Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Masseduction | St. Vincent

Short of somehow begin misconstrued as a bigot, Annie Clark told Nylon magazine for her cover story in the publication's final printed edition last month, she doesn't mind being misunderstood. Of course, the 35-year-old musician, who does business as St. Vincent, has never been one for lucidity: Wrapped in erratic soundscapes and delivered in twisted, elusive poetry, the messages in her back catalog have ranged from satirical on a societal level to sentimental on a personal one. 

Masseduction, her fifth record, places St. Vincent in the midst of a sexed up, drugged up, messed up world and frames her personal woes as inescapable misfortunes that come stock with life in modern America. Damning west coast show business culture on the jagged "Los Ageless," she burrows into the problems it brings — an especially appropriate centerfold as we watch the destruction of a nation that overnighted an unqualified Hollywood elitist into the White House. But rather than lament on the obvious, she sews together her own experiences in today's frivolous world and proves she does not transcend the mess; Instead, she admits to being a victim of it herself and now fears what is to come.

Personal in nature first and foremost, Masseduction is open to alternate, grander significance secondarily. With "mass seduction" slurred into one word for its title and spandex-covered buttocks on its cover, the record delivers brutal honesty in regard to St. Vincent's lust, intensified by a neon-lit, leopard-printed culture: “Savior” is a disjointed recounting of role play in kinky leather outfits, while the title track delivers a double entendre on an unhealthy relationship and a toxic combination of sexuality and popular culture. "I can't turn off what turns me on," she sings on the chunky, beat-heavy title track, digitizing her voice to alternate "mass seduction" with "mass destruction" beneath its melody.

Sharp-tongued cuts like "Young Lover" and "Pills" spell out in somewhat ambiguous terms the ruins of her previous relationship with actress Cara Delevingne, who makes a surprising guest appearance on "Pills." "Pills to fuck. Pills to eat. Pills, pills, pills, down the kitchen sink," she chants with an uncharacteristic giddiness. The five-minute sonic representation of St. Vincent's experiences with sleeping medication, complete with jittering, jingle-like choruses and a spiraling comedown, wasn't intended to be — but sure does work as — a "finger-wagging" statement on a medicated society. Likewise, "Young Lover" tells the story of an addicted lover with leftover childhood scars, not to be an archetypal superstar’s portrait. 

When she cries, "How can anybody have you and not lose their minds, too?" on "Ageless," the suspect could fall not on a person, but on fame personified. As she towers to new heights in fame and mainstream appeal, having piqued interest as Delevingne's girlfriend and working with in-demand producer Jack Antonoff on this record, she finds herself wedged in an uncomfortable fold of fame. "And sometimes I feel like an inland ocean: too big to be a lake, too small to be an attraction," her voice smolders on "Smoking Section," the album's finale. She simmers from the album's otherwise breakneck pace and looks in the mirror, reassuring herself she'll make it out alive: "It's not the end," she repeats in its final 90 seconds.

Though it is her most melodically impressive outing to date, Masseduction finds its brightest moments in firecracker cuts like "Los Ageless" and "Sugarboy," when she commands her trusty guitar and zany synthesizers to unhinge around her soprano pipes. But sparse, surprisingly transparent ballads like "Smoking Section" and "New York," during which she seems more conflicted than corrupted, are equally important to the album's backbone. Because while it is exposed only when St. Vincent comes down from the frantic highs to reflect on intrapersonal issues rather than on how widespread chaos affects her daily life, her inner conflict is what hones cultural madness into a personal album that is much more socially aware than its master portrays it to be. 

Masseduction is available now under Loma Vista Recordings.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Double Dutchess | Fergie

Fergie could have enjoyed both the luxury of name recognition and the artistic freedoms normally granted only to brand new artists when she embarked on a solo endeavor in 2006. But settling on the philosophy that things that aren't broken shouldn't be fixed, she didn't go far from what she knew: will.i.am, The Black Eyed Peas ringleader and the executive producer of what everybody knows is Britney Spears' worst album, wasn't far from Fergie's side, producing and featuring on solo debut The Dutchess to immense commercial reception. And despite the album's wild success and what was once a widespread demand for a sophomore solo record, its long-overdue follow-up, Double Dutchess, is nothing but double trouble.

Double Dutchess feels so awkward largely thanks to its faulty timing. Between the releases of "L.A. Love (La La)" and the full-length record, I was able to earn a bachelor's degree. More importantly, though, the popular music industry has flipped what feels like 50 pages in its coursebook for success; DJ Mustard, whose production tag is sewn into "L.A. Love," fell out of style not long after the track's 2014 release. And by shoving the dated song alongside 12 unrelated, inconsistent ones produced amid a rocky promotion cycle and eventual record contract dissolution, she furthers the feeling that this haphazard pop album was forced together like a puzzle finished with pieces from six different boxes.

The Dutchess, even if ridiculous at times, maintained a grasp on a similar sonic palette: pop music built on retro-R&B production bases. Yet throughout Double Dutchess, Fergie cannot sit still – and it's hard to be taken seriously as the jack of all trades when critics barely considered her the master of one to begin with. Perhaps her least successful alter ego throughout is chintzy, second-rate reggae Fergie with "Love is Blind," but following close behind is adult contemporary Fergie, who hit the jackpot once on "Big Girls Don't Cry" but couldn't dare repeat it on acoustic-based tracks "Life Goes On" and "Save It Til Morning" on this album.

It's only when Fergie stops taking herself too serious attitude that Double Dutchess reveals its best material. "Tension" dives into deep synths and a seductive guitar line, making for the album's most blatant highlight as Fergie takes to the dance floor. Interpolating the one-off '80s hip-hop hit "It Takes Two," the Nicki Minaj-featured "You Already Know" hypnotizes listeners into bouncing along to the classic sample and eventually rattling along with Fergie-Ferg and Minaj. Hell, even "M.I.L.F. $" is at least honest in its absurdity, making the relentless rap track at least ironically enjoyable as a party track in same sense as "My Humps."

But the attitude can be stretched only so far over poor songwriting. While fierce vocal delivery is meant to electrify tracks like "Hungry" and "Like It Ain't Nuttin'," Fergie fails to recognize that the ill-fated tracks, like many on Double Dutchess, should have been killed on the studio floor to spare everyone the trouble – three years of trouble for herself and a flurry of songwriters and producers. And so it seems that in attempt to convince herself that she didn't waste three years to produce weak melodies and uninspired lyrics for nothing, Fergie didn't even try to put lipstick on the pig that is this flimsy album – she just greased it up and let it loose on the streets anyway.

Double Dutchess is available now under Dutchess Music.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Younger Now | Miley Cyrus

Since her Can't Be Tamed days, Miley Cyrus has been pigeonholed as the poster child for hyper-maturity of child stars as they enter adulthood. With a fickle little muse on the hunt for the pop stardom's edgier sides, she went from sexy to absurd and from absurd to alarming. Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Petz, her 2015 passion project released online independently from her record contract two years after Bangerz ignited her public image, was a marijuana-laced call for attention... or help... or both. For what it's worth, at the era's peak, we watched Cyrus cover the raunchy "My Neck, My Back" on stage while wearing nipple pasties and giant butterfly wings.

Now, reversing the underlying desire for maturity that determined her career's schizophrenic trajectory for over a decade, Miley Cyrus is ready to come home. Denouncing her wild, albeit undeniably fun, days spent teddy bear-humping and wrecking ball-riding, she has scrubbed up her image to become an innocent, carefree, Nashville-bred girl once again. And in doing so, she has planted her sixth studio album, Younger Now, at home base, where she began years ago with crossover radio hit "The Climb" – country music, or at least the closest she go to it as a pop artist.

