Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Singles Summary: March 2015


Carly Rae Jepsen // "I Really Like You"
TBA, Interscope
★★★★☆

You really like Carly Rae Jepsen, don't you? Like, really, really, really, really, really, really like her? If so, you're in luck, because her return to pop radio is here: "I Really Like You." With her manager in fear of her pending status as a one-hit wonder, Jepsen geared this song for the bubblegum pop jugular. Spiraling synthesizers, an easy-to-remember hook, lyrics that can be taken at face value, and a video co-starring Tom Hanks and Justin Bieber? Jepsen has pulled out all of the stops on this one, and it should really, really, really, really, really, really pay off.



M83 feat. Haim // "Holes in the Sky"
Insurgent: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Interscope
★★★★☆

The seven-track soundtrack to the second installment of the Divergent series doesn't seem to have a jaw-dropping line-up, but at least it has been saved by Woodkid, Lykki Li, M83, and Haim. While work on the band's follow-up to Days Are Gone is underway, Haim has branched away from their summery alt-rock backgrounds in collaborations with Calvin Harris, and now, M83. The production is scaled back from M83's bombastic electronic soundscapes, but it draws attention directly to Haim's vocal work. The young women's voices delicately float over the strings and percussion; it may be the best vocal work we've heard yet from the girls of Haim.


Grimes // "REALiTi"
scrapped demo, self-released
★★★★☆

Six months after releasing "Go" midst the news that she had scrapped an entire album, electronic artist Grimes is back (kind of). To thank fans for attending shows in foreign countries, she dropped "REALiTi," a demo recorded for the album that she never released. Although the released product is an unmixed demo, it still reveals the promising direction Grimes was taking at the time. "REALiTi," like "Go," carries a mainstream-friendly sound without diminishing in quality. If she continues to take this direction on the next album she decides to release, it could eclipse the critical success (and commercial success) of Visions.


Grimes, Bleachers // "Entropy"
Original song for HBO's Girls, RCA
★★★★☆

March must be the Month of Grimes. Commissioned for Lena Dunham's HBO series Girls, she teamed up with Jack Antonoff's solo project Bleachers to create "Entropy." Bleachers' production paints a lighthearted, easygoing backdrop beneath Grimes' reverberated vocals. While the song is definitely more mainstream than Grimes is probably used to producing, her voice suits the style perfectly.


Krewella // "Somewhere to Run"
TBA, Columbia
★★★★☆

After the "forced" departure of Kris "Rain Man" Trindl, electronic outfit Krewella continues strong as a duo. Following 2014's "Say Goodbye," the duo of sisters has unleashed "Somewhere to Run." The electronic piece utilizes a rougher texture (similar to the production styling of Madeon) that still allows the vocals to shine. It'll definitely be an essential jam for summer.


FKA twigs // "Glass & Patron"
EP3, Young Turks
★★★★☆

Already riding off of the critical acclaim of her debut album, FKA twigs is wasting no time releasing new material. As part of YouTube's 2015 Music Awards ceremony, twigs released the self-directed video to "Glass & Patron." The song starts on a dull note, but by the 2:00 mark, electronic elements and accelerated vocals begin to take over the song. This is the farthest we have seen twigs stray from her unique spin on alt-R&B. While the emotion is stripped from her fragile voice by the digital tempo changes, the song still manages to impress; I'm still chanting, "1, 2, 3, now hold that pose for me."



Florence + The Machine // "St. Jude"
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Island
★★★★☆

Last month's introduction video to Florence + The Machine's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful begged for additional story line that didn't seem fulfilled by the video for lead single "What Kind of Man." Luckily, the second chapter of album's "odyssey" came in the form of "St. Jude." Lyrically, we get another poetic delivery from Florence and her Machine: "St. Jude, the patron saint of the lost causes / we were lost before she started / we lay in bed as she whipped around us / maybe I’ve always been more comfortable in chaos." However, sonically, "St. Jude" is a harsh contrast to past work. Unlike songs on Ceremonials, this is a understated, down-tempo song that lacks a hard-hitting chorus or unbreakable vocal belts.



