Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lightning Round: 2014 Albums I Missed

Every year, there are always a few albums I accidentally overlook in the release calendar or purposely skip over to prevent myself from making a premature judgement on a new set. However, in order to gather the most accurate list possible for end-of-the-year charts, I tried to catch up with a few albums I haven't touched on yet. So without further ado, here are shortened reviews for the newest efforts from Kelis, Ingrid Michaelson, Phantogram, Sam Smith, and St. Vincent.


★★★★☆

Kelis is no stranger to the culinary world: She is a graduate of the world's most prominent culinary arts academy, Le Cordon Bleu, and her "Milkshake" is still better than yours, so it's no surprise for her newest studio album to be titled Food. With this set of tracks, Kelis serves up a dish of thirteen warm, soulful tracks. Among the cuisine-sampling tracks are "Jerk Ribs," a muggy groove filled with brass instruments; "Cobbler," a happy, summery piece clad with Kelis' soft rasp; and "Fish Fry Friday," which could have been pulled from an enticing trailer for a cheap western movie. Each track bleeds a consistent neo-soul and funk influences, much unlike the 2010 dance and electro-drenched Flesh Tone, but manages to recycle some general sounds without stumbling over any redundancies.

Kelis' son, Knight, opens this album with "Hi guys, are you hungry? My mom made food." I'm glad to say that both Knight and I are pleased that his mother didn't just microwave some leftovers. (Aren't you glad that I did these little reviews to ketchup with all of the great albums I skimmed over earlier? Wait, what did you say? The food references are only cool when Kelis makes them? Okay then.)

Food was released on April 22, 2014 under Ninja Tune.


★★★

The original queen of truly underground indie pop is back once again with her sixth studio album, but actually finally has the support of the radio for the first time since "The Way I Am." This time around, "Girls Chase Boys" revives Ingrid Michaelson's radio presence with its upbeat, cutesy sound and a vocal line that spans from low murmurs to high, fragile runs. Elsewhere on the album, we find Michaelson channeling a unique twist of modern country and alternative rock ("One Night Town," "Warpath," "You Got Me") and making mid-tempo pop ballads ("Stick," "Everyone is Gonna Love Me").

Standing in the middle ground between the two distinct patterns on this album are the refreshing, inspiring "Afterlife" and the aforementioned "Girl Chase Boys." On a piano-driven ballad titled "Over You," Michaelson calls in the help of "Say Something" hit makers A Great Big World; it's one of many collaborations on the album. Overall, I'm impressed with the album, even with its intermittent country influences; the album holds a very soft, comforting sound to be enjoyed by all music lovers. With quality music, I guess I can forgive her for stealing Lana Del Rey's Steelfish cover concept.

Lights Out was released on April 15, 2014 under Cabin 24 Records and Mom + Pop Records.


★★★☆☆

Phantogram's reappearance on record store shelves was awaited by many long time fans of indie-pop and electropop. Following up from their 2010 debut, Eyelid Movies, the duo dropped Voices earlier this year and attained some popularity from singles "Black Out Days" and "Fall in Love." The singles sample exactly what you'll find on Voices; dark, chunky synths, glitching sound samples, and light vocals from Sarah Barthel; she alternates vocals with the other half of the duo, Josh Carter. It's an average synthpop outing, but nothing that pushes the envelope. Adding a little more focus to their general sound and tweaking some production styles could skyrocket Phantogram into the ranks of Chvrches and Little Daylight.

Voices was released on February 18, 2014 under Republic Records.


★★☆☆

Sam Smith is currently caught in his fifteen minutes of initial fame and his loneliest hour simultaneously. After features in songs with Disclosure and Naughty Boy, Smith was officially launched to stardom with "Stay With Me." Fast forwarding from June until now, we've had plenty of time to listen to Smith's debut album but have sadly added "Stay With Me" to the encyclopedia-sized book full of songs that were officially re-played to their death; at least it's in good company with Train's "Hey, Soul Sister" and most of Adele's 21.

In terms of a full-length album, In the Lonely Hour offers exactly what "Stay with Me" already delivered: heartbreak in a downtrodden singer-songwriter form. Heartbreak can be translated into an album format, but it takes skill to make each song unique. This year alone, Coldplay was able to translate the subject successfully with varied productions and songs that were both bittersweet by reflecting on past love and accepting the reality of a break-up, while Banks stretched heartbreak and bitterness into an album with a running time of almost an hour without unnecessarily repeating herself lyrically or sonically. However, Smith sadly wallows in the same wishy-washy ways over guitar and piano based tracks for the entirety of his debut, making this lonely hour seem like a lonely eternity.