As she admits on the record's title track, Cyrus has never been one to stay in place for very long. And although country-pop is many worlds away from the hip-hop-drenched Bangerz and the psychedelic trip delivered courtesy of Dead Petz, her transition somehow feels as much natural as Lady Gaga and Kesha's moves to country and rock influences in the past year. After all, she is the daughter of Billy Ray Cyrus and goddaughter of Dolly Parton, who makes her umpteenth guest vocalist appearance this year on the peace-seeking "Rainbowland." They sing together in a jubilant but nondescript chant, with Cyrus' pipes overtaking Parton's muted warble.

Expanding upon the ignorant, escapist bliss of "Rainbowland," the record lives largely behind rose-tinted glasses, a natural viewpoint for a woman who has just fallen back in love. The breezy SoCal soft rock "Malibu," one of radio's most outstanding songs this year, breathes a sigh of relief after a turbulent past with once-ex, now-reconciled fiancé, Liam Hemsworth: "I never would've believed you if three years ago you told me I'd be here writing this song. But here I am, next to you. The sky's so blue in Malibu." But unfortunately, the album doesn't reach that track's level of outwardly infectious musicality again until "Thinkin'," a sassy, thumping cut toward the record's back end.

Cyrus has always ensured her voice is her music's headliner, never allowing even the heaviest beats of Bangerz to deduct from its power. And the same can be said here, even given how heavily this album relies on her newest image reinvention into a breezy, seemingly non-confrontational singer who is once again family-friendly and undeniably charming. But there are times when love just isn't enough; producer Oren Yoel can stretch the strings of the same acoustic guitar only so far before they break, especially when Cyrus demands on laying her average songwriting atop the same acoustic tone throughout. "Miss You So Much" and "I Would Die For You," for example, both drag listeners through their run times without the reward of a moral or captivating hook.

Younger Now starts and ends on its strongest notes, with the title track and "Malibu" at its commencement and back-to-back ballads "She's Not Him," a sparse reflection on her pansexuality, and "Inspired," a quaint acoustic ballad that shimmers with childhood memories and a bundle of hope, closing the curtains. In between those bookends, it begins to take a mushier formation. Like an undercooked cake, things begin to taste less appetizing than the first few tastes around the outside. Nevertheless, every bite is still sweet enough to take another, which is more than can be said about her last reincarnate. And if she spends more than few years in this new musical phase, she may be able to perfect it before her next outing.

Younger Now is available now under RCA Records.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Now | Shania Twain


Never has one guitar riff been so capable of igniting such a staggering excitement in every crowd it is played before, each one eager to respond with a resounding chorus: "Let's go girls!" Much like the album from which it originated, "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" adopted a life much larger than the artist who birthed it. By the time it was released in winter 1999,  singer-songwriter Shania Twain was already over a year deep in the promotion of Come on Over, a mammoth album that remains the best-selling album from a female act in the United States.

Up!, the album to follow after the turn of the millennium, was an ambitious reaction to her extraordinary fame. The mega-record went bigger, boasting three discs of 19 tracks dressed in different production styles: a country disc to pacify original fans who had stuck around since The Woman in Me days, a pop disc to cement the love from those who were swept up in her previous record's country-pop charm, and a Bollywood-style disc for the hell of it. It fanned hits, though not as many as its predecessor, across pop and country formats, strengthening her crossover appeal.

And when it seemed as if Shania Twain couldn't go any larger, the instinct was right. Not long after Up! and a subsequent greatest hits compilation, Twain's stage went dark. And behind the curtain, her world imploded. Her husband and sole musical collaborator on her largest three records, Robert "Mutt" Lange, was caught in an affair with Twain's best friend, a saga that rolled out to fans via tabloid magazine sidebars. Meanwhile, battles with dysphonia and Lyme disease almost stripped her of a vital luxury: her voice. Happiness ensued, though, when she found solace in Lange's mistress' then-husband, whom Twain married after both couples divorced.

Upon her return to the spotlight a decade after Up!'s release, she planted her feet as a nostalgia act – one with a Vegas residency packed with all the hits and a bit of pizzazz. She even took the act on the road, crossing North America on an all-time performer's high and a promise to follow up with new music. Making good on that promise, she has released her fifth studio album eagerly but cautiously, like a swimmer who dips her toe into the water to ensure it's a proper temperature before she cannonballs into the deep end. Titled Now, it's a pop-lite effort that burrows into glossy, streamlined soundscapes that hyperextend what country music can be.

It's a fitting title as we watch Twain find her place in today's pop culture, what must feel like fifty worlds away from what she left behind in the last decade. She once wrote a mix of remarkable love ballads and empowerment anthems with feminist intentions, leveraging herself as a titan for the everyday woman. Although accusatory tracks like "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" or "Waiter! Bring Me Water!" invoke quite a strange feeling in hindsight, never was it implied or believed that Twain, who worked on music only with her then-husband, wrote them from an autobiographic perspective. But damn, she delivered them with an attitude that made it hard to believe that she had to feign sincerity.

Playing a relatively similar role as she did years ago, today's Shania Twain prides herself on optimistic, self-motivating tracks. Just as informal and conversational as she was when we last heard from her, she now channels a personal place, loosely entwining leftover scars from her nearly decade-old divorce. Lead single "Life's About to Get Good," for example, carries a cheery disposition and not-so-subtle jabs at Lange over a thumping, awkwardly thin soundscape: "The longer my tears fell, the wider the river. It killed me that you'd give your life to be with her." Likewise, she sings, "Still can't believe he'd leave me to love her" on the not-so-country "Poor Me."

While it retains its cornerstones, her sound isn't as unmistakably Shania as before. Having sustained permanent damage after her battle with Lyme disease, her voice idles at a lower pitch and is blanketed with a nasally overtone. The gusto she has left is steamrolled into synthetic productions deemed thin enough to give her voice the competitive edge, even though she has proven herself capable of railing through her older, thicker tracks after they've been tailored down a half-step or two. Nevertheless, she delivers her sustained notes statically ("Swingin' with My Eyes Closed," "Soldier") and sounds most comfortable on the lowest rumbles of "Roll Me On the River" and "We Got Something They Don't," back-to-back standout tracks sparked alive by stern drumbeats and walls of instrumentation.

With thinner, lighter soundscapes and an even larger ratio of contemporary pop to country trends, Now proves that Twain is genuine when she says she has serious interest in collaborating with the likes of Nick Jonas and Nicki Minaj, be that for better or for worse. The chords that open "Poor Me" can be traced back to The Chainsmokers, and trendy island island beats breeze their way into dance-country hybrid track "Swingin' with My Eyes Closed." Luckily, the latter leans more towards her roots, sharing a warm, country-based sound with "Home Now." Nothing feels more familiar to Shania fans, however, than "Who's Gonna Be Your Girl," a mid-tempo country track that finds Twain's melody leaning into a soft pile of backing harmonies.

An album titled Now insinuates life in the moment, without the past's interference in thoughts and actions. Given her statements in the press during this record's promotion cycle, it seems that's what drew Twain to the title. But even as much as she refuses to admit it, the present is here only because the past paved the way – the chaotic past that she has referenced time and time again in her newest work, from the cheetah print revival from "That Don't Impress Me Much" to the direct nods toward her divorce. Ultimately, despite the reluctance to throw a "divorce record" tag onto Now, humility yields to honesty too often throughout the record for it not to wear the dreaded label.

