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.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom | Halsey

Two years ago, a blue-haired Halsey was on track to unleash her own dystopia through a debut concept album, Badlands. Executive produced by her ex-boyfriend Lido, the album found itself at number two on the Billboard 200 thanks to Halsey's army of a cult following. Because she was atop the viral pop pyramid that stands on an anti-airwaves platform, not even a clairvoyant could have predicted that a feature with two frat boy figures on a trend-conforming dance track would dwarf her existing success and shift the trajectory of her career.

Since the record-breaking, culture-encompassing success of "Closer," Halsey has thickened her Rolodex with connections to the biggest of today's popular music producers and songwriters. In turn, although her albums are to be conjoining concept albums, her sophomore record, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, is far more than a few blocks away from Badlands. With production and co-writing credits given to Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco, Sia Furler, and Justin Tranter, this album dances between contemporary trends and Halsey's dark alternative pop roots.

Oozing warm, dusky undertones, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom sizzles like a pile of warm embers, kept glowing by her smoky vocal grit and swaying clicks of electronic percussion. Missing, however, are sparks to reignite these tracks into the ear-grabbing bonfires that made her last album an alluring listen. Her production has been stripped and reconstructed, substituting lush bouquets of synthesizers for something that more closely aligns with radio pop's flavor of the day: trap-tinged rhythm and blues. "Now or Never," for example, casts Halsey as Rihanna's first cousin, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the song shares a co-writer with "Needed Me," and a track co-signed by The Weeknd, "Eyes Closed," sounds like a toss-out from his own album.

The fundamentals of Halsey are still intact, but she does show signs of natural artistic evolution. She still slurs her way through sonic wastelands, like when dodging between the bubbling beats of "100 Letters" or layered with a syrupy vocoder on the Cashmere Cat-assisted "Hopeless," but she has learned the almighty power of the belt, deployed like a fighter jet on "Bad at Love" and "Alone." And have no fear: the forced lyrical edge is still there. (For the strongest doses of that, take a hit of "Don't Play," composed almost entirely of a skittering beat drop and the repetition of "motherfucker, don't play with me." So don't play with her. Got it?)

In anticipation of this album, she was nothing if not clear in her intentions: She had her sights set on radio pop, and to accomplish it, she studied and worked with the latest trendsetters. The problem lies in the fact that she was once a calculated product of a post-Lana Del Rey universe, heavily influenced by the popular baroque pop that took viral platforms by storm a few years back. No matter the quality of her output, her jump from one popular trend to the next projects an impression of a reactive artist who shows up to the club only after the cool kids endorse it, not a proactive one who is willing to trek into new territories on her own volition.

Regardless, Halsey is still completely, unabashedly Halsey, be that for the better or for the worse. Drama in the highest degree is still her most exercised artistic skill. This concept album's loose storyboard knits a Shakespeare staple into patchwork of angst, modern misadventure, and sexual exploration – narrated in that husky voice, slurred with nuanced enunciation. It all makes for the relatively enjoyable Halserian experience we expected, but the level of thrill attached to her brand of escapism just isn't quite as intoxicating the second time around.

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom will be available on June 2, 2017, under Astralwerks Records.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dua Lipa | Dua Lipa

The first chapter of Dua Lipa's career has been stretched thin. Fanned across a period of almost two years, it has been comprised of rapid-fire single releases, small headlining tours, and album delays. Through it all, the world remained perched for the grand debut of Dua Lipa, a eponymous debut album that she now refers to as #DL1. But in that time, it seems that Lipa has become a different form of pop artist than she set her sights on a few years ago – one who prefers to be a Jill of all genres rather than a master of one. And despite the biweekly meltdowns among her fans that say otherwise, it turns out that her evolution is far from disappointing.

