Friday, August 29, 2014

Goddess | Banks


★★★★★

When it was announced in April, Jillian Banks' debut album seemed to have a release date cast so far into the future that it would like waiting an eternity to get our hands on it. Although summer was past us before I could even blink, I'm still glad to say the wait is nearly over and the album's release is just around the corner. But, does the album live up to the expectations of a Goddess?

Just like the extended plays before it, Goddess holds a distinct sound that Banks originally grabbed onto and has now ran with. Where can this Banks sound be found at? Somewhere in the bustling junction of trip-hop beats, dark electronic synths, and R&B influences. Vocally, Banks manages to deliver both smokey low croons ("Drowning," "Beggin for Thread") and confident higher belts ("You Should Know Where I'm Coming From," "Waiting Game"). An airy yet constricted upper register is also explored some in "Stick," a track driven by snaps and cracks, and "Fuck Em Only We Know," a standard Banks track sprinkled with a surprisingly higher-pitched synth line.

The lyrics of this album are almost exclusively about heartbreak and moving on from a past partner. Each song can represent a stage of Banks' post break-up healing process, from the desperate plea of "What if I never even see you 'cause we're both on a stage? / Don't tell me to listen to your song because it isn't the same. / I don't say your love is a waiting game," to the fiery snaps of "I can see you struggling / Boy, don't hurt your brain / Thinking what you're gonna say."

After first blaming herself for the trouble in paradise on "Alibi" ("Please, give me something to convince me that I am not a monster"), Banks begins to glow with self-confidence in the title track as she essentially tells her ex that he messed with the wrong girl: "Now you gotta deal with this glitch on your shoulder / Fucking with a goddess and you get a little colder." 

Like we can see in "Goddess," revenge and reflection seem to overpower any implications of a permanently broken heart on many of these tracks. In "Drowning," Banks admits feeling suffocated by her strained relationship ("Take it from the girl you claimed to love / You gonna get some bad karma / I'm the one who had to learn to build a heart made of armor"), while in "Beggin For Thread," she warns of the power that can be emitted from her lyrics ("My words can come out as a pistol / I'm no good at aiming / But I can aim it at you"). 

Banks only breaks free from her cozy 'electro-R&B-hop' sound a few times on this album, in favor of an intimate acoustic sound. Minus a light synth run, "Someone New" is purely Banks and a guitar - a personal singer-songwriter type of sound. Meanwhile, the Justin Parker-produced "You Should Know Where I'm Coming From" is mainly piano-based, but manages to swell with strings and drums as Banks utilizes her mid-range to belt out, "I was alone when I burned my home / And all of the pieces were torn and thrown / You should know where I'm coming from."

Goddess is a monstrous debut suite of eighteen tracks. If we want to count purely new material, we're left with eleven tracks after subtracting the four tracks from the London EP and the three tracks that predate that EP ("Warm Water," "Fall Over," and "Before I Ever Met You"). Normally, larger albums give more surface area for critics to find faults - but not on this album. Banks packs a strong punch with Goddess and rightfully blasts her way into the top of the ranks for one of this year's best debuts. Her career has been developing slowly but surely in the past year and this album is the icing on the cake as she begins her reign as a Goddess.

Goddess will be available in the United States on September 9, 2014. An exclusive vinyl pressing can be found at Urban Outfitters locations.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

My Everything | Ariana Grande


★★★☆☆

We've all been singing along to "Problem" and "Break Free" throughout this summer season, and now it's time for Ariana Grande to add fuel to her own fire by releasing her sophomore full-length album My Everything. This album follows last year's generally acclaimed Yours Truly, which debuted atop the Billboard 200 and spawned memorable songs like "The Way" and "Right There." 

My Everything has had three massive singles backing it, although all three were relatively varied in sound. "Problem" is a sassy, girl-power anthem featuring blaring horns, a buzzing bass line, and a verse from this year's most talked-about rapper, Iggy Azalea. The song maintained a strong hold at numbers two and three on the Billboard Hot 100 for multiple weeks and, as of the August 30 chart update, still remains in the top ten. The following singles were "Break Free," an electronic dance nod with powerful production credits from Zedd, and "Bang Bang," a split-single endeavor with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj included on the deluxe edition of this album.