In her past life, Twain created monstrous albums that had only two gears: slow-burning, unbelievably great love ballads and uptempo, unbelievably great firecrackers. Today, she stalls somewhere on middle ground, making one of her shortest records feel like her most bloated. But even given its sterile production that may be better off classified as adult contemporary rather than country, Now is also her most emotional and most honest. Penning the therapeutic album by herself, she doesn't play the everyday woman but proves she is the everyday woman – one who has been hurt and has managed to heal. So sure, it's certainly no Come on Over, but that's because it was never meant to be another Come on Over anyway.

Now is available now under Mercury Nashville.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Skin&Earth | Lights

It's an ambitious move to create a concept record that lives in a fictional universe but is meant for mainstream consumption on this planet, especially when creative complexities overpower the record on its face. Dramatic story lines, overwrought characters, and songwriting contexts are revealed through social media posts and music videos at most, oftentimes leaving the concepts behind concept albums far too vague to digest before they're abandoned partway through a promotional cycle. Required of successful concept album creators are the willingness to immerse themselves into their fictional world completely and the determination to see the project through.

This being said, it's understandable why it was quite a shock to the system when singer-songwriter Lights, a charmingly low-maintenance synthpop artist who has inched herself closer to mainstream pop over the past decade, unveiled her fourth studio album through an intensive illustrated Instagram scavenger hunt earlier this year. Written from the perspective of a mirroring protagonist, Skin&Earth is an escapist pop project that is a derivative of an accompanying self-written, self-illustrated comic book series of the same name. In short, the six-part series follows a young girl in search of happiness in a wasteland nation.

And the record opens with a skydive into the thick of it, quite literally. Opening track "Skydiving" pulsates under Lights' tumbling vocal runs: "You said to me, 'Get a little unruly. No guts, no glory.' You got me skydiving," she sings as she plummets head-first into her make-believe dystopia. Although most of the record's tracks can exist independent of the comics' storyboard and pull towards mainstream appeal, the album as a whole does act as a product of the series' adventurous story arc. And to much surprise, the approach works because the record shares the comics' sense of adventure and optimism – and luckily, optimism isn't out of character for Lights.

The pick-me-up anthem, a staple of her craft, isn't entirely abandoned amid her comic books' underdog story. Though carrying a tempo change that makes for an awkward disconnect between its verses and its triumphant choruses, "Giants" best reconciles what she's known for and what she wants Skin&Earth to be. But in separating herself from her character, even if slightly, she is able to produce tracks that she may not have before. Never before one for a straightforward love track, she makes just that with "Kicks," a bright track that adheres to current electronic dance music. She also lets the clicking high-hats and darker synths roll on the album's ode to making history, "We Were Here."

Oh, and speaking of being en vogue, Lights now sits at the cool kids' table, banking behind-the-scenes collaborations to bend her sound towards a few different variants of glistening, radio-pleasing pop without becoming gimmicky or redundant. After having scored writing and production credits on Katy Perry's latest album, Purity Ring's Corin Roddick claims responsibility for the dancing tropical drums and groovy synths on Lights' trendiest track to date, "Until the Light." Meanwhile, Josh Dun steps away from Twenty One Pilots to drum on "Savage," a surprisingly bitter track with alternative rock undertones, and Big Data produces the jolting "Moonshine."

Packed with current production and melodic songwriting but embedded in the story board of a comic book series, Skin&Earth was wedged in a strange position from the beginning. Lights' goals seem to head in opposite directions: She aims not only to unleash her most accessible record to her biggest audience reach, but also to burrow into an existing niche audience that will purchase and adore both the comics and the record. And she happily dances the fine line between those goals throughout the album, creating 14 enjoyable tracks that can take dual meanings and provide equal entertainment to committed fans and casual listeners alike.

Skin&Earth is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Future Friends | Superfruit

The most prominent group to come from the rise of contemporary a cappella at the beginning of this decade, five-piece vocal outfit Pentatonix boasts a relatively routine success story: Three friends from high school stopped at nothing to chase their dream to become performers, picking up a few other group members along the way and singing their way to winner's circle of a singing competition show. But since the beginning it was clear that there were two members who were a bit more charismatic than the others: Scott Hoying, the original curator of the Grammy-winning group after experience in a collegiate a cappella group, and Mitch Grassi, who is most often granted the center stage to showcase a vocal range that spans over five octaves.

Together, the two funneled their excess time into Superfruit, a joint YouTube account on which they performed covers and posted typical fodder like vlogs and challenges. First hinting at a transformation of the YouTube collaborative into a major-label music duo with a credited feature under the moniker on Betty Who's sophomore record earlier this year, Hoying and Grassi dropped the first half of what would become their debut album in June. Three months later, the full-length arrives as the 16-track Future Friends, a technicolor pop introduction to a brand-new Hoying and Grassi.

Future Friends breaks the limitations of contemporary a cappella that has made Pentatonix's original material so stagnant – because, let's be honest, a backdrop of vocal percussion can go only so far. Adorned in a variety of everything that makes pop both chintzy and lovable, the album boasts banging beats and LGBT-oriented lyrics. "I'm so over James Dean. I'm more of a three-names queen," they sing on "Heartthrob," dropping some gay slang along the way. "Worth It (Perfect)," meanwhile, spouts a grinding bass line and carries a forward-thinking, gender-bending music video.

With an undeniable chemistry as friends, collaborators, and roommates, Hoying and Grassi often perform as a simultaneous duo: Grassi on the melody, Hoying taking to the harmony or to the melody an octave below. But under Grassi's often-androgynous tenor wails, Hoying too often allows himself to become Grassi's glorified hype man; his lower notes get drowned in the saccharin-coated electronic pop backdrop. Though not a damning occurrence, because Hoying's voice does add weight to Grassi's thing warbles, Hoying's muted presence does run the perception of weighted importance on the two members who otherwise have a great thing going.

A flurry of pop influences shaped the duo's final product. As members of the viral gay community that finds joy in the most banging bops from power pop divas, Hoying and Grassi craft their music either with dance nostalgia in mind or to remain in line with contemporary trends. They sift through a myriad of pop textures in the first half of the record, from mid-2000s pop-rock on "Vacation" to the sleek, rhythmic groove of "Imaginary Parties," but settle on minimalist electronic dance influences through the second half. "Hurry Up!" carries itself with an expected urgency, clanking its way into a wobbling chorus akin to a lite version of Cashmere Cat, while "How You Feeling?" is the outright party track that embodies Superfruit's underlying goal through the album: to have fun.

After all, Superfruit as a music group is the same as Superfruit as a YouTube channel: A bit frivolous and conscious of its status as light entertainment, but undeniably fun. It's easy to understand why some may not deem the duo as a viable force in the pop music world, but after having already proven themselves worthy of attention in Pentatonix, Hoying and Grassi don't seem to concern themselves too deeply in perceptions of their work. Music tailored for a certain group of consumers can work when done well, as Superfruit proves here with novelty, upbeat, rainbow-coated pop. Within their niche LGBT+ and YouTube-savvy subcultures, they're already superstars in their own right.

Future Friends is available now under RCA Records.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Lovers | Anna of the North

Anna Lotterud, one-half of the pop music duo Anna of the North and its only visible member, carries a voice with the density of cotton candy. It glides over minimalist electronic soundscapes fueled on tinny drums and cool, fuzzy atmospheres, an affinity for which originates from her upbringing in a household that cultivated a passion for '80s pop music. But unlike most acts touted as '80s-inspired, who often sort themselves as dance-pop or power rock, Anna of the North often dips the decade's warm aesthetic in a pool of hyper-real, synthesized backdrops while they cover heartbreak in its many forms on debut album Lovers.

