks, where primal urges render weakness, control, and triumph. "Got a heart that’s primal. ‘Cause, yeah, I need your love for my survival," she wails on "Human" before crooning through a frank conclusion: "This is what is means to be human. Don’t know much but I know this much is true." She often struts with confidence – "Everybody Knows," "Top of the World" – but eventually cracks. "Version of Me," the album’s standalone ballad, and the Auto-Tune-drenched "Real Life" tiptoe the album to its close, both cautiously questioning Kimbra’s reality.

Kimbra’s instincts led her through the creation of a potently hypnotic and accessible record. Working with elements of a genre that can be so robotic, she orchestrates clashing electronics to form a very human set of tracks. Following her emotional command, her tracks unhinge when she's at her most confident and pull back when she falls into introspective valleys. Her melodies are just as breathtaking as the encompassing production that supports them, her lyrics convey the four-year effort of living and learning that it took to write them, and most importantly, the star behind the record isn't afraid to stay in touch with her primal side and come back punching.

Primal Heart is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Golden Hour | Kacey Musgraves

In theory, an artist like Kacey Musgraves shouldn’t feel quite comfortable in the world of country music. Despite early Grammy wins for her debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, she finds success below the abundant country airwaves, where country fans access their music disproportionately compared to other genres. She is progressive in sound and message – something very much against the grain in the tried-and-true, traditionally conservative genre. It’s something upon which her narrative was dependent... until now, when she trades out lyrical wit for discreet, understated warbles on her third studio record, Golden Hour.

The country female framework favors belters or waverers, neither of which Musgraves identifies with. Her voice is thin and exact, without particularly emotive qualities – much unlike the Underwoods or McEntires of the world. And also unlike the Underwoods and McEntires, Musgraves’ lyrical storytelling isn’t reliant on tragedy or domestic homicide. In fact, while the border that separated pop from country corroded away long ago, Golden Hour is perhaps the most nonchalant (and least country) female country release in recent memory. (Unless, of course, we count that weird, match-made-in-hell collaboration between Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line.)

Country music’s essence is still intact on Golden Hour: Steel guitars and banjos are vital to its sonic footprint, and her lyrics are seasoned with country folk lexicon – cowboys, boots, and Chevrolets. Even the album’s redheaded stepchild, the disco-indebted “High Horse,” isn’t far out of touch with the rest of the record lyrically. But admittedly, her Southern charm sometimes can overpower in the cheesiest way. The melodically flat “Velvet Elvis” is a song-long metaphor that parallels a lover to beloved gaudy Elvis portraits. “Space Cowboy” is almost ridiculous in regard to the number of country staples she shoved into its stanzas, but man, that moment of clarity when the word “cowboy” unravels under a vocoder saves the song from left field.

Perhaps it all works because she bottles small town sentiment at the tap. Born in the desolate Golden, Texas, and raised in a nearby town, Musgraves builds this aesthetic-heavy record with careful attention to being, well, careless. She occupies her record with the little things; Opening track “Slow Burn” is an ode to going nowhere fast in town where piercing your nose outrages grandma. While milling idly, she romanticizes a type of love that is most often ignored in music: A human, imperfect love. Standout track “Wonder Woman” basks in it, while “Love is a Wild Thing” admits the powerful qualities of love between ordinary people. And when she’s not preoccupied with things of the lovey-dovey nature, she manages to write a whole song (and quite a good one, actually) to describe incessant pessimism in the oddest, most layman-friendly way (“Happy and Sad”).

So as strange as it seems, Musgraves is comfortable within country music in practice. Below the folds of the album’s acoustic pop (and sometimes, all-out pop) slipcover, country sensibility remains a familiar cushion for her. Without a strong vocal presence to lead it and occasional potholes in songwriting, Golden Hour is not an astounding feat – but it’s as quaint as the hometown that inspired it, for sure. And it’s the record that allows Musgraves to sidestep out of the country underdog archetype and into the light as an artist who writes her own rules in a genre that hasn't been wholly itself since before she was born, even if her rules are far from polished ones.

