Poppy – Poppy.Computer

Image result for poppy.computerInternet sensation Poppy extends her mysterious and technologically obsessed online persona to a debut collection of ridiculously fun and J-pop inspired pop tracks. Anyone who has seen one of Poppy’s bizarre, unsettling videos, often with a satirical twist on our reliance on technology and celebrity culture, knows that it’s hard to look away. Something about her draws you in.

It was a pleasant surprise when she started releasing music that not only extended her message to the next level, but was well-produced, engaging and funny. A few of these tracks might pull back the curtain a bit too much or not quite click as a legitimate song, but I’ve gone too far down this weird and wonderful Poppy rabbit hole to care. “Welcome to the new world, I’m your Internet girl”, the opening track greets us.

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“Let’s Make A Video” is an incredible track. Poppy’s voice becomes a lot more innocent as she takes up the voice of an internet vlogger or social media influencer, painting her life as something ideal and perfect to be looked up to. The beat sounds like it’s direct from something a 90s-influenced K-pop group like GFRIEND would sing over, complete with sugary chords and a cascading synth piano melody. Poppy harmonizes with herself and throws in some cheerful nonsequiturs to add to the overall image. Like her videos, it’s a smiling façade with something much darker underneath, and it’s certainly one of the catchiest melodies I’ve heard all year.

When Poppy delves a bit further into her origin story, things take a turn for the comedic as well. Poppy always seems to be attempting to learn about humanity and more abstract concepts, and we don’t know why or where she came from. On “Bleach Blonde Baby”, she paints herself as a perfect girl “from your cotton candy dreams”, saying she was born with perfect features, bleach blonde hair and makeup on. The key change and buzzing synth undercurrent just send the song over the edge.

Different aspects of Poppy’s online persona appears across the board, including jealous nemesis Charlotte on “My Style”, longing to understand the concept of love on “Fuzzy” and going full psychopath killer mode on “Computer Boy” – “don’t go to sleep without me”, “never talk to anyone else”, she instructs her digital lover.

The instrumentals across the board are all infectious in the best way – this is masterful bubblegum pop approaching a Carly Rae Jepsen level. It’s impossible to deny that rush as the chords start pounding faster and she introduces the chorus with a “hey hey hey, ok!” on the adorable “Moshi Moshi”. Most of these tracks are driven by loud synth chords and an underlying techno bassline – blips and bloops to add to the overall computer theme.

“My Style” is one of my favourite instrumentals on the project – Poppy is largely on one note except for some dramatic builds at the end of the verses. The eerie, slurred synths come in to support her, building up in spectacular chords before falling away on the same pitch as her vocal run. The whole thing is driven by this hypnotic bassline, functioning like the tuba in a band, and hi-hats that never let up. It succeeds at being unsettling and impossibly catchy at the same time, and as she asserts back to back, “Poppy is your best friend. Poppy will break your neck.”, I just become more invested in the mystery that is this smiling girl on our computer screens.

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At the same time, “I’m Poppy” is too obnoxious to function as a song despite how much I enjoy the fact it is the closest thing we get to one of her videos in musical form. The constant repetition and spelling out of her own name, and interjections from the plant character – asking how he can be more like Poppy, of course – detract too much from enjoying the track as an actual musical experience and won’t have me returning to it.

“My Microphone” is hilarious, but that repetitive guitar riff is grating and out of place, especially when it cuts in and out overtop of a more standard bubblegum pop beat. The track is essentially a 3-minute build up to a punchline at the end – Poppy finds her lost microphone. It’s another one-off spoof.

Closing track “Pop Music”, on the other hand, is more of a stripped-down, acoustic track where Poppy muses on the value the genre brings to the world, but it seems out of character. The verses seem too articulate, and the change in style draws more attention to her vocals. She sounds a lot more human.

I understand that Poppy is basically an elaborate and brilliant marketing scheme, but when its this fun to look at and the product is this good, I have to congratulate Titanic Sinclair and everyone behind this weird character experiment. Repeat after me: I am not in a cult led by Poppy.