The single choices from the album represent it well as a whole: My Everything is a mixed bag of electronic, R&B, and pop influences. The album is also a huge meeting place for collaborations. Joining the list of featured artists with Grande are Big Sean, The Weeknd, Childish Gambino, Cashmere Cat, and A$AP Ferg. Perhaps the most interesting and successful of those collaborations is with The Weeknd, who blends right into the chilled "Love Me Harder" with Grande.

Childish Gambino finds his verse stuck in the album's most controversial track, "Break Your Heart Right Back," which is about "a boy who cheats on a girl with a boy." Gambino's verse includes, "Yes, I'm a 'G' from the 'A' and they ask 'Y'" and the track samples Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out"; those two elements alone sparked rumors that an ex-flame of Grande's was in fact gay - something she now refuses to confirm or deny in interviews.

This album era has been stapled as Grande's move towards a more mature, sexy sound. This is held true in some of the album's most popular songs, including the aforementioned "Love Me Harder" and "Be My Baby," in which Grande quietly demands, "Kiss me, boy, and drive me crazy." Later, in the chorus of the A$AP Ferg-assisted "Hands On Me," Grande openly pleads to be groped as she sings, "Put your hands on me / You can put your hands on me / If you like what you see, put your hands on me." 

Only seven of the fifteen tracks on the deluxe pressing of My Everything are listed as solo songs (Yours Truly also had a large abundance of collaborations), but Grande makes the most of those moments. Many of those solo songs are traditional or power ballads. In the cases of "One Last Time" and "Why Try," the mid-tempo power ballad format prevails. The former is a David Guetta-penned track with a consistent yet semi-repetitive flow, while the latter is a product of Ryan Tedder. Tedder's presence is made quite evident from its chorus composition and striking similarities to Ellie Goulding's "Burn" in the bridge (another track co-written by Tedder).

"Just a Little Bit of Your Heart" finds Grande in a heartbroken, desperate place as she pleads to be heard by her cheating boyfriend. "Best Mistake" is also mainly piano-driven, but is kept out of the "true ballad" territory thanks to a rap verse from Big Sean and a hip-hop beat incorporated in the chorus. These slow tracks aren't alone, though, as hushed, sincere moments both introduce and close the standard edition of this album. The beginning track is a short but sincere lullaby aptly titled "Intro," and the closing track shares the same name as the grand mantra of this album: "My Everything." The album's final moments simply fade out in echos of Grande's vocal ad-libs and hums, just as smoothly as the album opened.

Grande's debut on Yours Truly placed her in line to be the next self-titled Queen of R&B - the promising set of twelve tracks almost guaranteed her a spot in the reigning league of the genre. However, My Everything halts Grande in her path, directly in the intersection of the imminent takeover of the Billboard Hot 100 and the status as a critically acclaimed R&B vocalist. Instead of turning one way or the other, she tries to please the best of both worlds on this album, leading to an inconsistent piece of work as a whole.

The good news though? There are still plenty of gems in the cluttered pile of songs, and perhaps most importantly, the raw vocal talent is undeniable. Although the road map for this album called for some heavily-produced detours, her unprecedented vocal power remains the focal point of each track. My Everything truly thrives due to the facts that Grande's voice is compatible with so many genres and she was willing to explore new sounds and options on this album. This album may not be as cohesive as I had wished, but Grande did give it her all to make an album that has a little bit of something for everybody.

My Everything will be out on August 26, 2014 under Republic Records. An exclusive deluxe edition of the album can be found at Target department stores.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Taylor Swift announces strictly pop record, releases "Shake It Off"


After a few weeks of well-planned promotion, Taylor Swift's monumental simultaneous worldwide stream via Yahoo! and ABC News unveiled the artist's new musical plans... and direction.

In today's live stream video, Swift unveiled some important key points for fans. She opened the broadcast by playing her new single, "Shake It Off," for her live audience while dancing between her fans, and conclusively premiered the music video for the song. The song is an infectious faux-urban, upbeat pop bit with a miniature sassy breakdown √† la "Hollaback Girl" and obvious influences from the recent fascination with deep horns on Top 40 radio.

