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.