Favourite Tracks: Let’s Make A Video, Moshi Moshi, Bleach Blonde Baby, My Style, Computer Boy

Least Favourite Track: Pop Music

Score: 8/10

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Miley Cyrus – Younger Now

Image result for miley cyrus younger nowMiley Cyrus’ sixth studio album is a return to her roots, abandoning the ridiculous persona that coloured her previous two albums and somewhat problematically distancing herself from the hip-hop genre as a whole, saying the materialism associated with it doesn’t represent her anymore. Younger Now reverts back to some country-tinged, mostly acoustic pop music, Cyrus’ voice still surprisingly impressive but the instrumentals bland and uninspired.

Cyrus speaks a lot of her engagement to actor Liam Hemsworth, who reportedly inspired her lifestyle change. While her music did improve slightly from her disastrous Dead Petz era, for Cyrus to be taken seriously once again she needs to find more genuine personality, or even the smallest spark of innovation.

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“Week Without You” is the only time we break up the monotony here, as it stands as the greatest song from the set. We switch up the simple acoustic rhythms for a swung tempo and doo-wop influence as Cyrus describes her life in the four years spent apart from Hemsworth. A classic lyrical twist in the song’s final chorus shows the joys of the single life stop being fun, as Cyrus starts wanting him back. She actually sounds interested and engaged with the music here, digging into the groove of the song and having fun singing along to and riffing off of the piano solos in the background.

The slightly improvisational tone of the instrumental and actual musicianship displayed on this track really caught me off guard, showing that Cyrus does have some serious talent that she often has no idea what to do with. Her voice is at its best on lead single “Malibu”, sweet and emotive with some great harmonies to go along with it. It’s a shame the climax of the song turns into nothing more than some weirdly dissonant guitar picking and handclaps.

One of the biggest issues with this album is the colorless and safe musical backdrop that rarely changes from song to song, diminishing the effectiveness of promising melodies by being content to plod along and remain stagnant in the background, taking away most of the concept of dynamics from the project. A song like opening track “Younger Now” sounds like one of Cyrus’ career great songs when performed live, as it is quite smartly written and allows her voice to steal the spotlight, but hearing the full studio mix with its bland acoustic chords and packaged backing vocals just sucks out all of its energy.

Too many of these songs sound like they are set to the same set of acoustic chords, switching up the rhythm of the strumming and calling it a different song. The whole album was produced by lesser-known Dead Petz collaborator Oren Yoel, who adds some pretty awful melodies to some of the worse tracks here as well. The chorus of “Miss You So Much” begins with repetition of some strained high notes before somehow turning a pivotal “here” into a two-syllable word just to fit.

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Even though Cyrus isn’t as visibly embracing drug culture as much with her updated image, some of the laughable lyrical content of her previous two albums persists here, offering some Jaden Smith-esque, starry-eyed musings on the state of the world. Closing track “Inspired”, which Cyrus describes as her “Hillary Clinton song”, seeks to empower her listeners as she lists her dreams for the world … “Starting with the bees, or else they’re gonna die. There will be no trees or air for us to breathe”.

She also continues the unfortunate trend of artists attempting something like activism without actually saying anything of consequence. On the incredibly derivative “Rainbowland”, she teams up with godmother Dolly Parton over the same bouncy country-pop twang we’ve heard before to imagine a future where all the prejudices people face have magically evaporated. “Wouldn’t it be so nice?”, she sings. In other places Cyrus seems more focused on shoehorning in awkward rhymes that telling the story of the song. The only writer on the project, she definitely needs some help at this point.

There isn’t really much to talk about here – the only thing that isn’t forgettable about Younger Now are Cyrus’ outlandish lyrics. Now that it has been made evident that Cyrus’ previous era was nothing more than appropriation to jump on a rising sound, too much of this project just feels similarly fake – and not even in an entertaining way anymore.