Golden Hour is available now under MCA Nashville.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

'Love, Simon' Original Motion Picture Soundtrack | Various Artists

The success of teen romcom Love, Simon, the first gay film of its genre to be produced by a major studio, is quite promising for members of the LGBT+ community: It hints toward the grander notion that the Millennial society is more accepting to homosexuality. The film’s soundtrack, though, is an epitaph of more carefree, less intentional films: '80s teen cult classics. It’s soaked in bittersweet nostalgia for those who grew up with exclusively heteronormative cinema, but oppositely, it will induce a similar nostalgia rush decades from now for those are too young to know a world without any form of gay representation in media.

To applaud a straight man for the creation of a blockbuster gay movie soundtrack seems a bit weird... until that straight man is clarified to be Jack Antonoff, who has been somewhat of a silent pioneer for a new age of masculinity in the industry. Whereas someone like Max Martin has been lauded as a career-controlling puppeteer who looms behind the female pop stars for whom he built careers, Antonoff’s narrative has been reliant on his role as a levelheaded collaborator and passionate fan of female artists – one who isn't afraid to admit that he writes much of his solo material with females' voice in mind and that he admires female artists most.

The soundtrack is largely Antonoff’s passion project, whether via one-man band Bleachers (his pre-existing songs “Rollercoaster” and “Wild Heart” seem custom-fit for the movie’s indie-pandering aesthetic) or through production on tracks for the likes of Troye Sivan and MØ. Sivan’s awestruck earworm is a leftover from the Blue Neighbourhood sessions, though its dreamy, expansive chorus is far from second-rate, while MØ’s track is a cutesy, bratty approach to a break-up song. She's a bit off-kilter in its verses as she tinkers through her vocal line, but she recovers when she reaches the bubbly chorus. 

“Love Lies,” from Khalid and new Fifth Harmony spin-off Normani, is the only track that timestamps this soundtrack in 2018. A sexy (and very much current) rhythm and blues song, it begs to be played amid a house party sex scene. (And it's probably important to note that Amy Shark’s standout contribution, the Julia Michaels-penned “Sink In,” is perfect for the melodramatic drive home the morning after.) The Khalid and Normani cut does feel somewhat out of place, however, on the same soundtrack as a Jackson 5 Christmas song, Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me),” and a slurry of Antonoff’s alternative pop-rock soundscapes. 

Given the film's endearing story line and subtle documentation of a turning point in American views on homosexuality, it's hard not to believe that Love, Simon could one day be seen in a similar light that The Breakfast Club is seen in today – and surely, its soundtrack will live on beside it. The album is about as nonchalant as its movie companion in many ways, not trying too hard to be the ultimate soundtrack for the homosexual man. (That seems reasonable, of course, because Lady Gaga already provided us with one long ago with Born This Way.) But it carries itself with just the right amounts of rainbow and bombast expected from the soundtrack of the first-ever gay teen flick.

The original motion picture soundtrack to Love, Simon is available now under RCA Records.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Neighbourhood | The Neighbourhood

A neighborhood as a common noun and The Neighbourhood as a proper one are quite different things. A neighborhood – ideally, at least – is made of cohesively styled homes and happy families to fill them all. The Neighbourhood, meanwhile, aren’t quite sure what they are – even three albums and multiple extended plays into a career – and they aren’t exactly happy about much of anything, either.

Hailing from California but flaunting the British English variant of “neighborhood” in their namesake, the five-piece band have always stressed aesthetics over substance in their greyscale world. As they came to age in an era of dark, oversaturated pop, they brandished a debut album produced in full by Emile Haynie, whose lauded production work for the likes of Lana Del Rey and FKA twigs helped define the first half of this decade in music. I Love You. was prefabricated for perfection at the time, but critics pried out its Haynie facade and stomped across the few remnants of its contents.