In the middle of the broadcast, she (most importantly) announced her fifth studio album, 1989. While describing the album, she explicitly outlined it as a departure from her country roots due to some strong influences from late 1980s pop music; a move many people had predicted after the direction of her last album, Red. The cover was shot with a classic Polaroid camera and is labeled "T.S. 1989" in permanent marker. (Fellow hipsters, she's visually one of us now!)

According to iTunes listings, a majority of the tracks were written in cooperation with Max Martin and Shellback, who worked with Swift previously for "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" and "I Knew You Were Trouble." Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic) and Jack Antonoff (of fun. and Bleachers) also nab some writing credits.

1989 is slated for release on October 27 via Big Machine Records.

Friday, August 15, 2014

TRXYE | Troye Sivan


★★★★☆

Currently, albums like Lana Del Rey's Born To Die and Lorde's Pure Heroine sit at the base of the flowing river of indie pop music, spreading their influences to all of the inhabitants of the realm. Like many emerging artists this year, Australia-based singer-songwriter Troye Sivan has taken advantage of the trip-pop trend and drowned his first major-label extended play (released today) in the genre with unsurprisingly impressive results.

On TRXYE, Sivan's smooth tenor-range voice slides over his sultry instrumentals. Lyrically, on songs like "Fun" and his break-through track "Happy Little Pill," Sivan reflects on typical rebellious teenage ponders. The former song begins in a lonely place before expanded synths bring an uptempo chorus as Sivan sings, "Let's go have fun, you and me in the old Jeep / Ride around town with our rifles on the front seat." Meanwhile, "Happy Little Pill" is an atmospheric euphoria with a killer pre-chorus and chorus. The first few faux-problematic lines of the pre-chorus cover are enough to draw listeners in: "Oh, glazed eyes, empty hearts / Buying happy from shopping carts / Nothing but time to kill / Sipping life from bottles."

The remaining three songs on this extended play cover the subject of love. "Touch" has an impressive electronic breakdown, while "Gasoline" is a down-tempo trippy ballad in which Sivan sings the relatively clich√© "You set my heart on fire like gasoline." The conclusive track was inspired by John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars and shares the same name. I've never read the book, but I do know the synopsis, so I can assume that this song conveys just as much emotion as the book. Sivan's reverberated vocals and the airy production make for a very relaxing listen.

With TRXYE, Sivan adds himself to a growing list of promising new artists of 2014. At only 19 years old, he and 17-year-old Lorde could quite possibly be both the present and the future of the indie-pop scene if they play their cards correctly. One listen to this extended play proves that "Happy Little Pill" isn't the only trick he has up his sleeve and a full-length effort could let his full potential shine. But in the mean time, TRXYE will quench the Troye Sivan thirst that everyone is suffering.

TRXYE is available now digitally worldwide and in CD format in Australia.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Golden Echo | Kimbra


★★★★☆

Three years ago, Kimbra's career was just beginning. Her debut album, Vows, released in 2011, met critical acclaim and moderate success. In 2012, her voice exploded worldwide with a feature on Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know," earning her a number one single on the Billboard Hot 100 and two Grammy Awards for the song. Then when 2013 came around, she went mute and quietly planned a timely comeback. Just one year later, we now have our hands on her sophomore follow-up, The Golden Echo.

Our first taste of the album came in the form of its second track, "90s Music." The song, which debuted in May, is a chaotic dedication to tunes from two decades past and somehow seems to clash with the placid aura of the album's cover. The song is much farther than a stone's throw away from the sounds of Vows, so I was initially disappointed with the song. However, after the initial bitter taste of "90s Music," I suddenly grew quite fond of this new-age Kimbra and found myself crawling back to YouTube to listen to the song repeatedly.

However, "90s Music" definitely did not give The Golden Echo a fair representation; if anything, the song is the black sheep of the twelve-track herd. The album opens with a hazy drum beat on "Teen Heat," which is expanded upon after a seductive gasp in the chorus. The song oozes with influences from 1980s pop and rock and 2000s R&B, as does the rest of the album. Kimbra's strongest influences shine through on impressive cuts like "Madhouse," a twenty-first century reincarnation of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" with a sampling of the best sounds that a 1980s synthesizer could offer, and "Carolina," a summery, upbeat bit with beautiful harmonies and vocals that drift in and out of a vocoder's grasp.