Despite the implied tone of the album's title or its opening track, the driving, neon-lit "Moving On," most of the album copes with distress, both in singularity and in a relationship. As expected, Lotterud deals with personal heartbreak ("I'm in the dark," she cries on the title track) and loneliness ("I'm tired of being in love, always in the background," she sings on "Always"). And although she still hasn't recovered herself, she also lends support to others. The chanting, airy chorus on "Money," for example, warns another of a common gold digger: "Open your eyes, my love. She's not the one for you, just wants one thing from you: your money." 

The complexities of being in love and the dynamic of a relationship are often conveyed in states of euphoria or disaster; Not often are such strong feelings presented in a soft, collected manner as they are on Lovers. On most occasions, the album rides on chilly vibes rather than outbursts or climaxes, just as the duo has done since their earliest tracks. "Baby," the only of their first tracks to make it to this album, doesn't even carry a defined chorus, and closing track "All I Want" gets its kicks from twinkling synthesizer plucks and Lotterud's breezy, double-tracked vocals.

But there are times when Lotterud and producer Brady Daniell-Smith spike the formula, most notably when listeners approach prepackaged party track "Fire" and "Someone." On "Someone," they are able to tie together the gap between Madonna and Journey that most cannot. Easily the duo's most encompassing use of an expansive soundscape since "The Dreamer," it commences with clean drum-machine hits and swells into the overwrought ways of '80s power ballads: blaring choruses, prominent guitar lines, multilayered vocals – oh, and a key change, which concretes the duo's successful effort to replicate the authenticity of an '80s radio behemoth.

It may be easy to write off Anna of the North as only an aesthetics act, capitalizing on viral appeal for sharp cinematography and living in a world colored in pastel pink and baby blue. While that may have been a more accurate description in the days of "Sway," the disjointed breakthrough track recorded on GarageBand, today's Anna of the North has a clearer trajectory. They've found their place along the musical spectrum, nixing their initial nods to hip-hop for feathery synthpop. Now to be considered the formal introduction to the duo, Lovers is a focused ten-track outfit with the sounds and substance to captivate.

Lovers is available now under Different Recordings.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell | PVRIS

Having built a name as a metal band before splicing electronics into their debut studio album, rock band PVRIS shares the niche allure of a cover band that transposes popular contemporary hits into edgy rock pieces – spare the fact that PVRIS's tracks are, well, enjoyable. On White Noise, lead singer Lynn Gunn and bandmates Alex Babinski and Brian MacDonald steamrolled sharp hooks with electronic rock and a voice capable of coarse screams and smooth warbles. Given the success of that guise, they created a sophomore album that proves mainstream rock and pop-punk, although more pop than punk, are still alive and well.

To understand the band's sophomore album, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell, perhaps it is best to reference its title in its original context. Pulled from the final lines of an Emily Dickinson poem, it reads in full, "Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell." The phrase implies conflicting feelings of hope and doom, but lead singer Lynn Gunn errs on the side of hopelessness: "You took my heaven away," she belts on the album's opening track, a driving rock-leaning anthem engulfed in stern wails and heavy drums.

Splattering misery across the record's ten tracks, Gunn has been caught in a toxic whirlwind since the band's last record. The cause of her despair can be thrown up to a manipulative relationship and industry growing pains, but she ensures its severity is scaled to the utmost extreme: On "What's Wrong," she laments, "I don't need a metaphor for you to know I'm miserable." And from there, she burrows into herself, translating her tattered psyche through ear-catching melodies and soundscapes that shatter the barriers of pop sensibility and rock personality.

At times, in fact, it is hard to distinguish whether PVRIS is a pop-oriented rock band – as they present themselves on the jagged "No Mercy," which detonates in a screamed chorus – or a rock-influenced pop band – as we hear them on the dancing "Anyone Else" and forlorn "Separate," during which Gunn employs a slurred, Sia-like delivery. Though it bends genres further into a tailor-made mold for the band, the songwriting here is tighter and stronger than that on the debut: the melodies are more potent and pack a stronger punch to the senses, and the vision and storytelling offer a clearer vision into Gunn's world.

With the concept of coping as a reference point, All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell offers a resolution that Dickinson was unable to provide when writing the phrase in regard to death. The album's closing track, "Nola 1," accepts ignorance as to where it all went wrong but realizes Gunn's ultimate purpose: "Don't know where I went wrong, but I keep singing." In a way, it is this phrase that ties Gunn and Dickinson's perspectives together: parting, regardless of context, can be painfully unfathomable, but when the storm clouds pass, it becomes clear that the world continues to turn. This record, of course, is just an explosive snapshot of Gunn as she weathers the storm.

All We Know of Heaven, All We Need of Hell is available now under Rise Records.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Rainbow | Kesha

Portraying herself as the careless firecracker who was the first to the party and the last to leave, Kesha was the essential guest to every dance floor across the nation in her early days. It was hard to run across a contemporary hit radio station at the beginning of this decade that didn't have "TiK ToK" or "Blow" on heavy rotation, because Kesha had entered the mainstream at just the right time. The youth of the United States had become enamored with the recklessness of Jersey Shore, and Lady Gaga had brought back four-to-the-floor, dance-oriented pop. And as a girl who painted her life as a never-ending cycle of drinking, sleeping in cars and bathtubs, and searching for new guys to do the two previous things with her, Kesha was nothing short of fun and nothing less than unrealistically outlandish.

Her second record, Warrior, doubled down in punchy electronics and pitch-corrected sing-rapping, but by the time it was released, Kesha had bent her angle to market a message of self-acceptance to proud, young social anomalies. A documentary-style reality show and coinciding autobiography, My Crazy Beautiful Life, paralleled Kesha in everyday life to her fans, validating her self-proclaimed outcast status. Just as rambunctious as she seemed in her craft, she fantasized out loud about fondling a Scottish man under his kilt and drank her own urine. Though the recipient of more than a few side-eyes, she was a beacon of confidence in herself and her craft.

With her name emblazoned with a dollar symbol and her online presence marked with the username "keshasuxx," she even seemed to hold a sense of humor about her own public persona, which she admitted had been magnified on her own volition. But when she entered rehab for an eating disorder in 2014 and reemerged with the use of her birth name and a fresh start on social media sites as "KeshaRose," it seemed as if the party were over. And when she further revealed physical and sexual assault allegations against Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, the man who has her career gridlocked in a multi-record contract and with whom she made her first two albums, it was hard to fathom how the party was kept alive or even started at all.

Although a liberating album meant to give Kesha a voice all her own for the first time in her career, her third album, Rainbow, is difficult to divorce for its inspiration. She dances around specifics and settles on malleable, generalized statements of freedom and forgiveness – the phrase "learn to let go" comes up a few times on the record. Even lead single "Praying," with an opening dialogue that begs for death and lyrics that aim and fire at Gottwald, throws the past few years' events up to fate and wishes him luck in righting his wrongs: "I hope you're somewhere praying, praying. I hope your soul is changing, changing. I hope you find your peace. Fall upon your knees, praying."

The former cornerstones of her craft – the digitized sing-rapping, the thudding 808s, the party hard mentality – have been largely abandoned in favor of a grittier selection. Riding the wake Lady Gaga stirred with last year's Joanne, Kesha infuses honky-tonk country and back roads rock into an catchy pop base. Her creation yields a borderline-chintzy environment in which she can collaborate with the funk group Dap-Horn Kings on "Woman," a banging, brass-led feminist track, and with Dolly Parton on a cover of "Old Flames (Can't Hold a Flame To You)," a song Kesha's mother wrote in the 1970s and Parton recorded in 1980. In the unexpected collaboration, Parton is all but a paper-thin echo by the time this rendition climaxes with Kesha's strong, stern wails and pounds of drums and tambourines.