Ed Sheeran & Rudimental // "Bloodstream"
x, Asylum / Atlantic
★★★☆☆

Ed Sheeran has spiced up his usual "white boy with a guitar" shtick and it has paid off. Teaming up with Rudimental, Sheeran added a kick to his sound on "Bloodstream." While many of his songs rely on the mushy language of love to melt the hearts of teenage girls and soccer moms alike, I guess that Sheeran's wild side proves to create the best material; "Bloodstream," originally produced by Rick Rubin before Disclosure's re-work, is based on Sheeran's experience under the influence of MDMA.


Rihanna // "Bitch Better Have My Money"
R8, Roc Nation
★★★☆☆

What a strange mix R8 is bound to be... Following the release of lead single "FourFiveSeconds," a stripped guitar-and-vocal collaboration with Kanye West and Paul McCartney, Rihanna has dropped "Bitch Better Have My Money." The trap track caters to Rihanna's urban club scene and has some of Rihanna's most laughable lyrics yet: "Your wife in the back of my brand new foreign car / Don't act like you forgot / Bitch better have my money / Pay me what you owe me." Despite its lyrics, it somehow ends up being an enjoyable guilty-pleasure banger, much like Beyoncé's "7/11."


Major Lazer & DJ Snake feat. MØ // "Lean On"
Peace is the Mission, Mad Decent
★★★☆☆

Diplo-fronted electronic project Major Lazer has announced a third studio album, which is set to include features from Ariana Grande, Ellie Goulding, Elliphant, and more. Danish singer-songwriter MØ, best known in the United States for her Charli XCX impression on Iggy Azalea's "Beg for It," teamed up with Major Lazer and DJ Snake for the album's first single. The song is drenched in Bollywood influences and features an infectious instrumental break. Like the Krewella track featured earlier in this post, "Lean On" will be another must-hear for the summertime.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Adventure | Madeon


★★★★★

At only 20 years old, French disc jockey and producer Madeon can already be considered accomplished. Born Hugo Leclercq, he has worked with Lady Gaga and Ellie Goulding, opened for the abbreviated North American leg of the Lady's Born This Way Ball tour, and released multiple solo tracks before opting for a full-length debut album. Adventure drops at the very end of this month, with thirteen brand new tracks on its standard pressing.

Madeon doesn't utilize a typical electronic dance format, which normally relies on a slow but steady build-up that gives away to a monstrous breakdown. Instead, his songs take flight just seconds in with exhilarating synths and beats. He is unlike any of his kind; he weaves technicolor magic into each second and invites listeners to join his journey through a vivid utopia, as if Adventure is a 40 minute piece of modern day program music. He carves a shallow valley in his lavish soundscapes only when necessary to allow space for vocals to peak through. 

The album's introduction track, "Isometric," features spirals of dreamy synthesizers that fluidly lead into the Kyan-assisted "You're On." While not as established as a few of the other acts featured on this album, Kyan impresses with sensual vocals normally suited for rhythm and blues. As the production of Bastille's second studio album is underway, Dan Smith has taken a quick step away from the band to make a solo appearance on "La Lune." The track is his first venture into the world of electronic dance, but his vocals make themselves comfortable midst the airy synthwork. Likewise, Mark Foster abandoned the People for a solo vocal performance on "Nonsense." His track, however, is grittier to match the quality of his voice.

Following the footsteps of Calvin Harris, Madeon can also act as a one-man band; on many tracks, he takes the role of the sole songwriter, producer, and vocalist. His voice is rendered unrecognizable on "Zephyr," and on "Beings," layers of vocals intermittently fly off into crazy ad-libs. On "Home," his voice is blurred into the thick forest of production. The song was created in a time of discouragement as Madeon questioned his place in the industry; at one point, he sings, "If I could try a little harder, I could succeed. I'd rather give up and be happy." Luckily, he pushed through and crafted an impressive body of work.