Kimbra also adds herself to a growing list of artists to recently use strong disco influences on "Nothing But You" and the infectious "Miracle," before diving into a tribal-inspired sound on "Goldmine" and "Love In High Places." The former is a percussion-beaten, trip-hop infused track, while "Love In High Places" is an atmospheric piece following the lead of a tapping beat. Like "Goldmine," the track "Everlovin Ya" nods towards trip-hop and funk while tossing in some sparkling, disorganized synths and spacey vocals.

Only two songs constitute as ballads on this album: the sultry "Rescue Him" and the piano-guided "As You Are," which highlights Kimbra's strong vocals and the lush harmonies that many songs on The Golden Echo thrive on. The album's last echoes (I haven't had a pun in a while on here) are heard on "Waltz Me To The Grave," which is a whopping seven and a half minutes long. The core of the song, in actuality, is around three and a half minutes long; tacked onto the back-end of the song is an outro of instruments and vocal ad-libs.

With Vows, Kimbra was a promising artist with some great songs to back herself up. Expanding to The Golden Echo, she is now a blossoming artist who is not afraid to experiment with some new sounds. The album displays a mixed bag of nostalgic guidance but also retains outstanding originality. In some ways, the album is nearly indescribable because of the multiple sources of inspiration; usually that results in either a disaster of an album or a completely unique gem. But this album is a Kimbra creation, so of course The Golden Echo fits the latter category.

The Golden Echo will be released in the United States on August 19, 2014 via Warner Bros. Records, in both standard and deluxe formats.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Hideaway EP | Kiesza


★★★☆☆

In this week's edition of "artists that Americans are late to discover," I present to you, Kiesza! This year, the Canadian singer-songwriter was signed to an indie label and flew up the charts across European countries with her debut single "Hideaway," and is now aiming for American exposure with an extended play of the same name.

The Hideaway EP is a simple way to get Kiesza's foot in the door of the American music industry; a four track extended play to push the title track plus a few extras. The title track already exploded in other countries, as I mentioned before, but it is just gaining momentum here in the States. The track is a shining tribute to 1990s house beats with an infectious bass-line and forced, echoed wails of "ooh" and "ah."

"Giant in My Heart" and "So Deep" are also both house influenced; the former is aimed at the jugular of the club scene, while the latter song is thrown into a down-tempo, trip-hop infused gear. However, when pitted against to "Hideaway," the two songs seem to be like two tree saplings planted next to a giant skyscraper. Neither song has the kick offered by "Hideaway."

A stripped piano cover of Haddaway's "What is Love" closes the short extended play on a very strong note. By comparison, "What is Love" to Kiesza is like "Your Song" to Ellie Goulding; a solid step away from their respective genres and a great way to prove raw vocal talent. If "Hideaway" fails to make an impression on you, perhaps look into "What is Love," because it definitely will speak to even the pickiest music listener.

The songs previewed on the Hideaway EP were obviously hit or miss for me; I fell in love with "Hideaway" and "What is Love" automatically, but just couldn't get into the groove of "Giant in My Heart" and "So Deep." Regardless of my song preferences on this extended play, I can conclusively confirm that Kiesza is an untapped well of talent; her dancing skills are smooth and her voice, although sometimes sounding strained, is quality.

The Hideaway EP is now available both digitally and physically through American retailers via Lokal Legend Records.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

LP1 | FKA twigs


★★★★★

Every year, there seems to be a few musical debuts that blow everybody else in the industry out of the water without even being supported with a radio hit. In terms of dominant radio-unfriendly debuts, the past few years have seen the fresh faces of The 1975, Sky Ferreira, Haim, and Chvrches. Adding to a list of this year's underground debuts from the likes of Broods and Banks, FKA twigs recently was spotted by my radar with her upcoming album, fittingly and simply titled LP1.

This album was preceded by the releases of EP1 and EP2, which were highlighted by songs like "Papi Pacify" and "Hide." Although I enjoy the material on both extended plays, something about the material on LP1 makes the record both dynamic yet homologous. Each song has a production style that walks on the same hazy crossroads of trip-hop and R&B, but each song manages to shine in its own way.