Admittedly, Lipa's image has skittered from what once was. Her earliest pieces paint her as the next face of "dark pop," an obscure classification of alternative pop reserved for female vocalists who are even slightly difficult for music journalists to classify, but newer singles like "Hotter Than Hell" – the tropical house banger to end all tropical house bangers, mind you – and "Lost in Your Light" push her into the throne as the queen of the club, complete with a Sean Paul collaboration up her sleeve. Bridging the gap is, of course, underground single turned overnight success "Be The One," the song that seemed to spark Lipa's desire to capitalize on her potential to the extent that she has. But now, all of these sides to Dua Lipa – and quite a few more – are presented in a kaleidoscopic fashion, swirled in the focus of what is to be a singular body of work.

Now in our hands, Lipa's album wears her coat of many colors. As it runs its course, it feels a bit like a comprehensive scrapbook, pasted together with love and care to immortalize the past two years of her growth and musical experimentation. It follows every shade of Dua Lipa that we've already heard, from the moodiness of the acoustic-based "Thinkin' Bout You" to her "Blow Your Mind" confidence, but with a handful of new tracks and bangers aplenty, it manages to land just shy of feeling redundant or tiresome – even as an album that touts two tracks with narrow lyrical roots in the Book of Genesis. (And actually, those two tracks complement each other nicely. The album's opening track, "Genesis," bounces with the giddiness of complete happiness at the conception of a relationship, while "Garden" realizes the irreconcilable trouble that lurks below the guise of paradise.)

Although they are of a far different period in Lipa's short musical lifespan, her earliest tracks radiate a certain glow, having yet to go stale. Her new tracks, then, complete the rainbow of variety in her repertoire and bring fresh energy to what would otherwise feel like a greatest hits compilation. She's red hot on "New Rules," bouncing her voice in the rhythm of a hyper house beat as she warns herself to avoid past mistakes with a manipulative man, and on "Begging," bleeding her jubilation associated with a new love over a chorus that is too good not to break down in a drum-and-vocal-only bridge. (Spoiler alert: That breakdown happens. And it's great.) And by the end of the album, in a moment when she's pensive and blue, she delivers the piano ballad that every mainstream-aiming pop album is obligated to house – and it's doozy, featuring songwriting and unaccredited vocals from the increasingly less elusive Chris Martin.

If nothing else, the album reveals that Dua Lipa is a self-aware artist – a pop artist. In turn, as a pop artist, she delivered a standard pop album in many aspects, ignoring the pressures of cohesiveness and album-wide storytelling. And spare perhaps a faulty moment of judgement during which she thought it was a good idea to give a song the trendy acronym title "IDGAF," her unrestrained creativity doesn't lead her down any disastrous avenues. But more importantly, she's also a very human artist, with an alluring debut album that mirrors not only her musical interests that encompass every star and moon of the pop music universe, but also her exploration as to her place within that universe. She may not have found the answer to the latter just yet, but at least now, she knows that there are good chances that she could stick the landing no matter which way she jumps.

Dua Lipa is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Lost on You | LP

Upon first listen to her dingy spaghetti western of an album, it's hard to imagine that singer-songwriter LP has managed to swing some writing credits in albums from some of the biggest names of mainstream pop. In the past ten years, she's found her name in the listings for albums from Rihanna, Cher, and the Backstreet Boys – well, 2007 Backstreet Boys, not the top-of-their-game 1999 Backstreet Boys, but I digress.

Then again, it's hard to believe that the title track of Lost on You lit up airwaves across Europe last year. With its humid guitar strums, heavy beats, and singalong melody line, "Lost on You" is the sticky embodiment of what to expect from its parent album. Though it's an earworm of a song, its ignorance of current radio trends makes it an unlikely candidate to top the charts in a flurry of countries.

But if stripped of the refreshing production tactics that give her the illusion of singing from amid a slew of desert heat haze, LP is a pop songwriter through-and-through. She knows how to complement the most defining features of her shrill soprano voice – its raggedness in lower parts of its range, its strength through higher belts, and its ability to cut through all sonic environments. She proves time and time again that her voice is a force to be reckoned with, from her cutting wails over the bellows of the haunting "Muddy Waters" to the nonchalant, conversational delivery of "Death Valley."