Kesha's vocal performances throughout are unprecedentedly organic, without digital alterations to drown them in a syrupy coating, and her radiating presence is undeniable. But her differing goals, both to share her case against Gottwald and to promise that she's still the same fun-loving Kesha, split this record in two. After all, it opens with a middle-finger to bastards, assholes, mean girls, and scumbags and follows a disjointed trajectory that allows it to end on back-to-back tracks about Godzilla stealing French fries at the mall and a metaphoric intergalactic abduction. The latter cuts, of course, take us back to days of Kesha past, favoring the silliness that bolstered her popularity in an era of overdone music videos and red carpet outfits.

Fanned across the record are spaghetti western earworms ("Hunt You Down," "Boots"), electric rock bangers ("Let 'Em Talk"), standard pop cuts ("Hymn," "Learn to Let Go"), and everything in between. But Rainbow, lacking a consistent sonic direction, is nothing if not an embodiment of its title: a spread of many colors. The struggle between comfortable normalcy and conscious personal evolution makes itself clear, as she juggles between the urges to return to fun and games ("Boogie Feet," "Boots," "Hunt You Down") and to reveals details of a story that only tabloids have controlled until this point ("Praying," "Learn to Let Go"). In short, as the therapeutic product of an emotional hurricane, it plays as such – just as it should.

Despite not being in the eye of it any longer, Kesha's storm isn't over yet. She may have been able to release this album without direct contact or a working relationship with Gottwald, but she still is bound to him legally – in fact, these tracks appear to have been published through one of his companies. This isn't to say, however, that Kesha unleashed her Rainbow prematurely. In sharing her narrative and pursuing once prohibited musical avenues, she developed things that many victims cannot: empathy and a renewed sense of self-worth. Rain may continue to fall until the loose ends are tied in the courts system, but until then, Rainbow brings a promise that Kesha will weather the storm and her colors won't be washed away.

Rainbow is available now under Kemosabe Records and RCA Records.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

CollXtion II | Allie X

Pulsating pop music is no longer made for the masses. As if that weren't already made clear enough by failed attempts to revive the genre's extraordinary popularity from the likes of Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani, it became most apparent when we as a society let the banger to end all bangers, Ariana Grande's "Into You," fizzle into oblivion last year but made her inferior follow-up, a little tropical house number called "Side to Side," ignite airwaves.

However, this also means that today's pop music is regarded as, well, kind of cool. Spears' latest album was one of her most lauded to date. The unexpected windstorm of success for Carly Rae Jepsen's trendsetting E•MO•TION has left her all but deified in the eyes of critics and Twitter fans alike. Grande and Selena Gomez are cooler with every breath, needing not to prove themselves with records that particularly conform to trends.

And now, viral pop and rock artists have begun to pull away from their roots and charge full-synth ahead. Most recently, Betty Who has left her lush synthpop behind for her biggest beats to date, and notorious alternative pop figurehead Halsey ignited her sophomore record with a sound that should flatter Rihanna – if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, of course. Even Paramore, once famous for their angsty anthems, has jumped from their own lane and into the '80s-era pop carpool.

Singer-songwriter Allie X has been not above the movement, but rather at the forefront of it. Although masqueraded with melodramatic imagery and a strange public image, she has spent her short time in the industry on the dance floor, producing superbangers that belong in the clubs from behind a veil of Tumblr-certified personality. From her piercing voice to her heavy dance beats, she has stirred memories of the pitch-shifted europop that thrived around the turn of the millennium since her beginnings.

Her second set of work, CollXtion II, is the first album since Hilary Duff's Breathe In. Breathe Out. to open with a whistled chorus – an infectious space filler to some, a cardinal sin to others, and a sure sign of synthpop in its purest form to all. "Paper Love" throws that whistle over a sultry guitar line and electronic beat for optimal pop, kicking with bubbling energy in a humid soundscape. And from there until the very end, when "True Love is Violent" twists a piano ballad into a trap-tinged finale, the record never sleeps.

Between 2015's CollXtion I and now, Allie X released singles like party favors, promising they were part of a grander scheme for this album. In all, seven songs in demo form were released, three of which were carried to this set. Bombastic cuts "Old Habits Die Hard" and "That's So Us" were rerecorded and reproduced here, giving her synthesizers and vocals stronger, punchy impacts. Originally a piano demo, "Casanova" gets an overhaul, becoming a dancing '90s house anthem. Sorely missing, though, are cuts like "All the Rage" and "Too Much To Dream," solid tracks that could have been sewn into this record seamlessly.

Acting like a true pop star with fickle sonic tastes is all in the beauty of pop musicians' newfound allure, so Allie X follows the part: a myriad of influences bend her supercharged pop from one sound to the next, even if she sometimes has to step on others' toes. While "Simon Says" could feel at home in Melanie Martinez's playpen and "Paper Love" is a direct companion to Adam Lambert's "Ghost Town," these are comparisons that run close to Allie X's synthpop stomping grounds. It's the reggae-inspired "Lifted" that surprises with swagger during its two-stepping chorus.

But playing the same as a glossy, high-budget synthpop record from a major label artist, Collxtion II boasts more lavish and polished production than the rest of Allie X's back catalog. In fact, it feels like her first authentic attempt to be more successful than a flash in the pan on a streaming platform's "pop rising" playlist. Her lyrics take aim for the typical, like infatuation and betrayal, and she has learned to craft a spellbinding chorus without shouting over balls-to-the-wall instrumental bursts, like on the vocoder-laden "Need You." In short, it seems she has grown into the supersized sonic world in which she resides, finally feeling right at home.

CollXtion II is available now under Sleepless Records.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

What Do You Think About the Car? | Declan McKenna

While we Americans have been caught in the terrifying whirlwind that is the Trump administration, it has been quite easy to ignore the outside world. But we mustn't those in the United Kingdom, for example, were trapped in their own madhouse last year as Brexit was voted through in a narrow margin and David Cameron's resignation dismantled the arrangement of the county's political figureheads. Having come to age in an era of political chaos, when liberalism has become the golden standard for political correctness without having its standards actualized through the current administration, singer-songwriter Declan McKenna is fed up.

On his debut album, What Do You Think About the Car?, he finds power in youth, in the millennial generation that remains the subject of concern for right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers to our guns, our God, our religions, and our constitution. Glued together with hopeless echoes of "do you care?," opening track "Humongous" implodes in its own frustration – an anger that developed from being told that his generation is the future, but then being ridiculed based on liberal sociopolitical beliefs. It's not long, however, before the dooming feeling of helplessness turns to indifference on "The Kids Don't Wanna Go Home," as McKenna throws his hands up in response to his null position in politics as a citizen under 18. (He has since aged up and is able to vote in his native United Kingdom.)

While McKenna's feelings often occupy his mind, they give way long enough for societal observation – only for said observation to anger him all the more. His debut track that overtook streaming platforms in 2015, "Brazil," throws accountability onto FIFA for its irresponsibility, slamming its decision to incinerate Brazil economically when it chose the country to host the world cup. "Paracetamol," meanwhile, was inspired by the fears and troubles of transgender teens in the wake of Leelah Alcorn's 2014 suicide: "So tell me what's in your mind, so tell me what's in your mind, and don't forget your paracetamol smile," he sings, inviting listeners into a peer-to-peer therapy session.

He adorns his thoughts in spiraling rock production that glows with an indie-static record store appeal. Minus perhaps the electronic harpsichord on the Foster the People-channeling "Isombard" and the analog synthesizers in "Paracetamol," everything about this record feels organic, as if recorded with a cheap microphone in McKenna's garage: the shouted, slurred vocals, the drum kits, the summery acoustic song bases. It all makes for a refreshing, calming oasis within a sparsely populated corner of popular music's world today, in which so many chase clean, concise, electronic-based environments.