Favourite Tracks: Week Without You, Thinkin’, Malibu

Least Favourite Track: Miss You So Much

Score: 4/10

Demi Lovato – Tell Me You Love Me

Image result for demi lovato tell me you love meDemi Lovato’s sixth studio album sees the singer return to her strengths and take a new direction of creativity. After breaking free from the Disney machine and hitting her peak with 2011’s UnbrokenDEMI and Confident saw her music veer towards generic electropop and she struggled with substance abuse. Lovato was already starting to win be back by one again demonstrating the full extent of her vocal power on single “Stone Cold”, proving that she is one of the most technically skilled pop singers.

On Tell Me You Love Me, her songwriting has greatly improved, and tracks rarely sound the same. She imbues most of them with a sultry R&B flair that shows off her vocal fireworks, maintaining some poppier aspects as well but taking a more unique and experimental direction with them. The project stands as some of her best work yet.

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I knew Lovato might be turning things around as soon as I heard opening single “Sorry Not Sorry”, which might be one of the best leads of the year. Lovato channels the underlying gospel feel of Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem”, but throws some 90s R&B piano chords on top for a cool and confident send-off to an ex-boyfriend. What’s most important here is that Lovato’s vocals are back at the forefront, turning up the energy for the chorus where she once again demonstrates that full-voiced soprano belt. Where it often got lost in the mix of overproduction on her recent albums, here it sounds fuller, and much more mature than her earlier work. Not only does she have the belt, her lower range is just as passionate and intense, sounding almost like an Emeli Sande on the dramatic title track.

I always wanted more from Lovato’s breathier, more sensual side to her voice in her earlier work and it shows up in a big way here – now with the appropriate subject matter to match. She embraces her full potential as an R&B artist on tracks like “Concentrate” and “Ruin The Friendship”, complete with a trumpet solo in the chorus and bouncy walking bassline. Lovato drops into lower-tempo rhythmic grooves here that could only be carried by a very strong singer.

The album’s greatest strength it its diversity, with some kind of surprising and new sonic element thrown onto nearly every track. She masterfully switches between genres without dropping the cohesive, in-control sense that Lovato applies to all she does. This is an album where the two best tracks sound absolutely nothing alike, but both give the listener that feeling where they’re ready to take on the world, be it out of confidence or anger. I’m talking about “Daddy Issues” and “Cry Baby”, a creative standout and a massive ballad that knocks “Stone Cold” out of the water.

“Daddy Issues” is Lovato at her most bubblegum, but this sounds like it was influenced by the experimental minds over at PC Music. It’s actually Oak Felder, one half of duo Pop & Oak (Kehlani, Alessia Cara), who surprisingly contributes to almost all the instrumentals here despite their diversity. Lovato is surprisingly, but endearingly tongue-in-cheek about her complicated relationship with her late and estranged father – “Lucky for you, I’ve got all these daddy issues”, she sings over an instrumental that is sparse save for synth stabs that raise the energy so quickly they scared me a bit the first time. The track eventually settles into an uptempo pop groove.

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But my goodness, “Cry Baby”. “CRY BABY”. Over a swung waltz tempo, this explosive track features Lovato’s biggest and most ambitious chorus yet. Dropping into it with some great flat notes that accentuate her technical ability, Lovato is out for blood as the guitars wail in the background and the harmonized backing vocals echo. I was immediately drawn to that melody line on “Congratulations, celebration” followed by the stratospheric high harmonies on the catchy triplets that make up the bulk of the chorus. The energy just continues to build as Lovato’s runs just ascend higher up the scales and get more impossibly complex. It’s such a beautiful, brilliantly written track.

While this might not have been Lovato’s decision, the ordering of the album seems a little strange, giving prime third track placement to the album’s most formulaic song in “Sexy Dirty Love” and placing many of its best at the tail end. Pushing Lovato as a pop artist for this particular album doesn’t make much sense, and basing the album around something like “Cry Baby”, the ninth track, would organize the flow of the album better.

On an album with so many diverse standouts, a few aren’t going to stick as well. Lovato’s voice is consistently strong throughout, but the dip in energy in the instrumental of back-to-back tracks “Only Forever” and “Lonely”, which features an awkward appearance from Lil Wayne, is a low point in the album’s middle. The minimal percussion on something like “Lonely” especially doesn’t contrast well with Lovato’s growls and enraged lyrical content.