While she may have knack for pop – and an appreciation for it, at that, as she name-checks songs from Shakira and Britney Spears on "When We're High" – all-out powerhouse pop really isn't where her heart resides: she's really a rock 'n roll spirit with pop smarts. Her record, while a pop one, is a pop one masqueraded with a crossbreed of sonic influences, pulling from '70s rock, western, folk, and modern alternative pop – and apparently, that's the formula for success.

Lost on You is available now under Vagrant Records.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

After Laughter | Paramore

Paramore isn't exactly the same band you lived vicariously through in middle school any longer.

Since the band's debut in 2005, its moniker might have been its only stable element. Its member roster has been crushed and rebuilt time after time amid storms of rapid-fire allegations hurled at Hayley Williams – that she's lax in her Christianity, that she's the only member of the band contractually bound to Atlantic Records to ensure she's the sole star of the Parashow, that she weaseled a member out of promised songwriting royalties... The list goes on. In essence, the band has spent most of its lifespan caught up in, well, itself.

But through it all, Paramore has survived – even if barely – as has Williams – again, even if barely. Once known for hair dyed such bright colors that it could be considered an outright visual assault on passersby, Williams now dons a head of hair that shares a color tone with bleached flour. Stripped of her high-gloss personality coating, she becomes more believable than ever before when tapping into genuine pain. Her newest reincarnation comes not to release a few years of pent-up teenage angst, but instead to reflect on her anxiety and depression as the band imploded in the palm of her hand yet again between this record and the last.

Grasping onto a newfound maturity, she backtracks on plenty of past lyrical staples, relying heavily on references to the band's first four records as she claims to have killed the last fraction of her optimism and become the type of unrealistic, daydreaming escapist that she once criticized. But Williams' attitude isn't the only element that has taken a turn; the band has ditched its roots altogether – the pop-punk ones that the band had already started to cut away with 2013's transitional self-titled record – in favor of agreeable pop on its face, a new trend that has swept across acts that once prided themselves on a certain level of viral counterculture status.

The changes serve their purpose, though, reviving a band that was on the brink of folding for good. Rehashing what has already been done would only gash open the half-healed wounds, so the band walks another avenue, locking eyes on survival but keeping the past in the periphery. While that means a seemingly drastic change for listeners, the product still seems familiar because the successful juxtaposition of Williams' grief with the fizzling pop sparks roughly equates to the same basic principle upon which Paramore was founded: barreling through the pain via song, even if that means plastering on a smile but allowing the stretched threads of a band in crisis show through.

After Laughter is available now under Fueled by Ramen.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ralph | Ralph

There's something about Canadian singer-songwriter Ralph that gives her the front of being simultaneously trendy and timeless. The magic is sparked when her voice, an admirable, pop-oriented echo of Stevie Nicks' pipes, meets her light, bouncing production, spiked with the same sensibility as the fuzzy, upbeat pop music that accompanied decades-old shopping mall commercials. When those two elements come together on the six tracks of Ralph's eponymous debut extended play, the product beams like the sun on a warm July afternoon.

Across the extended play, she teeters the line between commitment and indecisiveness in love. "Tease," a florescent highlight fueled by the undertones of a slinky '70s rhythm machine and a shimmering beat, finds her exposing a cheater after the promise of a ring, yet she does the heartbreaking herself when an urge for utter independence takes control on "Cold to the Touch" and "Something More."

In short, Ralph is an abridged profile of a young woman who struggles to decide whether she craves the hopeful fulfillment of monogamous love or the ecstasy found in being young and free of any ties to another. It plays out through infectious melodies and over the glossy bounce of retro-flavored pop music, leaving a sugary aftertaste and the desire for another fix. And luckily, this is only the beginning.