In the Lonely Hour was released on June 17, 2014 under Capitol Records.


★★★☆☆

With a glistening Metacritic score and nearly universal acclaim, St. Vincent's eponymous fourth seems like a good catch when looking simply at critical reception. However, from the album's unhinged opening track, "Rattlesnake," to the militarist second single, "Digital Witness," St. Vincent proves to teeter along the line between strikingly unique and completely exasperating. When she's off her indie-static high and slows down on "I Prefer Your Love" and "Prince Johnny," mainstream pop fans can find a much more congenial refinement of the artist. 

On the cover, she sits on her throne and channels Florence Welch by purposely age-advancing her image; while Welch went for a forty-something woman with a vintage obsession, Vincent aimed towards the eighty-year-old queen of a fictitious, futuristic society. Lyrically, she conveys a member of a much younger generation: disgruntled, misguided teenager. Perhaps the most colorful selections from this set include "Take out the garbage, masturbate" ("Birth in Reverse"), "Feelings, flash cards / Fake knife, real ketchup" ("Huey Newton"), and "Follow the power lines back from the road / No one around so I take off my clothes" ("Rattlesnake"). 

Depending on your tolerance for gritty guitars, choppy synth lines, and deranged vocal techniques, you may or may not find a few gems hidden in the rough here. If you're anything like me, St. Vincent is an album that may be slightly enjoyable by yourself, but opening up this can of worms while your friend is with you for a nightly hangout or an afternoon drive may not be the smartest idea; you might scare them away.

St. Vincent was released on February 25, 2014 under Loma Vista Recordings and Republic Records.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Cheek to Cheek | Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga


★★★★☆

Around the world, pop music journalists, both professional and amateur alike, are stuck between a rock and a hard place thanks to Lady Gaga. We are currently at a stalemate between "who are we to critique a jazz album?" and "we have to review this because it's Gaga." While we have been fervently awaiting a new set from Gaga, jazz was expected to be a side project rather than a full-fledged follow-up to her last pop album. (Correction: some of us have been anxiously waiting for this album; everyone else is just caught up in the fact that ARTPOP moved a smaller number of units than Katy Perry's Prism.) However, she's not driving into this new musical world alone and has instead partnered with jazz veteran Tony Bennett for Cheek to Cheek.

The power duo of Bennett and Gaga (whom Tony lovingly calls "Lady") first partnered for their rendition of "The Lady is a Tramp" for Bennett's 2011 Duets II album. After their success with that piece, the two went on to hand-pick some of the most influential pieces of American jazz music to record for this collaborative album. Song selections include the lead single, "Anything Goes," and the highly-anticipated "Lush Life." Also preceding the release of the album were "Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Nature Boy," and an hour long special on the Home Shopping Network that was essentially fifty percent interview footage and fifty percent shameless promotion by a blonde representative from the network ("And no matter how many copies you buy tonight, guess what! You pay shipping once. So you can get one, or you can get ten, you could get twenty, and you only pay shipping one time.")

The album is such a refreshing change of pace for Lady Gaga, especially the completely raw vocals throughout the album. This is perhaps the purest form of the Lady's vocals we've been graced with in studio quality since "Speechless," which was released as Gaga was still in the dawn of her career. While perhaps big band instrumentals weren't the expected backing to these great vocals, I'm just glad to hear Gaga at her full potential. From her highest belts to lowest croons, she delivers a quality sound that complements the smooth delivery from her vocal counterpart, Bennett. I can't promise that this is an album that pop music lovers are going to play constantly for the next six weeks, but it is an album that everyone can easily fall in love with. Bennett and the Lady's timeless pieces will provide the perfect serene atmosphere for a warm bubble bath or perhaps a quiet Sunday drive. At the same time, Cheek to Cheek formally reveals that Lady Gaga is much more than your average pop star.

Cheek to Cheek will be available September 23 under Interscope Records and Columbia Records in both standard and deluxe formats. Exclusive versions can be at Target department stores and the online Home Shopping Network store.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Title | Meghan Trainor


★★★☆☆

Songs like Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" and Jennifer Lopez's "Booty" have proved that the recent derrière obsession started by twerkaholic Miley Cyrus is far from over. Now sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100 with her debut single, Meghan Trainor is mixing body acceptance with a proud exclamation that she has "a little more booty" to concrete the fact that this year has been all about that bass, Following her chart-topping score, Trainor has promptly released her debut extended play, Title, for some further exposure.

