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.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pop 2 | Charli XCX

Much like a mullet, there are two distinct sides to pop singer-songwriter Charli XCX. In the front, she's business-friendly, safely rebellious, and still somewhat commercially viable, having delivered two proper albums and a drip-feed of commercial pop singles. In the back, however, she's a polarizing party-igniter. Upon colliding with the PC Music songwriting and producing collective a few years back, she burrowed deep into the disjointed synthpop renaissance – the grounds in which her Vroom Vroom extended play and both of her 2017 mixtapes were planted. The second of those mixtapes, Pop 2, is a robotic, future-is-female collaborative that takes most everything we know about pop music and chucks it out the window of speeding car.

Pop 2 is what most people over 35 would say isn't qualified to be classified as music, but what most everybody else would say should be pop music's eventual final form. A genetic mutation of commercial pop's DNA, the mixtape is a hyperactive, barely human circus of dysfunctional melodies, sputtering repetition, and stomping beats. She and her collaborators – from Carly Rae Jepsen to CupcakKe – are digitized into cyborgs; rippling with Auto-Tune, their voices are wired right into the mixtape's overproduced hard drive. Jepsen's contribution, "Backseat," opens the album with a swirling melody line, while CupcakKe joins Charli, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar for the killer "I Got It."

It's moments like when Charli gulps her way through the words "I got it" 80 times over or when Caroline Polachek's voice is pitched to the tone of a dog whistle ("Tears") that Pop 2 can prove grating under the right conditions. After all, it never stops; barreling through off-kilter bangers like "Femmebot" and "Unlock It," the electric set refuses to rest until its finale, "Track 10," when Charli's synthesized voice leads itself through devastated lyrics and into a pit of directionless modem frizzles. Nevertheless, the mixtape is an assertive, unapologetic piece of pop – and after years of Charli's hopscotching between sounds and daydreaming about even more, Pop 2 sees her find soundscapes that fit her brash attitude and punchy voice best.

Her end game has always been a moving target, although it's still hard to believe that a strangely orchestrated Rita Ora collaboration was ever a part of her master plan. (Yes, front-side-of-the-mullet Charli, we all still remember that... vaguely.) But her stint with PC Music is the longest lasting and most fitting phase of her career, even if it does operate with secondary importance behind her major-label commercial work. It's a strange business plan, but it works: Her finger is on the pulse of pop's leading edge, and her household name acts as the vehicle to intoxicate pop audiences with the avant-garde product. She confronts commercial pop's boundaries, running wild with all that pop music can be in the digital age. 

Pop 2 is available now under Atlantic Records.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tell Me You Love Me | Demi Lovato

After she ripped into Taylor Swift during an interview in 2016 and was then criticized for it, Demi Lovato – the singer, actress, and twin sister to Poot – posted a tweet to declare something that probably should have been presented in an announcement more formal than a tweet, if it were a true threat. "So excited for 2017," she wrote. "Taking a break from  music and the spotlight... I'm not for this business and the media."

Then came 2017. And in the centerfold of it, our ears were given a whole lot of song from the one and only Lovato. Having been lauded for her powerhouse vocals on her fifth studio album, 2015's Confident, she decided to plow her way through a track titled "Sorry Not Sorry," which catapulted toward the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Like many on her sixth studio album, titled Tell Me You Love Me, the track leans with a gospel sway but is crushed under Lovato, who fancies a transformation into the human equivalent of a foghorn to wow her audiences.

Though emotion cracks through her delivery of the stellar title track, Lovato isn't quite as concerned with inflection as she should be. Rather, her focus is squarely on volume: the louder, the better. On "Sorry Not Sorry" and "Daddy Issues," she crescendos into a barreling screech that, while I suppose works for choppy pop anthems, isn't her most flattering technique. Similar remarks can be made about "Sexy Dirty Love," where her outbursts are perhaps the most merited; she cracks into an excited shout only when appropriate, rather than at every turn.

Admittedly, "Daddy Issues" and "Sexy Dirty Love" are definite earworms, but Lovato's most stunning performances as a vocalist come from her hushed, sensual tracks, like "Only Forever" and "Concentrate," and scaled-back ballads, namely "Hitchhiker." Those moments, when she sounds her most mature, are what counteract the booming urgency of the belted bangers – and it's the first time we've gotten to hear Lovato in that capacity, given that her craft has traditionally abused her voice's larger-than-life abilities.

On this album more than any other before, Lovato is all wrapped up in some mad relationship funk on these tracks. In that sense, it's a commercial pop record through and through. But as is the case for many commercial pop records, it can come off as manufactured, because none of its tracks provide the same indication as to how the relationship is faring. Sometimes, her lover is playing games and just doesn't do it for her anymore; other times, she isn't afraid to admit that she can't concentrate on anything other than the bedroom or the altar, whichever better fits the romantics she caught at the moment.

Tell Me You Love Me, like most of Lovato's albums, lacks much behind its current curb appeal and vocal acrobatics. It's reflective of its moment in pop music, reliant on the slickest styles of the hours: a little sensuality, a little acoustic guitar, a little urban flair. It serves its place in the current musical landscape just fine, but it's not much to scoff at aside from that – and if meets the same fate as Confident, which might as well have been a mere glimmer in pop music's history, it certainly won't have aged like fine wine in a few years' time.

Tell Me You Love Me is available now under Island Records.

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 – and 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 – except 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.