While Madeon packs in some great vocal features and even throws his own vocals into the mix, the production is what drives this journey. His earlier production credits on other artists' tracks wowed listeners, but when he is left to his own devices, the extent of his talent is revealed. His six and a half minute pièce de résistance, "Technicolor," is pushed to the back end of the deluxe pressing, but it is a fair representation of the grand productions Madeon can orchestrate. Listeners have a lot to look forward on this record, so take a deep breath and get ready for a spectacular Adventure.

Adventure will be released on March 31, 2015 under Columbia Records. It can be streamed for a limited time on iTunes Radio First Play.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Amethyst | Tinashe


★★★★☆

Just five months ago, a mainstream audience was welcomed to Tinashe's world on Aquarius, a debut album stacked with alternative R&B tunes and urban club bangers provided courtesy of DJ Mustard and Cashmere Cat. As a follow-up to her major label debut, Tinashe dropped her fourth mixtape, titled after her birthstone. Amethyst is a compact seven-track suite that spares the condiments and the cat in favor of a soothing hybrid of electronic and R&B.

The mixtape is book-ended by its most ethereal tracks. "Dreams are Real" allows Tinashe to soar to her airiest notes over the chorus and scoop to her lower range as she proclaims, "The future is mine." Meanwhile, her voice shifts to a delicate whisper (similar to the tone that blasted FKA twigs to fame) over the glitched production of "Just The Way I Like You." In between them, Tinashe experiments vocally over five other tracks. From her dark, auto-tuned croons ("Wrong") to her strongest and most sensual mid-range displays ("Wanderer"), Tinashe's voice takes center stage throughout the mixtape.

Amethyst is a relatively small collection, especially compared to the hour-long run time of Aquarius. A seven-track platform gives an artist a limited canvas to impress and can magnify an album's mistakes. Luckily, Tinashe is without many missteps here (spare the awkward "You ain't Tupac, bitch / You ain't Tupac" whispers on "Lookin 4 It"). Sonically, she is the stepping-stone between mainstream R&B and alternative outliers to the genre, and vocally, she puts many of her contemporaries to shame.

Amethyst is available for a free download now at Hot New Hip Hop.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Our Own House | MisterWives


★★★☆☆

The mobile app Vine is a strange, mystical land of six second videos. Not only do memes spread like wildfire across the app, but obscure pieces of music are also picked up, blasted to widespread popularity, and abused by the most popular users for months on end; in particular, "I Don't Fuck With You" and "CoCo" still accompany many of my nightmares. Members of American indie pop band MisterWives are not strangers to the spontaneous Vine-fueled success, after users grabbed onto "Reflections" and didn't let go. With the epicenter of their viral success in the rear-view mirror, the band has unveiled their debut full-length album, Our Own House.

MisterWives carved their own niche within the indie pop genre; they combine "real" and synthetic instruments to achieve their lighthearted sound. However, the band doesn't stray far from their predetermined formulas. In their upbeat and mid-tempo selections, such as "Hurricane," "Our Own House," and of course "Reflections," multiple layers of similar drums, guitars, and synthesizers are systematically added as the pieces swell in their bombastic choruses, but the verses are left as mere ornaments. In turn, songs that lack the signature choruses ("Vagabond," "Oceans") teeter along without much to look forward to.

Lead singer Mandy Duff's voice doesn't have the necessary spark to hold its own, especially when a track is stripped of a lush instrumental backdrop. Her shrill soprano range is impressive, but her limited vocal power often seems to originate from the middle of her throat, and despite being native to the United States, she cannot enunciate English words clearly. While some artists, namely Ariana Grande and Sia, are slammed for slurring words into moody murmurs, Duff's lyrics are scrambled by her overpowered shrieks at moments of excitement or emotion.