The aforementioned "All About That Bass" has been shaking its way up the Hot 100 for nine weeks before finally advancing to the top spot on the chart update dated September 20, 2014. Many people have referred to the song as this year's "Barbie Girl" or "Call Me Maybe," but regardless of Trainor's long-term relevancy, the song is irresistible. If you claim that you haven't been in your car secretly lip-syncing, "Because you know I'm all about that bass, 'bout that bass / No treble," you're lying. (Personally, I've been caught multiple times by other drivers belting the lyrics, and I have no shame.)

Elsewhere on the EP, "Dear Future Husband" is essentially Trainor's old-school pop take on Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine." In the song, she runs off a list of requirements for her groom; she wants flowers, she's going to hold a full-time job, she's not a built-chef, and she already places dips on the left side of the bed. The sound of "Title" is singer-songwriter meets Grease soundtrack, but eventually makes a quick pit-stop into a sing-rapped breakdown. The finale of the four track set comes in the form of "Close Your Eyes," a hazy R&B-infused about revealing your inner beauty via vocal capabilities: "So I want you to close your eyes / Sing to the world tonight and show them what's beautiful."

Just like I had noted with emerging artist Kiesza, who also dropped a four track extended play this year, Meghan Trainor has potential. She's quirky and radiates self-confidence. However, I'd like to see some elaboration off of the sound of these four tracks. Minus "All About That Bass," the extended play seems to have a definite boundary in terms of sound, but four tracks is barely enough to make a definite judgment of an artist. Personally, I'll still be holding out for a full length major label debut.

Title is available now under Epic Records.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

This is All Yours | alt-J


★★☆☆☆

With viral hipster-approved hits like "Tessellate" and "Breezeblocks" credited to their name, you'd have to be living under a rock to have not already heard of British alternative band alt-J. After being awarded the infamous Barclaycard Mercury Prize for their 2012 debut album, An Awesome Wave, and bidding farewell to bassist Gwil Sainsbury, alt-J continued work on the follow-up to their monumental debut. However, now that the time has come for the release of the band's sophomore effort, This is All Yours, have the remaining members of alt-J already found themselves hitting a rut in the long and winding musical road?

Extensive influences are scattered through This is All Yours, but like the movable arm of a cheap action figure, experimental alternative rock can only be bent in so many directions before it breaks apart and is no longer of any use. Even the opening "Intro" track foreshadows a disorganized slew of sounds as it first toys with the fact that we live in the era of full stereo audio by alternating slurs and chants between left and right channels before resolving to an orchestrated pandemonium of beats and patterns. Sadly, these strange beats have already proved to be even messier for the band while trying to perform the new material on stage, which is especially clear in their recent live set promoting the album for National Public Radio.

The most successful outings within this set come in varied, but focused, forms, ranging from the eerie, Miley Cyrus-sampling "Hunger of the Pine," to the gun-slingin', American Dream-chasin' "Left Hand Free." However, counteracting with "Pine" and "Free" are plenty of tracks that overstayed their welcome. In an attempt to create a serene, calming atmosphere, some tracks are overproduced and stretched to a point that allows the album to easily slip into a dirge ("Arrival to Nara," "Choice Kingdom"). Having the opposite problem, the band's jab at an acoustic target, "Pusher," yearns for more sound to back up Newman's paper-thin upper-register screeches and the wobbly dips into his signature chest voice.

The band is still trying to use the writing style that sparked the frenzy around An Awesome Wave, but that style seems to have lost its original spark. The band has somehow managed to water down their hearty stew of mind-boggling lyrics while mirroring subject matters from their last album. Obsession and sexuality oozes from every angle of "Every Other Freckle," perhaps to the point that it's just downright dirty ("I want to turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet"), while in "The Gospel of John Hurt," there's a Tetris name-drop before a slur of lyrics about the fictional death of a movie character played by John Hurt: "Oh, coming out of the woodwork / Chest bursts like John Hurt / Coming out of the woods."