In lyrical or cultural significance, conditions didn’t improve on the band’s sophomore record, Wiped Out!, or frontman Jesse Rutherford’s breakout session with pop music, somewhat irritatingly titled &. But damn, even if the band lack a definite sound and meaningful lyrics, it’s hard to refute that the muffled faux-rock soundscapes on Wiped Out! are undeniably cool. Unsurprisingly, professional critics have a hard time admitting that, perhaps because they too often try to paint The Neighbourhood as a bad hip-hop act rather than an average pop-rock one; in fact, they have been so turned off that the band’s third album – a self-titled one – seems to have been blacklisted from most major publications altogether.

Given the band’s current circumstances, this feels like an odd eponymous album. It’s hodge-podged together with songs – though not even some of the best ones – from two extended plays that were released quietly over the past few months, with new tracks tacked between the preexisting framework. Moreover, the guys have tweaked their sonic direction yet again, as Rutherford’s visit to the pop world seems to have wrenched in dance beats on this record's best tracks – no matter how paranoid or lonely their lyrics become. And even as odd as it seems, it all still feels somewhat appropriate for an ever-enigmatic band like The Neighbourhood.

Having always been a monochrome band, The Neighbourhood don't jump into technicolor on a whim: their sonic palette is still dark and condensed, and Rutherford's delivery is just as disinterested as ever. But during the front half of this album, a flashing strobe light backlights them to reveal their swaying silhouettes. The distorted guitar and keys in the underbelly and the dancing synths in the midriff of “Softcore” keep the track alive below Rutherford's slippery vocals; on "Scary Love," a tickled little synthesizer and persistent guitar line titillate listeners, while Rutherford's slurs immediately cool the fire the track's instrumental sets.

But The Neighbourhood’s depressive centerfold, “Blue” and the mopey “Sadderdaze,” pulls the emergency break on its momentum, dulling the front-loaded record back to two-stepping sadcore. The back end of the record echoes The Neighbourhood that once was – it’s not gleaming or particularly impressive, but it’s somewhat familiar. Ironically, in that sense, the album's least successful half as interesting music is its most successful half as the band's eponymous record, which leads me to believe that perhaps it's best that The Neighbourhood still haven't found their footing – because with each stab, they get a bit closer to redeeming a reputation they never really had to begin with.

The Neighbourhood is available now under Columbia Records.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Blue Madonna | BØRNS

To come from an artist whose hazy daydream of a debut album was titled Dopamine and covered by a voyeuristic photograph of a woman's bare legs, Blue Madonna seems to be a depressive title that represents a bit of a digression in attitude for BØRNS. His humid ecstasy fizzled as the mystery woman walked away and his nomadic rocker dreams unfolded, leaving him to pool out into a velvety state of loneliness and turmoil as he yearns from afar for just about everything from a new beautiful woman to immortality.

Per its title’s implications, Blue Madonna dismantles the constant euphoria of Dopamine to make way for a somber outlook on life. The end product's idiosyncrasies – muffled filters, cosmic production, BØRNS' nasal-toned falsetto – dress up a sad guy in a psychedelic-lite outfit. He often resides in that fragile falsetto as the tracks swirl beneath him, and though it serves him well on tracks like “Sweet Dreams" and "Supernatural," it can also paint him as a melodically grounded, equally troubled Tame Impala runoff on the very same tracks.

A sitar line adds character to “We Don’t Care,” though it is chucked before a sorely underdeveloped chorus, and more than anything, his voice sounds painfully stretched while he wails into his uppermost register on lead single “Faded Heart.” But his more refined hooks warm to boil and wrap themselves around the listener, like when he and his label-mate and mirror-image Lana Del Rey plead together over “God Save Our Young Blood” or when “I Don’t Want U Back” shakes below BØRNS’ milky, Auto-Tuned flutters.

This record re-spools the androgynous allure of his first one into something more thematically ambitious – but perhaps too ambitious for his glamorous metaphors and glossy sweet nothings. Per his interviews and Genius lyric annotations, he clings to meta conversational cornerstones in search of answers to very large unknowns. And while this record is just as capable of being hypnotizing in musical composition, it's when listeners emerge from the spell that they realize that the tunes are beautiful distractions – not answers – to his problems.

Blue Madonna is out now under Interscope Records.