In short, Our Own House encompasses listeners with feel-good indie pop with plenty of room left for improvement. Between rehashed sounds and faulty vocal delivery, the band's shortcomings are blatant. At its most jubilant climaxes, the album is surprisingly pleasing, but nothing special fills the voids between those moments. However, for just being on their debut, MisterWives proves to be a promising act. They have already mastered the production of well-crafted choruses, a mandatory skill for pop acts that aim for mainstream appeal. With further songwriting and vocal development, the band's follow-up to Our Own House could make this album look like a basic apartment by comparison.

Our Own House is out now under Republic Records.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Little Machines Tour | Lights with X Ambassadors


★★★★☆

I spent my Monday afternoon on a sidewalk in Cleveland outside the House of Blues. I arrived at 4 p.m. to find myself fifth in line at the venue's door, behind people that I would soon befriend. For three hours, we watched the growing line of anxious fans sprawl across the side of the building and waited for the doors to open just before 7 p.m. for the Cleveland stop of the Little Machines Tour, starring Canadian synthpop star Lights in support of her third studio album.

Lights's set was preceded by an opening performance from alt-rock group X Ambassadors. On stage, the band experimented with guitars, keyboards, and saxophone solos. Lead singer Sam Harris proudly announced the June 23 release date of their full-length debut album, and the band plugged two new tracks from the LP: "Lowlife" and "Naked." Only a few devoted Ambassador fans were speckled in the masses anxiously awaiting Lights, and for the most part, the band as a whole failed to garner much attention. The keyboard player, however, captured some glances; his limbs and head spasmed as if they were tied to string and controlled by a hyperactive puppeteer.

Lights's show was crafted for us fans. The entire audience block came alive as she opened the show with fan-favorite "Muscle Memory," and that energy didn't decay until the spotlights dimmed black after her encore performance of "Oil & Water." In between those two songs, the audience bounced along to songs from Little Machines, select highlights from Siberia, and a cover of the Cardigans's "Lovefool." She electrified the venue as she bounced from one end of the stage to the other with a reverberated microphone in hand. The connection between Lights and her audience intensified as we all sang every word to the likes of "Siberia" and "Up We Go."

In between songs, her bubbly personality shone through as she connected with audience through stories of her time in Cleveland; she befriended an Uber taxi driver, enjoyed some time at Westlake's Crocker Park shopping center, and appreciated Cleveland's... tap water. "Uh, your water is nice. Not the lake, obviously, but the tap water!" she joked, as she dug for compliments for city. Cleveland showed Lights nothing but love, and she promised to return for another show in good time. Does this mean that a follow-up to Little Machines (or an acoustic companion album à la Siberia Acoustic) will come sooner rather than later? Hopefully.

After the curtain closed on the main stage, fifty lucky fans donning yellow wristbands lined up in a hallway. With CD and vinyl copies of Little Machines in hand, we each took our turn meeting Lights one-on-one in a smaller ballroom intricately adorned with paintings and flashy light fixtures. One fan welled up as she walked towards Lights, receiving three hugs and lengthy chat. For some, this meet and greet was the fifth or sixth encounter with the songstress. For others, meeting her made the drive from Kentucky to Cleveland worthwhile. From my perspective, however, the concert and meet-up proved the immense talent and humble personality of Lights; she has officially earned herself a new super-fan.

Lights will be performing on select dates in Ontario, Canada through March 15. After a short break, she will hit the road again in April. Tickets and dates can be found at music.iamlights.com/tour/.





Friday, March 6, 2015

The Honeymoon Tour | Ariana Grande with Cashmere Cat


★★★★☆

"C'mon, Cleveland, lemme hear you!" she screamed. Ariana Grande had not even faced her audience in the Quicken Loans Arena as she prepared to sing her opening number, yet she had captured the attention of every soul in the building. Her audience of loving Arianators, many of which have been by her side since her days at Nickelodeon, had spent the past 90 minutes in suspense for this moment.