This is All Yours portrays an alt-J that is trying too hard to be, well, alt-J. In other words, the band has desperately tried to make another trendsetting suite, but delivers a lukewarm pile of moans and chants. Great tracks ("Hunger of the Pine," "Every Other Freckle," "Nara") help mask the others that would easily fade into the scenic white noise of independent record store soundtracks ("Choice Kingdom" especially comes to mind), but the extraneous instrumentation and hazy production techniques that are plastered on every track can't mask the disorganization of this album's core. Let's just hope that this is the result of the feared sophomore slump and not a direct result of the rumored Mercury Prize curse.

This is All Yours will be released on September 23 under Atlantic Records and Canvasback Records.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Queen of the Clouds | Tove Lo


★★★☆☆

Mentions of Swedish musician Tove Lo have been brewing in the hipster realm for quite some time now. Earlier this year, after writing for big names in music like Lea Michele and Icona Pop, she decided to take the jump as a solo artist by dropping the Truth Serum extended play. Fast forward six months after the release of her first EP, and now the excitement surrounding Lo has finally come to a head as she moves ahead with the release of her debut full-length album, Queen of the Clouds. The dingy synthpop album works as a concept album, being split into three sections: "The Sex," "The Love," and "The Pain."

On the beginning portion of the album, "The Sex," we find three carefree tracks representing the spontaneous and unexpected first sexual encounter. On "Like Em Young," a peppy album opener, Lo turns to being a cougar-in-the-making as she seduces her younger partner: "Hey boy, you're too young for me / But I don't care cause you're all I see / I like 'em young." She amps up the sex drive on the steamy "Talking Body" before closing the first chapter of the album with "Timebomb." The latter track is a half-sung, half-rapped track in which Lo links "The Sex" with "The Love" by debating the choice to advance further into a relationship: "What's the worst thing that could happen / When the worst thing that could happen / Could be the best thing ever?"

The middle portion of the album contains four love-stricken tracks. In "Moments," another systematic track thriving on its chorus, Lo admits all of her flaws but promises to be a great partner: "I am not the prettiest you've ever seen / But I have my moments, I have my moments / Not the flawless one, I've never been / But I have my moments, I have my moments." In the middle of the chapter of "The Love," we get another formulated track, "Got Love," and also find Lo at what may be her most intimate moment on the album in "The Way That I Am." The song utilizes an emotional rasp in Lo's voice as she sings "You can point fingers all you want, I don't care / I love you anyway / Yeah, I'm falling in love and I hope that you want me / The way that I am."

That raspy quality comes up every so often throughout this album; in actuality, Lo's vocal timbre mirrors an unexpectedly high-quality blend of Miley Cyrus and Hayley Williams of Paramore. Speaking of Cyrus, the Tove Lo equivalent to "Wrecking Ball" also makes an appearance in "The Love" chapter of Queen of the Clouds, titled "Not On Drugs." Lo's chorus is equally as hard-hitting as Miley's number one single when the instrumentation swells as Lo sings, "Baby, don't you see? / I'm not on drugs, I'm not on drugs / I'm just in love / You're high enough for me." If you only have the time to listen to one song from this album, spend that time listening to "Not on Drugs," because you won't be sorry.

Contrary to the lyrical content of "Not on Drugs," Lo has had moderate exposure worldwide due to a song in which she claims to be constantly high. In Lo's breakthrough track, "Habits (Stay High)," she openly sings, "You're gone and I've gotta stay high all the time / To keep my mind off of you." In terms of the three sections of the album, "Habits" is quite obviously in the realm of "The Pain." Also categorized in the last third of the album are the songs "Thousand Miles" and the surprisingly-sunny finale to the album, "This Time Around," that proves every storm cloud has a silver lining.

For a pop debut, Lo did a sufficient job. Overall, the songs are quite systematic and rely a bit too much on the ear-grabbing choruses to carry them, but each song ends up being unique in its own way. Lyrically, Lo is simplistic and casual, which is good for songs aimed for radio domination, but I can definitely applaud Lo for being able to craft a sexual party album without automatically reverting to explicit lyrics and straight-up penis talk à la Nicki Minaj. However, with many other synthpop contemporaries releasing competing albums this year (including Lights, whose album drops just one week prior to Lo's), Queen of the Clouds could have used a little more rumble within its cracks of thunder.

Queen of the Clouds will be released September 30, 2014 via Island Records.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Little Machines | Lights


★★★★☆

Since the release of her last album in 2011, Lights Bokan (formerly Lights Poxleitner) has been quite busy. Within that time, she married fellow musician Beau Bokan, released a studio acoustic set of the songs from Siberia, and most recently, jumped into the world of motherhood when she gave birth to her daughter, Rocket Wild. After becoming both a wife and a mother, Lights has decided to re-claim her third title as a musician by releasing her new studio album, Little Machines.