Moreover, What Do You Think About the Car? is a promising sign that this generation's Woodstock era – the one Katy Perry thought she had signaled into popularity but Lana Del Rey recently undertook in a manner that can be taken seriously – may appear at the time when we need it the most. Young people, albeit not a majority of them, pay attention to the real world's disastrous affairs, even if mediated through the distracting screens in their pockets. And though McKenna's music sometimes substitutes musicality for meaning and gets wrapped in its own feelings of defeat, this record is nothing if not rooted in social awareness – a camp in which music is sure to put both feet as political administrations continue to toy with the international environment like a puppet on a string.

What Do You Think About the Car? is available now under Columbia Records.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lust for Life | Lana Del Rey

If there were ever a pop star to release an album titled Lust for Life, American singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey would seem to be the least likely candidate. Her earlier major label work, housed in the gloomy debut record Born to Die and full-length follow-up Ultraviolence, depicted life's most unspeakable and undesirable topics through song and video: suicide, assassination, prostitution, addiction, abuse, gang activitydrug manufacturing. She was, as a Rolling Stone reviewer once said, one sad tomato – but a popular one, she became.

The golden standard for a new classic archetype, Del Rey boomed as a bad girl. But as her brand grew, her lack of comfort was magnified. In the eye of her debut's storm, she performed a good deal of her live gigs on her knees in jeans and a crew neck sweatshirt, keeping her eyes locked on the ground in front of her. Going as far as once saying that she wished she were already dead to avoid having to continue in the limelight, Del Rey raised points for concern in her first few years as a mainstream musician.

Yet she has managed to grow into herself and her fame, coping with its reality with an elusive, if not nonexistent, public image and intermittent social media presence. The "gangster Nancy Sinatra" of 2012 was replaced with a nostalgia-saturated, authentic singer-songwriter quite quickly, making Lana Del Rey a mere name change for Elizabeth Grant instead of the separate persona she was originally groomed to be. She overcame critics' initial distaste and has since gotten them to eat from the palm of her hand, owning her on-stage presence and crafting a template for a generation of alternative pop artists to follow.

She built a career on being an all-American old soul then settled on becoming a comfortably familiar parody of herself to sustain her position. On her second and third albums, Ultraviolence and Honeymoon, she doubled down in melancholy and flowery language. And without the context of the full tracks they represent, the 16 song titles on Lust for Life seem to follow that trajectory – stitching them together, one may take an educated guess that this album is another look into toxic relationships and unshakable addiction, part autobiographic and part fantasy-based.

Though Del Rey has been too tangled in the thorns of unhealthy relationships with men (and with herself) for three albums to look outwards, something has shattered the importance of her small, turbulent world: the current federal administration. Life in Trump's America inversely affected her craft, now void of fantasized disaster and saturated, idealistic visions of 20th century Americana. No longer touting the American flag as a prop of pride and freedom, she extends "God Bless America" with a crucial em dash that reflects a political charge: "– And All the Beautiful Women in It."

"Life rocked me like Motley, grabbed me by the ribbons in my hair," she sings on "Heroin." On the six-minute track dressed in opiate metaphors, she realizes past ignorance to the real world and advocates for self-care and inadvertent protest through finding bliss in the darkest moment in modern America. After pondering whether we are faced with the end of America on another cut, she soothes herself with the thought of feigned ignorance: "When the world was at war before, we just kept dancing." And throughout Lust for Life, she provides the distraction that many Americans crave.

Contrary to her introductory stance that we were all born to land ourselves six feet under in the end, she paints daily life and love in a positive light for the first time. On lead single "Love," for example, she realizes her influence in glamorizing sadness and empowers fans with a timeless projection of love as a boundary-defying, all-healing element in life – a far stretch from her past philosophy that "sometimes love is not enough and the road gets tough." While unexpected features from A$AP Rocky (on two tracks) and Playboi Carti make for the album's most heavily produced, least articulate moments, "Summer Bummer" in particular highlights Del Rey's newfound sunny, carefree nature.

Her cheery disposition isn't consistent – she and Stevie Nicks flow through the self-explanatory but gorgeous "Beautiful People Beautiful Problems," and "13 Beaches" revisits Honeymoon's wish for solitude as a celebrity – and there are times when her efforts to change her ways falter – "White Mustang" is Lana Del Rey at her most Lana Del Rey on this record, for better or for worse. But when happiness prevails, it's juxtaposed with Rick Nowels' production, which stabilizes Del Rey's sound in the same cool world as its predecessor. Lust for Life chisels away any excess lusciousness from its sparse organic base and spikes it with trap beats and electronic clips as needed. The soundscapes are designed to highlight her signature breathy highs and smoky lows – the same vocal techniques that many record executives told her ditch but attracted millions of hipster-chic listeners.

With a title that falls in line with her reputation as the staple anachronistic figurehead in viral pop music, "Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind" makes a seemingly adventurous reach to connect her generation's premier festival to the psychedelic storm that forever changed counterculture's prominence in sociopolitical movements. But in line with the rest of the record, it represents Del Rey's overarching goal to promote awareness of the world's real problems through music – and to encourage her followers to find time to flee into happiness within personal lives rather than vicarious sadness through her own overwrought stories of inevitable doom and woe.

The success of her image reversal relies on the integrity of Del Rey's authenticity. Despite the smile plastered on her face, Lana Del Rey still feels like Lana Del Rey – a happier, more optimistic one who has just entered a new chapter of her life. In doing so, she adopts a socially responsible view of her and her music's place in the grander scheme of the world, realizing she can shape pop culture present, not just wander through the memories of pop culture past. While she's still an escapist with a limited vocabulary of poetic language, she now wears the title to ignore a real-life disaster, not to dream up an imaginary one to transcend ordinary life. And it's this unspoken appreciation for everyday life that shows sincerity in her lust for it.

Lust for Life is available now under Interscope Records.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Like a Woman | Kacy Hill

A few intense trigger words are thrown into each of the few online conversations about American singer-songwriter Kacy Hill: Kanye West, dancer, American Apparel, model, more Kanye West. (Putting those pieces together, she was an American Apparel model, and later, a back-up dancer for Kanye West, who signed her to his GOOD Music record label.) There's a lot of gleaming, seemingly exciting fluff in her backstory, but when it comes down to it, Hill puts on the front of a relatively relaxed person.

Thanks to that background with American Apparel, she was asked if she would like to audition for a dancing position in West's Yeezus Tour. A self-proclaimed terrible dancer who had been staying in the living room of a woman she found on Craigslist, she responded to the offer with something akin to what a teenager would tell her friend who asked to take a midnight trip to Taco Bell: "Meh, whatever, I don't know what else I'm doing."

Peel back a few more layers, though, and she's a bit more pensive than she leads us to believe. Her debut album, Like a Woman, revels in the fact that it was a few years in the making. Meticulous and poetic, it doesn't seem like the album to open with a DJ Mustard production – although Hill made sure his signature "Mustard on that beat, hoe" tag is absent, rightfully refusing that to be the introduction to an album about being a woman – or one to boast Kanye West as an executive producer.

Composed of new tracks and some reworked takes of older tracks, Like a Woman was crafted to be scantily clad, sonically and metaphorically. Bonafide pop creeps through the crevices, particularly on the stomp-along "Arm's Length," but was nipped in the bud elsewhere, like on the unrecognizable reincarnate of "Lion." With a dark sonic palette that leaves wide gaps between its clean-cut beats for sensuality to swirl and linger, the record is a branch on the tree that FKA twigs planted. Hill, however, commands attention as a more versatile vocalist.