Ralph is available now under Wednesday Management.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Crawl Space | Tei Shi

If the childhood cassette recordings that glue her debut album together paint an accurate self-portrait, Argentine singer-songwriter Tei Shi has always been a handful. "I'm a bad singer, can't do anything well. I think I sing so great, but I never really do anything right. I just hope one day I can be like Britney Spears," a young Tei Shi tells her boombox recorder. And when those dreams of fulfilling the Spears lifestyle entered the realm of possibility a few years ago, she was just as doubtful: "I forced myself into doing this thing that I was really afraid of doing," she told DIY Magazine about entering the music industry after attending the Berklee College of Music.

Recognizing a history of self-loathing and anxiety, she attacks all of her fears point-blank with her debut album, Crawl Space. Capturing the essence of the narrow, dank space Tei Shi often visited at night as a child to combat her fear of the dark, it is an echoing pop record adorned with mysterious shrieks and extraneous spurts of energy. Insulated by a cloak of anonymity within the darkness, her ambient dreams and disruptive tendencies clash unabashedly, translating to a schizophrenic, albeit revealing and enjoyable, product of experimentation.

As she spills the details of her worries in life and her losses in love, Tei Shi sprawls across the branches of pop music, taking her best stab at dance pop ("Say You Do"), dwindling within Chairlift's oddly enticing neighborhood ("Creep"), and splattering her heart across a grueling guitar line ("How Far"). And although her voice and demeanor both were shrouded in reverberation and behind a wall of blaring synthesizers on past extended plays, they take command and remain the guiding forces to hone a consistent vision here – an eccentric, honest vision from an artist who just conquered all of her fears in one zealous swish.

Crawl Space is available now under Downtown Records.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Valley | Betty Who

As Betty Who's career was coming into its own four years ago, being a hidden online treasure had just become the new trend of choice, but artists who wanted to fit that mold were to shroud extravagant pop dreams and accept the sonic pigeonhole they'd be thrown in. For the Australian singer-songwriter, that meant curating her debut record behind the filter of fluffy, lush synthpop. And it worked: Take Me When You Go was an impressive introduction, and its respective touring runs through gay pride festival circuits gained her unbreakable connections in the LBGT+ community.

While she didn't seem uncomfortable within her debut, the record was fueled with the bombastic melody lines and vocal capabilities that indicated Who wasn't going to stick in that arena for long. And today, as a heavier reliance on streaming services has magnified online acts and narrowed the scope of truly underground viral stardom, she has been given the chance to make her move. With her sophomore record, The Valley, she has set her sights for two seemingly contradictory goals: to aim for both pure pop and pure honesty.

An inoffensive, romantic daydream, her debut album left an impression of a young gal who still had a tight grip on her teenage dreams. Her neon-lit cover of Donna Lewis' "I Love You Always Forever," released last summer as a stopgap in the lull between her two albums before its success earned it a place at the back end of The Valley, carried the torch of romanticism that her debut lit, but elsewhere on this album, Who's own stories evidence an effort for transparency: She's been through love and heartbreak, but more specifically, she's coped with those situations. She's craved the touch of an ex, partied through some pain, and watched friends and fans share her experiences.

And all of Who's stories play out on a polished pop platform. As a Millennial who grew up with a pop radio dominated by the age of teen dreams, she had plenty of exemplary role models when she aimed to break free of a stigmatized alternative to the shiny pop acts of the Top 40. The results shine with the lessons she learned, perhaps most brightly on "Mama Say," a tribute to the incomparable Britney Spears that drops lyrical hints of Spears' biggest tracks. The song even came packaged with a choreographed music video that shows Who operating on a level that should make Spears proud.

To strengthen an argument for her pop superstar transformation, Who also taps into the power of contemporary trends. "Pretend You're Missing Me," for example, positions itself as a first cousin to The Chainsmokers' biggest tracks, and Taylor Swift's "Style" paved the way for the creation of "You Can Cry Tomorrow," an '80s-tinted dance track with sultry undertones. However, both tracks, in addition to minimalist dance track "Human Touch" and the party-hardy "Some Kinda Wonderful," are infectious nonetheless, holding sturdy enough against comparisons to the tracks with which they vie to compete.