Little Machines marks Lights' transition to a radio-friendly version of her already-refined synthpop style. This added sparkly glaze on top of the material on Little Machines contrasts the gritty dubstep-infused tracks on Siberia. The first single lifted from Little Machines, "Up We Go," gave us a glimpse at this noticeable change and is nearly three minutes of synthpop gold; the chorus alone begs to be played at full volume while you scream, "Everyone here is ready to go / It's been a hard year with nothing to show / From down this road / It's only on we go, on we go," at the top of your lungs.

The closest Lights gets to her previous darkened sound on this album are with "Slow Down" and "Oil & Water," which are only reminiscent of Siberia because they carry slightly-murky undertones; the vast majority of the songs on Little Machines focus on those aforementioned upbeat, peppy themes. The free-flowing "Muscle Memory" and "Meteorites" are topped with scintillating synths reminiscent to those found in the work of Chvrches and Little Daylight, without losing that special Lights touch. In particular, "Muscle Memory" also oozes brooding 1980s influences. In fact, influences from that decade can be heard periodically through the entire album, but are more subtle than expected; La Roux already perfected the ultra-80s synthpop throwback album concept.

Lights continues to play it safe on tracks like "The Same Sea" and "How We Do It" (please notice the fact that the title is a grammatical correct version of Katy Perry's "This Is How We Do"), but "Running With the Boys" and "Speeding" take her into the slightly unfamiliar territory of summery alt-rock with drums and guitar riffs mainly driving the tracks. The former track gleams with nostalgia as Lights sings, "Your hand in mine / Singing every song, loving every line / 'Til the night is done / Just like the old times," and the latter is a peppy, simplistic track that is just as carefree as its lyrical meaning.

Even with all of the synthpop anthems, ballads are not completely unforgotten on Little Machines. In fact, the album opens with "Portal," an intimate, slow-burning song that conveys the emotion that would be least expected from a self-proclaimed 'little machine.' The album also closes with a ballad, but this time it's a slowly-blossoming mid-tempo track called "Don't Go Home Without Me." This ending track seems to be a loving ode to her husband as she sings, "So if our bodies get ugly and our hearts stop beating / Our house is crumbling under me and our kids start leaving / I hope you know I appreciated you in every possible way."

Little Machines now makes Lights easily accessible to all pop music fans. The self-explanatory lyrics throughout the album make for catchy, surefire hits. The album's soft synthpop style is much easier to digest for finicky pop listeners and complements Lights' cute, high vocals (although she did have the vocal power to pierce over the rough, dark sounds on Siberia as well). According to her Twitter page, Lights can "tickle a gnarly synth," and she has fulfilled that guarantee by releasing her most impressive set yet.

Little Machines will be released on September 23, 2014 under Warner Bros. Records.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Evergreen | Broods


★★★★☆

Siblings are typically known for quarreling for years on end, pulling pranks on each another, and causing general chaos against the will of their parents. However, this isn't the case for the brother and sister duo of Georgia and Caleb Nott, who have now been added to an elite group of siblings that uphold a certain behavioral anomaly allowing them to actually get along. Together, they have created Broods, their own indie-pop duo, and have now dropped a full-length album in cooperation with fellow New Zealand native Joel Little.

Evergreen's release was preceded by the duo's highly-marked self-titled debut EP - the two most popular tracks from the Broods EP, "Never Gonna Change" and "Bridges," were lifted and transferred to this album - and the official lead single, "Mother & Father," which opens the album. The song is lead by a persistent drumbeat and thrives on its beautiful melody line and lyrics. In the song, Nott expresses feelings of weariness towards growing older as she sings, "And ever since I left my mother / It’s much harder to know / How to make my own life here / How to make my own home." (For those moving off to college this year, this may be the perfect song for you.)

Broods is able to expand off of the sound from their debut extended play in cuts like "L.A.F" and "Everytime." The first song contains some deep synths that blossom in the chorus, distant shouts, and a skipping drum and hand-clap patterned. It debuted on MTV in July and while in an interview with the network, Georgia Nott admitted that the song's titled stands for "loose as fuck" and said, "It’s about that phase that you go through when you hit 18 and everyone starts going out and they start going to parties. It’s about experiencing all that new and exciting nightlife-type thing as a friend group.” (Perhaps another great song for new college students?)