Regardless, Tell Me You Love Me is a huge step forward for an artist I was worried had fallen off a cliff. This is what happens when Lovato understands her strengths.

Favourite Tracks: Cry Baby, Daddy Issues, Hitchhiker, Ruin The Friendship, Sorry Not Sorry

Least Favourite Track: Lonely

Score: 9/10

Jhene Aiko – Trip

Trip by Jhené Aiko cover.jpgR&B/Soul singer Jhene Aiko’s sophomore album, Trip, is less of an album and more of an experience. Nearly an hour and a half in length, Aiko’s silky smooth vocals guide us through a project framed as one long drug trip. Aiko’s becomes lost in a psychedelic and sometimes scary world, addressing her relationships including her disastrous and short-lived marriage to producer Dot Da Genius and her new “soulmate” Big Sean along the way.

Aiko additionally taps into her alter-ego, Penny – a nickname her grandfather gave her that she states is her “purest, most authentic form” and dedicates the album to her brother, who died of cancer in 2012 and shows up a few times here. Aiko paints a world to get lost in while addressing some pretty heavy topics. Trip is the well thought out concept album I’ve been waiting for this year.

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I’ts tough to compare individual songs on this project, as they all flow together seamlessly in one concrete experience. While some have criticized the album’s length due to its similar sounding tracks, Aiko’s voice has a hypnotic quality and I barely realized how long I had been sitting there listening to the album. Aiko’s vocals stay true to her trademark breathy style, but over such a sparse and psychedelic instrumental they adopt this beautiful, almost ghostly quality, floating above the track with a calming presence. With every vocal run and harmony she draws me deeper into the world of the album.

“LSD” introduces the album as Aiko begins her trip and says “And what I saw, oh my god…”, referring to the images she comes across over the course of the album. What she talks about certainly warrants her surprise. Aiko experiences the highest highs and lowest lows of human emotion, often blissfully in love, but she begins her journey by venturing into Japan’s suicide forest on “Jukai”. “Hell is not a certain evil, Hell is other people … or the lack thereof”, she sings, introducing the themes of love and loneliness. She is rescued from the forest by an unknown man who accompanies her in spoken dialogues after a few tracks here, revealing his dark side as more and more drugs are offered.

Some of my favourite projects are clearly deliberately ordered and tell one cohesive story, and Trip certainly fits the bill, as the sections of the album are demarcated with different drugs that cause Aiko to experience different things. “LSD” introduces a slew of songs that see her in a young romance, until she starts having some lingering doubts on final track “When We Love”. She suddenly instructs the male voice “Don’t hurt me, OK?” before “Sativa” introduces a longer segment full of Aiko’s ideal images of love being tormented by some darker thoughts, culminating in the chaotic “Bad Trip (Interlude)”.

Her brother makes an appearance as she addresses her struggles with addiction in the wake of his death on “Nobody”, and runs through feelings of loneliness, confusion and negative self-image. “Never Call Me” sees Aiko get uncharacteristically angry (even if her sweet tone of voice would never betray such a thing) as she criticizes the inability of her man to communicate his feelings instead of acting passive-aggressive. She references Dot Da Genius’ alimony lawsuit directly, the communication issues likely referencing his infamous series of cryptic tweets regarding his relationship with Aiko.

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The story of Trip parallels Aiko’s real-life issues, as the first part of the album represents the younger, naive version of herself that rushed into a relationship with the wrong person. The resulting fallout of the divorce and doubt entering a new relationship makes up the majority of the album, while the final section, “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is more representative of her new, healthy relationship with Big Sean.

Jhene recruits some colourful collaborators here to spice up the sound just enough. She brings Sean himself in to revive their funk-infused side project Twenty88 on the upbeat “Only Lovers Left Alive”, while John Mayer’s sensual guitar riffs back her musings of newfound love on the quieter “New Balance”. Her father delivers two extended outros, while she duets with her 9 year old daughter Namiko Love on endearing track “Sing To Me”.