Some may see The Valley as a sign of selling out, but it's more believable to think of this as Betty Who's move towards a career that is more authentic to her own vision – after all, her back catalog point to the fact that she always has been a Top 40 songwriter at her core. Sure, this is no more than a fun, feelgood pop record. But the album's title implies a getaway of sorts – as its accompanying headlining tour clarifies, a party in the valley that most escapists need in times like these – and it markets itself without any implication of more sophisticated intentions. In short, with The Valley, Betty Who has embraced pop music for the light entertainment that it is, and for that, she can't be faulted.

The Valley is available now under RCA Records.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

So Good | Zara Larsson

Modesty really isn't Zara Larsson's thing. When it came time to announce the title of her international debut album, So Good, she told the United Kingdom's Official Charts that choosing such a brash title was easy, because "the album is so good." And her credentials merit a reason to boast: She hails from Sweden, a country that has produced pop royalty over the past few decades, where she found success as a child, winning the Swedish reincarnation of Got Talent at age ten, and surged in popularity with a regional debut album that was packed with signs of promise.

Soon afterwards, Larsson moved to break free from Scandinavia, haphazardly dispensing international singles like a faulty vending machine until one took here in the United States a year after its release. "Never Forget You," a nondescript party-in-a-box released under a dual byline with MNEK, gave the singer recognition but not an identity, which could explain why her follow-up singles have been thrown at a wall that is the Billboard Hot 100 and have bounced right back at her.

Nevertheless, Larsson is nothing if not persist on this album. An overabundance of commanding melodies is crammed into the album's singles, each of them painted with production that highlights the vocal ability that proved victorious on that televised competition show nine years ago. Now two years past its initial release, "Lush Life" has remained fresh with a deep, infectious groove that drives like none other on this album, and follow-up singles "I Would Like" and "Ain't My Fault" capitalize on the popularity of tropical house and shiny urban tones.

Despite its handful of midtempo snores in its latter half, So Good is nothing if not catchy and current. But by delivering music that is blatantly topical, Larsson refuses to solve the vital error in her career formula: She has yet to deliver us a personality worthy of our undivided attention for any longer than the run time of her most upbeat tracks. Like the ample Rihanna comparisons and dash of sex appeal, those bouncing beats and sweet melodies will carry her only so far – but luckily, at 19 years old, Larsson has time to prove just how good she really can be.

So Good is available now under Epic Records.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

All Your Fault, Pt. 1 | Bebe Rexha

Two years ago, when we last received a full body of work from Bebe Rexha, the Albanian singer-songwriter wanted the world to know that she was a bad bitch. Her I Don't Wanna Grow Up extended play introduced us to a stubborn, rebellious misfit archetype – a self-proclaimed bat-shit psychopath. A few years and a taste of commercial success later, Rexha has redefined her own idea of a bad bitch, playing the marketable, platinum-headed conformist with a Beats by Dr. Dre sponsorship on the first installment of her debut album, All Your Fault.

Closing the six-song teaser of the album, the aptly titled "Bad Bitch" finds a braggadocious Rexha listing off things that make her the baddest gal to ever step foot into some Adidas-branded undergarments: She pays her own bills. She buys her own rings. She knows it isn't fair that you can't touch her – but feel free to look. And when she's not priding herself over some glossy urban-tinged backdrops, she's making far too many parallels between love and drugs than should be contained in a six-track extended play. (Regardless of their titles, "Small Doses" and "Gateway Drug" aren't particularly memorable, if you're wondering.) It all comes off as a forced charade that, after acting as the basis of most of this album's tracks, is exhausting by the time we reach the sixth track.