The likes of "Four Walls" and "Sober" first paint pictures of initially gushy love stories and heart-wrenching separations, but the aftermath of a sour relationship is quickly explored in "Everytime" as Nott questions her commitment: "Cause every time is the last time / And I'm kicking myself just trying to be understanding / Tell me how can you fake that? / You're leaving me waiting and acting like I'm so demanding."  More post break-up thoughts come through on tracks like "Killing You" and the delicate "Medicine," but this time, we find a hollowed Nott humming odes to loneliness: "And you're my storm / I can't compete / And I'm forlorn, moving only on your breeze / And I'll never be free."

As mentioned before, Joel Little was the third and only other set of hands on Evergreen with the Notts; he is most famously known for his work on Lorde's Pure Heroine. There are a few songs here that overlap the general sounds of Lorde's record, both the title track and "Superstar," but it's not overly obvious to general listeners. "Evergreen," shares the same sharp snaps of a drum machine and sad synths with Lorde's "Tennis Court," while the production and vocal delivery on "Superstar" put me in mind of the latter half of "Buzzcut Season." Neither comparison majorly inhibits the content of the album, but it is worth noting.

New Zealand has recently had a knack for exporting young, talented acts like a well-oiled machine and Broods is the country's most recent shipment. With only one documented year in the making yet the fine-tuning of a good record that signifies that it could have been quietly ripening for the most of the duo's secondary schooling years, Evergreen is a ten piece suite that appeals to easily-pleased teenage indie pop fans and finicky music critics alike. Plants that are evergreen stay consistently beautiful and lively, and Broods proves that an album titled Evergreen holds true to the same definition.

Evergreen has already been released in Australia and New Zealand, but is slated for release in the United States on October 7, 2014 under Capitol Records.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

V | Maroon 5


★★☆☆☆

For well over a decade, Maroon 5 has been systematically churning out Top 40 hits, from "This Love" to "Moves Like Jagger." Their newest cut, "Maps," has peaked at number six on the Billboard Hot 100, and now the band has gone forward with the release of their fifth studio album, V

Between the release of their 2002 debut album Songs About Jane and Overexposed (their most recent album before V), Maroon 5 has seen a behind-the-scenes transition from a self-sufficient lyric and production machine to a entire factory of outside collaborators. Previous co-writers Ryan Tedder (of OneRepublic), Benny Blanco, and Ammar Malik are prominent figures on this album as well, but they don't disturb the same pop-rock sound that Maroon 5 has been drawing out for the past few album cycles.

"Maps" was released for download and serviced to mainstream radio in June and has been met with unsurprisingly successful commercial performance. The song, just like Overexposed-era singles such as "Payphone" and "One More Night," still renders the band unrecognizable to longtime fans lingering from the early days. Instead, the producers of "Maps" have taken lead singer Adam Levine's constricted vocals and baked them into a radio-friendly pop song that is just bearable enough to hum along with when the song is on the radio, but not unique enough to encourage listeners to pinpoint the song on iTunes.

Teaming up with the infamous dancing hamsters, Maroon 5 also managed to nab a promotional slot with Kia for their newest model of their Soul EV wagon. Last year's Kia Soul campaign featuring Lady Gaga's "Applause" was almost everywhere, so as long as the company is still using the same wide-focus marketing strategy, Maroon 5 should be benefiting from this year's commercial reincarnation as well. The song used in the commercial, "Animals," runs off of a similar surefire power-pop formula as "Maps," but utilizes a darker bass line and suggestive lyrics: "Baby I'm preying on you tonight / Hunt you down eat you alive / Just like animals."

In general, this album pushes Levine into a large group of distinctive influences, but each track is glossed over with a general pop-rock sound for consistency. Lyrically, "It Was Always You" is a dedication to a seemingly perfect girl, but musically sounds like a toned-down, twenty-first century revamp of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." The Ammo and Cirkut-produced "Sugar" pushes Levine into a hybrid of Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" and "Birthday," the accusatory "In Your Pocket" sounds like an up-tempo Florence + The Machine track with a synth line, and even "Maps" nods back to the recent works of OneRepublic.