Before Grande's grand debut, we were offered a 30-minute set from disc jockey and producer Cashmere Cat. While he could have caught the attention of the entire arena with his club mix, the shaggy-haired feline failed to market himself appropriately; six dim spotlights shone down on him as he swayed and stared down at his equipment. No fancy light shows, no audience interaction, no stage presence. He delivered some intriguing beats, but most audience members found their phones to be more interesting. 

Another opening time slot was originally set to be filled by boy band Rixton, who never showed up. To fill the void, the venue opted to play a combination of today's biggest pop hits through the loudspeakers. In the mix was Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda," to which one middle-aged woman gave a lap dance in the audience. At the end of her impromptu routine, the entire audience had fixated on her and granted her a monstrous round of applause. Yes, the audience deemed the risqué lap dance lady more worthy of our praise than Cashmere Cat.

However, Cashmere Cat and the "Anaconda" lap-dancer were not who the audience came to see. As Ariana turned to face her audience for the first time with a solo rendition of her hit with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj, "Bang Bang," the crowd went berserk. For the next 90 minutes, they would scream with delight at her every move; nothing that Grande did that night went unnoticed. Even as she mindlessly toyed around on stage with the Imogen Heap-created Mi.Mu gloves, which shove a user's voice through a vocoder and change pitch based on hand movements, her fans cried with joy.

From the fan-favorite "Honeymoon Avenue" to the colossal hit "Break Free," Grande chose the set list with a wise hand. Her time on stage was supplemented with a three-tiered stage that illuminated with visuals, recorded cameos from featured rappers, and majestic entrances to the stage atop clouds and chandeliers. Yet, her most intimate performances of the night spared the gimmicks; she sat teary-eyed on a white grand piano when she sang "My Everything" as a tribute to her late grandfather, and her voice truly shined as she stood solo on stage during "Tattooed Heart."

Grande's vocal power is undeniable; she hit each and every jaw-dropping high note with ease, ad-libbing over half of her tracks to save herself from dreaded lip-syncing rumors. While not completely comfortable in such a large venue, Grande has clearly become less vulnerable on her pedestal. While she and her gaggle of back-up dancers electrified the arena, the thousands of fans that roared with excitement seemed to hold the morale of our tiny songstress high through the show. The pinnacle of Grande's recent success, "Problem," caused outcries that drowned out the song itself as she pushed out the highest squeals of the song.

With some growth as a performer and maintenance of that four-octave voice, The Honeymoon Tour surely will not be the last that we see of Ariana Grande. As the name of the tour suggests, it's only the beginning of the road for Grande, with a lifetime supply of show-stopping performances just waiting to happen.

The Honeymoon Tour will continue in North America through April. The tour's European leg will kick off in May. Tickets for remaining shows can be found via Ticketmaster.




Thursday, March 5, 2015

Still the One: Live From Vegas | Shania Twain


★★★★☆

Three consecutive diamond-status albums. Five Grammy Awards. 75 million albums sold worldwide. 

From the mid-1990s to 2004, country-pop star Shania Twain was unstoppable. Then, at the height of her career, she halted promotion and left the spotlight. Eleven years have passed since her departure from the industry, and those years were filled with turmoil: a divorce from her primary co-writer and producer, concerns over the health of her vocal chords, and a complete destruction of her self-confidence. Finally, in 2012, she began a two-year residency deal with Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas to regain her ability to sing in front of an audience. Spawning from her time at the Colosseum, Still the One: Live From Vegas marks Twain's first release since 2004's Greatest Hits

This new live album proves that the goal of her residency has been achieved; she flaunts more confidence than ever on stage as she tears through her biggest hits, from the sassy "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under" to her timeless wedding song "From This Moment On." Most of the physically-intensive routines are provided courtesy of her cast of back-up dancers, but Twain still garners the most attention with an inviting smile and shimmering outfits. Time and the effects of dysphonia have added a nasally tinge to her voice, but it doesn't necessarily hinder her vocal quality.