There’s certainly a lot to unpack here thematically, but did I mention the music is great as well? “Overstimulated” stays true to its title, as Aiko delivers an intoxicating melody over some rolling hi-hats and a very dreamy soundscape, juxtaposing a speedier rhythmic delivery with her beautiful higher notes over some soft synth chords in the chorus. “Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect)” is another standout, a nearly 8-minute monster that brings in a horn section and infectious synth pattern resembling a siren amidst some of Aiko’s best harmonies.

I love how many layers there are to this project – this review would be a lot longer if I delved into what Aiko has stated some of these symbols mean. The album is very long, but I could listen to that voice forever, especially tied to these deeper conceptual themes. On title track “Trip”, Aiko concludes the album “Love pays, but love taxes – it’s a real trip”, summing up the journey we’ve just been on. Trip is a trip indeed.

Favourite Tracks: Overstimulated, Psilocybin (Love In Full Effect), While We’re Young, OLLA (Only Lovers Left Alive), Never Call Me

Least Favourite Track: Oblivion (Creation)

Score: 9/10

Macklemore – Gemini

Image result for macklemore geminiSeattle rapper Macklemore’s third studio album and first without producer Ryan Lewis sees him largely abandon the maudlin and misguided political exploits that colored his 2015 effort This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, falling instead into a cycle of trend-hopping that is so specific I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t wind up with a few lawsuits on his hands. Macklemore’s brand of bombastic, stadium-sized rap tracks still has its fair share of thrilling moments, as he demonstrates how capable and technically skilled of a rapper he is at points on Gemini, but far too often the project falls into lyrical oblivion and painful unoriginality. The Heist seems like a distant memory.

The album actually opens in promising fashion, as Macklemore recruits “Downtown” collaborator Eric Nally for a pump-up anthem on “Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight”. No matter how often Macklemore uses one of these bouncy piano beats with a trademark horn section, he can carry a track with his charisma when he wants to. The added funk bassline, stadium-sized chorus and self-confident lyrics make it a track to throw on for any occasion.

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Macklemore’s reliance on slower, introspective tracks is pretty disappointing given how great of a technical rapper he actually is. Remember “Jimmy Iovine”? He demonstrates some quite impressive speedy flows briefly on “Willy Wonka”, but he combines it with some legitimate star power on goofy dance track “Levitate”.

Gemini feels like parody much too often, either of another artist or of himself. Macklemore is seemingly completely unable to latch onto any particular thing that makes him special as an artist in any way, as the project boasts a featured artist on every single song but one and nary an original idea. Macklemore has clearly been studying the rap charts recently, as you can easily match about half of the tracks here to a better executed rap hit counterpart.

“Marmalade” has not only the exact same piano chord progression as D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli”, but THE SAME FEATURE ARTIST in Lil Yachty. You could probably tell from the title, but “How To Play The Flute” sounds like a bootleg “Mask Off” made by a YouTube DJ. “Corner Store” recruits fellow Seattle rapper Dave B, who does his best Chance the Rapper impression as the Social Experiment-emulating horns blare, while “Willy Wonka” sees Macklemore try his hand at Migos’ trademark style of trap with Offset, awkwardly yelling his own ad-libs after every line in the way only the Migos can.

Lead single “Glorious” feels like an outsider checking all the boxes of a typical Macklemore song but not putting as much effort into it. The incredibly general “inspirational” lyrical content, stadium chant backing vocals and piano beat just bring to mind a watered-down “Can’t Hold Us”. Macklemore attempting to blend into the modern rap scene and aping what everyone else is doing is such an antithesis to the sound he presented on The Heist, which blew up because there was nothing like it at the time. When he tries to put a Travis Scott-style effect on his voice on a track like “Ten Million”, it just doesn’t fit him at all.

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Macklemore’s lyrics on this project are frankly embarrassing and almost make me wish he tried to say something of consequence again. Tracks like “Marmalade” make me wonder what kind of a mindstate he was in when he wrote these bars down. A couplet sees his criticizing Tinder users before immediately admitting he’d use it too if he were single, and bellows “Watching Toy Story 3, that’s a great f*ckin moooovie” with absolutely no context.