For example, on "Pendulum," twigs' fragile voice is layered beautifully over a swaying instrumental. As it progresses, the song swells with fuller sounds and the heartbroken proclamation of "So lonely trying to be yours, when you're looking for so much more." Trip-hop influences prevail in "Closer," but twigs' voice is reverberated over the track to give it a touch of celestial beauty. "Numbers" thrives on a haunting bell pattern that could easily be slid into a scary movie, but contains lyrics that could have been lifted right out of a break-up letter to a cheating ex: "Was I just a number to you?"

Lyrically, the ten tracks on LP1 cover a range of subjects, including her past as a music video back-up dancer in "Video Girl" ("Is she the girl from the video? Stop, stop lyin' to me"), and the traditional theme of love in songs like "Lights On" and "Two Weeks." Within the lyrics of "Lights On," we find twigs in a vulnerable place, telling her lover, "When I trust you, we do it with the lights on," while in "Two Weeks," twigs transforms into a newly-confident persona and tries to outshine her lover's past girlfriend as she says, "Give me two weeks, you won't recognize her."

LP1 is like a box of chocolates: at first glance, the pieces all seem to be relatively similar, but once you bite into them, something hidden underneath the smooth glaze makes each one stand as an individual, unique delicacy. From the initial vocal warm-ups and chants of "Preface" to the final echoes of "Kicks," listeners will explore the rises and falls of a relationship on these ten tracks, as streaks of seduction fuel the undertones of this album and tears of sorrow stain it with raw emotion. Listen after listen, the feelings associated with the album's composition intensify through my headphones and I'm suddenly sucked into the twigs' glitched yet passionate world.  It's something you really have to hear to believe.

LP1 will be available on August 12 via Young Turks Records. An exclusive deluxe vinyl edition of the album is available on the official FKA twigs website.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Playlist: August 2014


"Two Weeks"
FKA twigs

FKA twigs has been around for a year or so, captivating underground trip-hop and R&B fans with her experimental extended plays, fittingly titled EP1 and EP2. I hadn't started listening to her until last month, but the lead single of her upcoming debut full-length album, LP1, caught me on my first listen. This trippy electronic is such a relaxing listen and it's only complemented by its beautiful video; if you haven't seen it, you must watch it. 



"Break Free"
Ariana Grande feat. Zedd

This year has been really big for Ariana Grande in many ways. She has now seen the end of her childhood acting era with the cancellation of Sam & Cat on Nickelodeon, watched her brother compete on the sixteenth season of Big Brother, and has skyrocketed farther as a recording artist. "Break Free" is the second single from her upcoming album My Everything, and I can't help but love it just as much as "Problem." Seeing that Zedd produced the song, I was disappointed by the lack of an electronic drop until the very end of the song, but the chorus is still killer either way.



"Hideaway"
Kiesza

This song has been a massive hit in European music markets in the past few months, and now Kiesza is starting to create a buzz here in the States. (As usual, we Americans are running a few months behind on popular music trends.) Once this song begins, listeners are mentally transported to a 1990s-era discotheque and automatically are drawn to dance along with Kiesza. (Which, if you haven't seen the video, watch it. She's got some great moves.)



"Mother & Father"
Broods

A five track extended play wasn't enough for the world; we all knew that we needed more Broods music in our lives. Their full-length album, Evergreen, will be out this month, featuring the lead single "Mother & Father." The song relies on a steady drum pattern and features some beautiful lyrics about growing older and the fear behind that fact. There is no time like the present to check out this great brother and sister duo!



"Don't Leave"
Seven Lions & Ellie Goulding

Just when Ellie Goulding thought she was going to be getting a break from the spotlight to relax and start work on her third full length album, DJ Fresh lets their collaborative effort "Flashlight" out as a new single in the United Kingdom and Seven Lions drops a new single featuring her vocals. This Seven Lions bit is a fresh electronic track, while on Goulding's end, we here some strong upper register notes and some smoky vocals on the lower end. In terms of Ellie Goulding's featured tracks, this is one of my favorites.