Still the One is everything a Las Vegas residency should be: a remembrance of the artist's prime. She packs the show with hits and pays homage to her most iconic music videos; she partakes in the motorcycle race of "I'm Gonna Getcha Good" and struts the leopard-print fashion statements of "That Don't Impress Me Much." As she reflects on her career, viewers are slapped with nostalgia from every angle. By the end of the show, Twain clearly prevails against all of the odds that life has thrown her way. As she kneels on stage at the close of "Man! I Feel Like a Woman," confetti rains down on Twain and the audience grants her a standing ovation; she proves that she is Still the One.

Still the One is available now under Mercury Records. In the United States, it is stocked exclusively at Walmart.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Piece by Piece | Kelly Clarkson


★★★☆☆

"Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this," a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Kelly Clarkson once sang. Who knew that nearly 13 years after that glorious moment, the product of a singing competition show would still be a staple of the music industry? The original American Idol hasn't released an album with new original material since 2011's Stronger, but she filled the four-year gap with a greatest hits compilation and a Christmas album. On her seventh studio album, Piece by Piece, Clarkson has dropped her popular break-up anthems in favor of showing a softer, loving side, most likely revealed by her new position as a mother.

While lead single "Heartbeat Song" was met with average reviews and lackluster commercial performance, it proves that Clarkson can still deliver a sufficient pop-rock track; the verses are driven by guitars and drums, and the chorus is drenched with swirling synthesizers. It was plugged as a genuine love song stemming from Clarkson's entrance to motherhood, but other songs override it in lyrical significance. The title track, one of the three songs that Clarkson co-wrote, is arguably her most introspective to date and is sure to resonate with many listeners. In it, she contrasts abandonment from her biological father to the love received from her step-father: "He restored my faith that a man can be kind and a father should be great."

In addition to many previous behind-the-scenes collaborators, Clarkson turned to one of the most notable songwriters of the past few years for assistance: Sia Furler. Luckily, unlike some artists, Clarkson actually possesses the vocal power to rip through Sia's demanding melodies. In particular, Clarkson stuns listeners on "Invincible" as she glides over the deep drums and Furler's web of backing vocals. Meanwhile, in terms of vocal features, Clarkson only collaborated on "Run Run Run" with John Legend, after she jokingly told BBC Radio 1's Nick Grimshaw that she would love to work with many people, "but everyone usually says no." Her vulnerable duet with Legend, which was originally recorded by Tokio Hotel, reveals vocal compatibility between the two as they sing, "And you waited on the rain / Through tears, my heart is caged / And we fall through fate / But we rise and rise again / And I run, run, run, run, run." 

Clarkson doesn't take risks often, but there is evidence on Piece by Piece that proves that she actually should. "Take You High" blasts Clarkson to euphoric heights; in the chorus, slashed vocal ad-libs are littered over soaring synthesizers and heavy drums, yet her vocal power isn't overshadowed by the production. Like many artists have recently, Clarkson also pays homage to '80s pop-rock in a track fittingly titled "Nostalgic." The driving production of the song could have been pulled directly from Betty Who's Take Me When You Go, but Clarkson works it as her own vocally as she sings of a bittersweet end to a relationship: "Even though we lost it, I still get nostalgic / Even if we want it, you can't turn back the hands of time."

By no means is Piece by Piece an example of revolutionary pop, but it should not be discredited, either. Despite Clarkson's claims of being influenced by country, R&B, and Broadway, the album is filled from start to finish with fresh pop-rock that she is best known for. She built an empire on radio-formatted, family-friendly tunes; her biggest hits are not ground-breaking, but they're enjoyable pieces nonetheless. Thanks to that mass appeal, Clarkson's career will soon outlive the show that launched it; Piece by Piece and album by album, she will continue to reign as an unshakable power in pop.

Piece by Piece will be released on March 3, 2015 under RCA Records and 19 Recordings. Standard and deluxe editions will be available.