“Intentions” is easily one of the worst tracks of the year, as Macklemore offers some sleepy rhymes over a repetitive acoustic guitar loop while doing what he does best – whining about his first world problems. Oh no everyone, Macklemore wants to read a book but all he can do is watch TV. “I wanna be a feminist, but I’m still watching porno” is a real line on a recorded album this year. But it’s fine, as the chorus repeatedly asserts, Macklemore is “Okay with who [he] is today”. His striving to be relatable continues on Kesha collaboration “Good Old Days”, which sounds exactly how you think it does as the two play on the ever-popular theme of nostalgia without actually saying anything of interest.

Macklemore opens misguided rock venture “Firebreather” by saying “Got a Guns N Roses T-shirt, and never listened to the band. Just being honest, I just thought that sh*t looked cool”. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Macklemore tries on everybody else’s style like an outfit to discard later on Gemini. I wish he went back to the thrift shop.

Favourite Tracks: Ain’t Gonna Die Tonight, Levitate, Corner Store

Least Favourite Track: Intentions

Score: 3/10

Rostam – Half-Light

Image result for rostam half lightAll-star producer and former Vampire Weekend guitarist Rostam Batmanglij’s debut album Half-Light sees him venture closer to the melodic art-rock of his past than his more recent pop exploits, making the kind of off-kilter and unique artistic statement that we only could have expected from him. After contributing to recent masterpieces from Frank Ocean, Solange and Carly Rae Jepsen, Rostam’s spacey, low-key tracks here come from a much different world.

Rostam imbues many of these tracks with a Middle Eastern flair associated with his Iranian heritage, but there isn’t much else going for it in the way of cohesion – Rostam even included some loose tracks dating all the way back to 2011 on this project. I appreciate being able to observe the many strange places Rostam’s mind goes when completely unhinged, but his less than stellar singing voice and overly indulgent and sluggish tracks make Half-Light an underwhelming experience.

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Some of Rostam’s best ideas come when he taps into the orchestral and classical influences that colored his work with Vampire Weekend. On more than one occasion, the instrumental made me think that he was sampling a well-known symphony, as it sounded so familiar. Opening track “Sumer” is the only one that actually does, as he sings over a joyful choral piece from the 13th century.

Half-Light is at its best when it is more upbeat, the album frontloaded with some of the only jolts of excitement here. There is an anthemic quality to Rostam’s best production work: “Warm Blood”, “Ivy”, “Little of Your Love”. The chorus of “Sumer” and the buzzing, synth-infused “Bike Dream” definitely fit the bill.

“Bike Dream” especially makes me wonder why so many of the other tracks here aren’t as melodically competent, content to settle for minimalistic repetition and sparse, isolated vocals. Title track “Half-Light” is another standout, as Rostam reaches into his falsetto over some pleasant acoustic chords and a persistent, wandering synth lead that accentuates his yearning vocals well.

The main problem Half-Light suffers from is Rostam throwing so many insane ideas at the wall at the same time and expecting them to stick. It often makes for some strange musical mismatches, such as on “Thatch Snow”, where the first two thirds consist of Rostam’s ambling vocals failing to keep up with the bouncy and joyful string part in the background – before exploding into a breakbeat on top of all of this.

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Rostam’s musical knowledge is incredibly vast – he said he was trying to emulate “Appalachian choral music” on that one – but pulling from so many diverse worlds at the same time just collides together awkwardly. “Hold You” begins with 30 seconds of Auto-Tune and trap hi-hats, before Dirty Projectors’ Angel Deradoorian cuts the beat and comes in with some angelic choral harmonies. It gets laughable when he tries to combine the two later on.

Quite a few of these tracks, especially nearing the album’s end, have a promising start before an abrupt shift occurs halfway through and sends it careening off the rails. “When” begins with an inviting Middle Eastern drum pattern before devolving into a minute and a half of spoken word conversation, distorted painfully past the point of comprehension. “Rudy” begins with one of the catchiest melodies here as the openly gay Rostam sings of a young boy coming to terms with his sexuality before a chaotic and off-key saxophone solo storms in and Rostam starts screaming.