Left to be the centerfold of each track, Hill has the stamina to impress, whether quivering within the instrumental voids or soaring right over them. Her childhood background in classical music, playing a few instruments and singing in a choir, makes itself apparent in her technique and delivery. A clear, textured soprano, she often opens rich notes in her mid-range like a parachute deploying amid a free-fall; her voice is a butterfly with iron wings as it flutters through the chorus of "Am I" and becomes the merciless leader of a mechanical choir on "First Time."

Like A Woman carries a vague lyrical storyboard, acting more as a sketchbook than a painting of deep-rooted feelings. Without blatant storytelling or mention to any of her associated keywords, the record was built with mere snapshots of Hill's psyche. These aren't tracks meant to empower or represent; rather, they document personal experiences without looking outwards. Nevertheless, the alluring record affirms that there's much more to the complex experience of womanhood than Kacy Hill implies when not behind the microphone.

Like A Woman is available now under GOOD Music and Def Jam Records.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Something to Tell You | Haim

When an act stumbles upon a gap in the spectrum of popular music and sticks the landing in it, the world goes wild. For Haim, a trio of sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana, a female-powered approach to sunny soft rock on their 2013 debut, Days Are Gone, was the ticket to viral popularity and near-the-top festival billing. Comparisons to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles in every introductory article to the band made the Haim women favorites among the elitist indie rock community, though the major-label outfit has Calvin Harris and A$AP Ferg collaborations and an opening gig for a Taylor Swift tour under its belt.

Regardless, when acts like Haim do something so well the first time, there's a fork in the road of expectations for a follow-up. They are to double down in what they know best or to exhibit versatility in their capabilities, two double-edged options upon which artists must walk fine lines. Switching gears often leads to some fans' alienation but can be well-received, yet staying in the same lane can give listeners an impression that there's a push to replicate the priceless magic of a debut album and can render external fears of pigeonholing, a concept that music journalists and fans utter more often than artists themselves.

Most of us are, of course, advocates for chameleonic artists – ones like Lady Gaga and Paramore, who refuse to stay in one lane of the musical superhighway. Sonic progression, even drastic in nature, is no sin. What is lacking, however, is an appreciation for those artists who are confident in their niche, carrying the same fundamentals from one album to the next and tweaking as needed to keep the spark alive. Perhaps that is what makes Haim's sophomore record so endearing; the sisters call back writer-producer Ariel Rechtshaid and lay into their nostalgic pop-rock groove, but they ensure enough evolution to return like a fresh breeze.

Something to Tell You is low maintenance, rhythm-heavy, and effortlessly rad, juxtaposing its lyrics, which are tied up in a few love affairs, by riding a warm Southern California vibe. It doesn't search for the enveloping climaxes that were scattered throughout its predecessor, but instead, it stumbles upon them by surprise. Most originating from an authentic kit rather than a machine, drums keep the otherwise disjointed spurs of energy in form. In the first 80 seconds of "Right Now," for example, Danielle's lyrics seems nearly off-beat over a muted snare, but by the final minute, the dissonance within the soundscape resolves itself in a valley of drums – an explosive climax written for the band's traditional "drum-off" at the close of each live set.

At its core, this record shares genetics with the last: light, acoustic-based rock akin to Fleetwood Mac in its heyday, especially resonating on "Nothing's Wrong," a track that counters its calls to be honest with sparkling production, and the slinky, mid-tempo "You Never Knew." While Danielle still takes the lead vocals, Este and Alana's backing notes are more prominent this time around. "Something to Tell You" finds the two backing members spouting the album's namesake behind Danielle with gusto, and they're just a prevalent on "Little of Your Love," a Haim track that proudly time warps the women back even a few more decades back.

Originally written as a contender for the soundtrack to Amy Schumer's Trainwreck and later previewed during Haim's 2016 North American tour, "Little of Your Love" shines with the fundamentals of '50s doo-wop in its rhythm and instrumentation. Oppositely, lead single "Want You Back," with its melodically focused chorus and subtle use of vocal manipulation, and "Walking Away," a cut that bounces with the rare drum machine, bleed modern pop influences. And through it all, Haim usher it all back into a singular vision: a warm, sepia-toned world from behind their pairs of retro drugstore sunglasses.

As fashionable as they are talented, the Haim women accent those sunglasses with high-waisted jeans and H&M-approved tops. They grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where most of Something to Tell You was recorded on tape in a historic studio that closed in the 1980s and reopened last year as a functional relic. Their music stirs memories of a time that came before both them and most of their listeners. In short, they're cool, but don't let all of the things that make them cool lead you to believe that they have to try to be. They just are. And Something to Tell You is merely a reflection of that.

Something to Tell You is available now under Columbia Records.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Truth is a Beautiful Thing | London Grammar

Debuting in the aftershocks of Florence + The Machine and the xx's initial popularity boom, British dream pop trio London Grammar carries a similar disposition: one that keeps distress just in the periphery but does not forewarn of imminent disaster. Their alluring debut album, If You Wait, serves as the splattered canvas of lead singer Hannah Reid's turbulent teenage memories and as a platform upon which she can open the throttle on her voice, an impressive one that plows through operatic highs and barreling, nearly androgynous lows.

Usually entangling herself in the typical human conditions of pain and longing, Reid nuances London Grammar's tunes with a voice that boasts more stamina than the xx vocalists Remy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim put together but carries a more polarizing timbre than Florence Welch's set of pipes. Capitalizing on Reid's timbre and the trio's defining production characteristics, she and her bandmates, Daniel Rothman and Dot Major, double down on their existing palette for their second go-around, Truth is a Beautiful Thing.

When at their best, the members of London Grammar still sound as if they make music while driving westward at dusk, forever chasing the radiant glow of the sun from under the impending cloak of night. A dark desperation looms over the trio's lyrics, but muggy undertones linger from the heat of the day, melting some of Reid's stern vocal impact. The sustained notes of "Non Believer," for example, are coated with a syrupy, Imogen Heap-style vocoder, and she renders her otherwise heavy voice weightless as she guides herself over the instrumental spurs of "Wild Eyed."

While the album's cooler notes, like the sparse "Rooting For You" or the piano ballad title track may argue otherwise, their cinematic, surround-sound productions are indisputably their most alluring. When aiming for minimalism, the trio tends to cuts away drumbeats, a musical lifeline that keeps pop music in form, and opts for aimless vocal wandering. While the results immerse listeners in a well-cultivated mood, they lack the melodic grip of, say, the Paul Epworth-produced "Oh Woman Oh Man." Building from sparse piano notes, the song soon finds Reid's voice taking liftoff over the groups' most expansive soundscape to date.

With eleven tracks that all spill over the four-minute mark each, the album is an nearly hour-long retelling of the grueling process to find just that – the truth, particularly within a strained relationship. Reid is a woman of few words, usually settling on a few basic lines of lyrics she likes and running them through a captivating melody a handful of times per chorus repetition, but she's effective at conveying her message and exploring a complex heartache. While the truth really is beautiful, London Grammar has proven that the journey to actualizing it is even more so.

Truth is a Beautiful Thing is available now under Columbia Records.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Melodrama | Lorde

At just 16 years old, Lorde found a way to actualize her thoughts, worries, and dreams in words more elegant than some 40 years her senior could muster. In place of feeding tired visions of hypersexual teenage dreams, she immortalized the vivid teenage experience. Her 2013 debut album, Pure Heroine, validates the contradictory swirl of angst and wonder through striking realism. Its statements on the unknown, like ultimate fate and immortality, resonate with the teenagers of suburbia, whose everyday lives pale in comparison to the dreams that a fame-driven society has cultivated in them.