"Leaving Califonia" is perhaps the closest we get to "old school" Maroon 5 here, but even on this guitar-led track we get noticeably altered vocals and some moments of heavy production. On the contrary, the band goes into some sort of teen boy band trance on tracks like "Unkiss Me" and "New Love." "Unkiss Me" in particular sounds like a dated late-90s ballad from *NSYNC, exchanging Justin Timberlake's voice with Adam Levine's.

Like in the aforementioned "It Was Always You," 1980s pop-rock influences run through "Coming Back For You" and "Feelings." In the former track, Levine promises to bring a relationship back to life regardless of the lengths he must go to do so ("I know there are millions of miles in between our hearts / But I will come running for you I don't care how far"), while in the latter, Adam utilizes a whiny falsetto to sing "I got these feelings for you / And I can't help myself no more / Can't fight these feelings for you / No I can't help myself no more."

The only vocal collaboration on the album is on its closing track: a ballad titled "My Heart is Open," recorded with Gwen Stefani. I know that a collaboration opportunity with Gwen Stefani being used on a piano-driven ballad simply seems like a wasted opportunity for another "Moves Like Jagger"-sized hit with added spunk, but this track is actually a touching finale to V. The track was co-written by Sia Furler and Rodney Jerkins (Yes, I was sold at "Sia," too), and Levine and Stefani's voices make for a smooth combination; those layered vocals are enough to make even the most emotionless listener swoon under their influence.

Overall, V is another record that holds true to the new standard for Maroon 5. In terms of sound, their identity still isn't unique; the album is based on a disposable mix of pop and rock and a slew of contemporary influences. Much like the band's singles, which tend to be initially popular before being abandoned and infrequently rotated at a mix station, the album is completely forgettable after each listen (minus a few songs). A common idiom says that the third time's the charm, but perhaps they forgot to add that the fifth time's just stale.

V is available now in both standard and deluxe formats under Interscope Records and 222 Records.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Playlist: September 2014



"Heavy Metal and Reflective"
Azealia Banks

This fresh track comes to us courtesy of Azealia Banks - currently a completely independent rapper after wiggling her way out of a strangling contract with Universal Music Group's Interscope and Polydor. "Heavy Metal and Reflective" has been lifted from Broke With Expensive Taste, Banks' debut album that is still slated for release soon, even after breaking her contract with her former record labels. A superb instrumental runs through track, sounding like a malfunctioning dial-up modem, while Banks' deep flow is broken up with catchy chants of "I could get that."


"Shake It Off"
Taylor Swift

After completely dominating the music industry with 2012's Red and then running around the globe for the monstrous tour to support the album, Taylor Swift has moved directly from tour mode to jump-starting the campaign for her fifth studio and first solely-pop record, 1989. The lead single to the record, "Shake It Off," was dropped simultaneously with the full album campaign announcement. Lyrically, the single has been jokingly noted as the first major song from Swift not to be about love or a break-up, instead aiming for encouraging notes about ignoring haters and bullies.


"Up We Go"
Lights

Candian singer-songwriter Lights wasted no time getting back into the swing of things after giving birth to her first child in February of this year. Her third studio album, Little Machines, will be out on September 23, but until then, we have "Up We Go" (and subsequent single "Portal") to hold us over. This song holds true to Lights' general electropop style, but drags towards a sound that is more radio-friendly than the cuts from her last album, Siberia - a change that has brought both positive and negative feedback. Personally, I'm still a fan and am loving the new sound!


"Break The Rules"
Charli XCX

Charli XCX has finally hit it big... as an artist, not as a behind-the-scenes songwriter. This summer, radio airwaves grabbed her feature on Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" and her own "Boom Clap," and didn't let go. Although she had earlier planned a punk-rock album to succeed her previous synthpop album True Romance, it seems that she has taken advantage of her pop pedestal to release another pop-oriented album before fulfilling any rock plans. Preceding her upcoming album, Sucker, "Break The Rules" amplifies the sassy, bratty persona seen in "Fancy" and relates it to rebellious teenagers during the current back-to-school season. In the song, "I don't want to go to school, I just want to break the rules," before an small synth chain. Hopefully the radio picks this one up soon.


"bad_news"
Bastille

Just when you thought Bastille couldn't get any better, they did. They recently released a B-side track to their upcoming single release titled "bad_news," complete with a nostalgic "cut-and-paste vintage clips together to make a visual" video that even Lana Del Rey would be proud of. Using both Bastille's signature alternative style, combined with a few tips from electronic music, "bad_news" could easily be declared the band's best single to date (yes, even beating "Of the Night" and "Pompeii.")