I can’t help but think that he should stay behind the boards as well. While he does have some nice sections of falsetto, his lower range is less focused, often modulating around when holding a longer note and even breathing in strange places in the middle of a phrase. Some of these tracks have interesting instrumentals that might have been carried by someone with more of a vocal presence.

Ultimately, knowing when kinds of joy Rostam’s music has given me in the past, it is quite disappointing hearing his long, drawn-out tracks that ultimately go nowhere here like “Don’t Let It Get To You”, a very repetitive track that extends past 5 minutes and serves as the centerpiece of the album. You can tell the wheels were turning here, but Half-Light needs a gallon of extra polish.

Favourite Tracks: Half-Light, Bike Dream, Sumer

Least Favourite Track: When

Score: 4/10

 

Galantis – The Aviary

Image result for galantis the aviaryElectronic duo Galantis, formed by the union of prominent Swedish pop producers Bloodshy and Style of Eye, have broken through to the mainstream with the release of dancefloor-conquering single “No Money”. A year and a half later, the track appears on the duo’s second studio album, alongside some more sugary, high-octane dance tracks.

The Aviary is built like a standard pop album – scores of writers, repetitive, catchy hooks and the like, but is all infused with Galantis’ trademark vocal manipulation and glitchy, chiptune-emulating drops. For the most part, the album straddles a fine line between cheesiness and euphoria, more often than not falling into the former camp. These are guys who have worked with everyone from Charli XCX to Madonna, and know more than a few tricks to hook listeners into a dumb pop song. On quite a few occasions, however, the duo’s gimmicks just wind up being obnoxious.

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It’s strange – every time one of these songs started, my mind quickly snapped to a position of skepticism as they repeated the same tried and true tactics. This position didn’t change very often, but eventually, a few of them gradually began to win me over. With every party-ready drop and shouted background “hey!”, Galantis are asking you to join them on the dance floor. Galantis at their best is a overwhelming surge of joy stemming from those catchy synth melodies and pounding bass.

At times, the pitch shifting of the vocals makes it tough to identify even the singer’s gender, and while certain effects can get very annoying quickly, I have to say that the intentional namelessness here helped to bring me into the sense of a universal dance party. Tracks like “Tell Me You Love Me” and “Love On Me” take the rare step further, adding a welcome extra dimension to these tracks that pushes them over the edge.

The former slides the listener nicely into a chorus that builds up with some ascending horns and harmonies that sound like they’re straight from a gospel choir. The vocals are soulful and pleading despite their modulation, and as every little guitar riff or synth swell is added, it just widens my smile.

“Love On Me” got me with the steel drums, and then got me even harder with the surprise of keeping that infectious chorus going overtop of the dance drop. I can only imagine what my reaction in the club would have been. “Salvage (Up All Night)” even shows some variation in their dance drops, interestingly basing it around a chopped vocal and switching up the rhythm halfway through. For a band trying to be so fun, you’d think they’d try more fun tricks like this.

Far too many of these tracks feel like a copy and pasted checklist of your standard dance-pop song, sometimes applied without any attention to detail and creating awkward mishmashes like “Girls On Boys”. I expected more from a ROZES feature – she made even The Chainsmokers good – but when the song unexpectedly morphs from a softer-toned ballad with chords that accentuate her voice nicely to an all-out techno attack that comes in a measure too late and repeats an annoying higher-pitched synth melody, it just seems like the duo is relying in their audience to respond to a gimmicky dance breakdown regardless of what it is.

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This sloppiness pops up again on “Hello”, where the vocals seem like a total afterthought over a few piano chords that I’m certain I heard on another track here. They never quite click together rhythmically, as the duo compensates for this by cutting the whole track with a quick swooshing noise and another formulaic dance drop. Galantis’ formula is undoubtedly an effective one on the dance floor, but these tracks sound laughably similar when placed next to each other.

Galantis also don’t seem to understand how much an extended gimmick can bring down one of their songs, but hey – these are the ones that are selling. The vocals are pitched up WAY too high on singles “Hunter” and “No Money”, and getting through these choruses verges on excruciating. “Hunter” especially is one of their most low-key tracks, giving more than enough spotlight to that chorus repeating on and on like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.