She was known for being the most composed teenager in existence – as the girl who spent more time dissecting her life than living it. But as her visions of unrealistic fame were actualized, the gridlocked fears of her fate cleared from the forefront of consciousness. We now see a Lorde who learned to cope with life on its face – who is ready to stop thinking about living and finally just do it. On the first taste of Melodrama, a track that overtakes Lorde in an unexpected rush of urgency, she cries, "Oh, I wish I could get my things and just let go. I'm waiting for it, that green light. I want it." 

And with that she plea, she lets loose, abandoning the worries of her teenage years. She has grown into a charismatic young woman, cracking open her own reservations and granting herself the liberty to act her age. The scrapbook of someone who dipped her toes into adulthood with the luxurious excesses attached to a celebrity status at her disposal, Melodrama's narrative reveals Lorde did a bit of it all in the four years between studio albums: The drinks, the parties, the love. In fact, the only thing the album fails to mention is the secret Instagram account dedicated to onion rings.

Swapping Joel Little for Jack Antonoff in the executive producer's seat, she joins the party instead of rebelling against it. Who was once a girl tired of being told to put her hands up in the air is now the dance commander, spilling the beats of her very heart into pools of roaring bass tones: "Megaphone to my chest, broadcast the boom, boom, boom, boom and make 'em dance to it," she declares on "The Louvre," signaling a round of ground-shaking beats. Likewise, she unleashes the jolting production that should be expected of a track titled "Homemade Dynamite," which embodies the hottest moments of Lorde's four-year house party.

Even amid the best moments of drunken ecstasy under the flashing disco lights, she's self-aware: "Bet you wish you could touch our rush, but what will we do when we're sober?" she spits out with a seductive edge over a steady jungle beat and clipped horn samples on "Sober." In the slumps of the mornings after, though, she has a chance to look in the mirror  a sight that becomes uncomfortable. The first loves and first tastes of freedom aren't without the first heartbreaks and first rock bottoms, chronicled here on complementary piano ballads "Liability" and "Writer in the Dark." Their open spaces leave ample room for Lorde's self-confrontational words to resonate: "I understand, I'm a liability. Get you wild, make you leave. I'm a little much for everyone."

By the time she comes down from her alcohol-fueled, sexually experimental, party-hard high, she's spit right back to the place she was: on a bed by herself, with only her thoughts to keep her company. "All the nights spent off our faces, trying to find these perfect places. What the fuck are perfect places anyway?" she ponders through a chorus of her own multitracked vocal lines, as she realizes she jumped overboard in the name of escapism; In pursuit of blissful ignorance, she revolted against the societal problems over which she obsessed on her debut. In both this mindset and the sonic output of this record, she dances dangerously close with the thought of becoming one of the pack – only to come to her senses at the close of her story.

In many ways, "Perfect Places" puts the rest of the record into perspective: Melodrama is much more than a sonic overhaul or a personal metamorphosis for Lorde. It's just as potent as its predecessor in the sense that it paints the consequences that Pure Heroine's overthinking entails. As the teenage years fade and the real world presents itself, life begins traveling faster than we can think about it – and the little time of enjoyment we get becomes more important than the reasoning behind our desire to run from reality, something that we know is inescapable. It grounds us again when dawn breaks, consuming us at our most vulnerable moments.

But the memories of the careless nights are forever captured within this record. And hell, what liberating times they were. 

Melodrama is out now under Republic Records.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Witness | Katy Perry

Pop music often shapes culture without much of a thought given to its implications; sex, love, and drugs sell, so it's sex, love, and drugs that we most often get from the biggest names in music. Accompanying the subjects are high-gloss electronics, a belting vocalist, and a melody so infectious that the whole country ignites with the song's chorus at every moment for three months, chanting some drivel adorned with ear candy. And on most days, we're fine with that.

But in the past decade, a new form of pop music has begun to rear its head – one that values album-wide story arcs and attempts a voyeuristic, third-party view on popular culture, as if it were immune to affecting or being affected by the society in which it exists. These projects often take the form of overwrought, outlandish concept albums, but it seems that the albums that try to do the most end up stumbling over the false expectations of its results. The ones without distinct means and ends, existing only as the product of a focused vision rather than the cramped showcase for an overarching, ill-executed artistic vision, are the ones that prove pop music can be much more than frivolous entertainment.

After having spent three album cycles with her head caught in clouds of cartoon fruit and cotton candy clouds, Katy Perry seemed like an unlikely candidate to pull out an over-calculated era of social consciousness. But it shouldn't be so hard to imagine that one of the biggest contributors to the media noise could try to elevate herself above it – many pop stars have a "come to Jesus" moment in their careers during which they realize their platforms can be used to incite change, then overcompensate for past sins. It is strange, however, to see a woman traditionally known for wild success fall so hard during her awaited moment.

When "Chained to the Rhythm" was unleashed at the nose of this album cycle, the new Katy Perry was impressively posed and self-aware. Utilizing a popular ironic approach to social commentary, it hypnotizes listeners with a looped neo-disco sample, despite its own warnings against the attraction to an arbitrary beat. Nevertheless, conscious lyrics stacked with a complementary music video and televised live performance strengthened her case and projected a positive trajectory for Perry's newest chapter. Her "woke pop" was slowly solidifying itself into what could have been the best move of her career.

But before the concept could be concreted, too many hands were given security clearance to the cranial controls and her ego got in the way, shifting the focal point of Perry's third eye. Instead of looking outwards on Witness as she promised, she shrinks her world, becoming more focused on herself. Just three single releases in, for example, Perry entangled herself in a feud with Taylor Swift that most everybody thought was over two years ago. And by the time the full album is halfway through, it becomes quite apparent that what was supposed to be her era of "purposeful pop" has been clouded with out-and-proud reminders that she still wants to reign supreme as a pop star, no more and no less.

There are times when these hyperartistic passion projects are adorned with lyrical themes and album-wide concepts that are too complex to be pushed to a mass market – Lady Gaga's unloved stepchild, ARTPOP, comes to mind. Not many people, especially in the radio-listening pool toward which big names in music traditionally cater, want to be required to complete hours of research and lyrical analysis to understand pop tracks. But other times, their creators are too protected to be told that they're a bit more ignorant, and a little less elegantly spoken, than they believe they are. Perry is one of those artists. We're forced to chain ourselves to the rhythms here, because grasping onto the lyrics results in a fistful of "Marilyn Monroe in a monster truck," "Make me ripple 'til I'm wavy," and "You don't have to subtweet me."

To fill the voids of the the album's lyrics, Perry padded the album with supercharged production talent. Dr. Luke is absent for obvious reasons and longtime collaborator Bonnie McKee unexpectedly sits this one out, but the remaining members of the army (the foolproof dream team of Max Martin and Ali Payami, Mike WiLL Made-It, and strangely enough, electronic duo Purity Ring) drown Perry in a glimmering pool of dance-pop, influenced in part by vintage gay nightclub bangers ("Swish Swish," "Déjà Vu") and in another part by visions of futuristic mid-tempo house ("Mind Maze," "Tsunami"). The glossy beats make for alluring distractions from an album that was supposed to focus on substance – but they're distractions nonetheless.

The album's armor of production shields its weak lyrics and presents the front of a standard pop album, and if the album's main selling point had been its sonic evolution, the output wouldn't have been put under the microscope. But Perry's false projection of a revolutionary take on pop music renders Witness an ignorant, disappointing statement, and it's a shame, because she very well could have pulled it off – even with her level of grace in lyrical presence. Of all tracks, even "Bon Appetit," had it been marketed as such, could have been passed off as a cheesy revelation of the status quo for females' radical body standards and sexualization in the media. Instead, Katy Perry did exactly what she aimed not to do this time around: She made a Katy Perry record, a senseless noisemaker and certified guilty pleasure.

Witness is available now under Capitol Records.