Luckily, if nothing else, she hasn't lost touch with the distracting electronic atmospheres that agree best with that voice of hers – usually overmodulated in these studio tracks, it's one that carries a shrill, polarizing tone – in her image transition. In fact, while the pinched runs in the post-chorus of "I Got You" are bound to leave rug rash on some listeners' eardrums, its chorus is perhaps the most ear-catching moment of this extended play, when the punchy synthesizers and drum clips take precedent over the static melody line that doesn't demand too much from our ringleader. (In short, it employs the same tactics that made most of the songs from her first extended play so enticing.)

Now, with a direction that relies on a submissive conformance to contemporary Top 40 trends, Bebe Rexha seems to have stalled. For this phase, she's jacked Meghan Trainor's lyrical staples of ego-centrism and love and painted them with Tove Lo's explicit façades. Even MØ, who underwent an equally drastic image reinvention in the wake of worldwide commercial success, has enjoyed a smoother, more authentic transition – an astonishing thought when examining just how decisive MØ's long-winded new era has been for her earliest fans. In her defense, Rexha did wave a bellwether track at us last year to indicate the winds of change – the Nicki Minaj-featuring "No Broken Hearts" – but in my defense, I knew even then that it was indicative of a change in the wrong direction for work to come.

All Your Fault, Pt. 1 is available now under Warner Bros. Records.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

About U | MUNA

Spare the relentless synth line lurking in the basement of MUNA's "Crying on the Bathroom Floor" that is purposely reminiscent of Robyn circa Body Talk and the band's fancy for synthesized vocal lines from Imogen Heap's playbook, not much about the Los Angeles-based trio grants direct comparisons. Fusing the best of pop-rock, synthpop, and contemporary alternative R&B without wandering through their contemporaries' narrow field of drum machines and dingy synthesizers, MUNA (like Lady Gaga with ARTPOP, they insist on all caps for their title) rests within a malleable niche that lends itself to every mood of the hour.

Comparisons to the likes of Haim, Tegan and Sara, and Shura have been slugged their way, and the best words that most mainstream journalists can pull out of their hats to describe them are "honest," "dark pop," and "girl band," but the members of MUNA are no more than proud queer women who have stories to share and aren't afraid to wear a rainbow-colored pride on their sleeves while telling them. As an outward hand towards the LGBTQ community, they steer clear of gender-laden pronouns, opting for second-person references to the past love affair that inspired this album.

Largely revealing what was once a comfort found within the waves of a troublesome relationship and an overwhelming sense of loss and indecision when the turbulent cycle is finally smacked off balance, About U follows lead vocalist Katie Gavin as she sways from detachment to false hope before accepting grief, a feeling spurred by a lack of true closure. While the moment of realization, the self-confrontational "Crying on the Bathroom Floor," appears late in the track listing, it's a triumph for a narrator who had placed the entirety of the blame on her own problematic tendencies just one track prior.

Through the sunny highs and the desperate lows of this record, Gavin remains the humanistic constant, gluing the album together. Whether her disposition juxtaposes an energetic backdrop ("Around U," "Loudspeaker") or she is encapsulated in layers of her own synthesized vocal lines ("Winterbreak," If U Love Me Now"), her voice remains a smooth stream of water, rippling as if a light breeze caught it amid multi-note runs. She is at her most exuberant on "I Know a Place," an upbeat tribute to gay dance clubs that found newfound significance in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting and the recent installation of a conservative presidential administration, yet she retains her cool presence to keep the track in line with the album's soundscape.

The scope of this album's sonic horizon stretches from the dusky tones of "After" to the atmospheric euphoria of "Around U" and "End of Desire." In theory, it could seem like an overarching goal of a hyperactive group in a rush to show the world what they're capable of delivering; In practice, though, it's a well-executed display of every emotional turn in the trajectory of an ill-fated relationship. These songs follow the organic fluxes and flows of the story arc, which, while not the clearest an album has ever brought to the table, is more than intriguing enough to pull listeners into MUNA's gaze and lock them there from beginning to end.

About U is out now under RCA Records.