I probably shouldn’t be expecting lyricism from a duo that relies so heavily on huge dance breaks, but you can’t help but notice them when they try to calm things down and go for an introspective angle. Wrabel taps right into that well of “aw, shucks” on – somehow – the 2nd track with the terrible title “Written In The Scars” I’ve heard in the past couple weeks (Thanks, The Script).

Ultimately, my feelings on The Aviary are very mixed. The duo display infuriatingly small glimpses into their huge potential. Their “fun” formula is making them very successful at the moment, but that priceless jolt of surprise when they try something different is so much more fun.

Favourite Tracks: Love On Me, Tell Me You Love Me, Salvage (Up All Night), True Feeling

Least Favourite Track: Girls On Boys

Score: 5/10

ODESZA – A Moment Apart

Image result for odesza a moment apartSeattle electronic duo ODESZA’s third studio album comes after some high-profile remixes and extensive touring bringing them some more widespread appeal. Riding the rising tide of softer-toned electronic sounds subbed as chillwave, their latest project A Moment Apart expands upon the sound over the course of its hour-long runtime.

When breaking out of their typical formula and putting in some higher-octane tracks, or reaching across genres to collaborate with individuals like Leon Bridges or Regina Spektor, the duo’s true potential is seen. As the album stretches on, many of their more similar tracks begin to blend together, but ODESZA have certainly created a unique musical world here.

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The project opens with a monologue detailing an astronaut falling in love with the mechanical sounds emanating from his spaceship to preserve his sanity. This seamlessly transitions into the title track, an instrumental piece which features some twinkling piano melodies and swelling synth bass. For whatever reason, it captures the feeling of going to space. If ODESZA are particularly talented at anything, it is this – bringing to mind a vivid sonic picture with their atmospheric sounds. Most of this album feels like one cohesive journey.

A Moment Apart begins strong: Naomi Wild’s vocals are as smooth and pleasant as a typical ODESZA mix on “Higher Ground”. The duo demonstrate their likely talent for pop production by bringing out her best aspects with some triumphant synth chords and deep, booming percussion. “Boy” is another great track, veering closer to future bass with the hardest-hitting production on the album and highly rhythmic synth patterns.

ODESZA at their most energetic and experimental frequently brings me out of the trancelike state their calmer music induces, and the rolling, almost traplike beat here certainly fits. When they put some extra creative aspect in, it always assists greatly – the bossa nova horns and Spanish vocals on “Everything At Your Feet”, or the more organic feel of “La Ciudad”, with its handclaps and chanting crowd.

Another specific thing ODESZA does well is working around their silences as much as their sound. Many of their better tracks briefly cut the music before a bigger explosion, contributing to a more driving energy.

ODESZA successfully alter their sound to accommodate for their guests, even surprising appearances like soul artist Leon Bridges. Dialing back their production, the trademark synth swells rise and fall with his smooth vocals on “Across The Room”. It helps to accentuate one of the catchiest hooks here nicely. They strip back even further when their track is graced by the haunting soprano of Regina Spektor on “Just A Memory”, backing her with only piano and some underlying swells for a truly chilling track.

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ODESZA can mistake repetition for their “chill” aesthetic at times, settling into a groove with an idea that doesn’t necessarily pop as much as other and drawing it out for the full extent of a track. “Late Night” is placed among the more energetic tracks in the early stages of the album, and while I can see what they were trying to achieve with the techno synthbass groove at the forefront, the repetition of the vocals ends up killing the energy.

It’s certainly difficult to make an engaging song that is pure instrumental, and about half the tracks here can fall into this category. ODESZA came up on these slower tracks that are content to revel in a few sparkling chords without much variation, and while there is certainly a time and place for them it’s not incredibly attention-grabbing on such a lengthy album. Tracks like “Meridian”, “Divide” and the especially sluggish “Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings” all wind up sounding too similar and blending into each other.

ODESZA has a few telltale characteristics that pop up on almost all of their songs – particularly those higher pitched and swelling synths that make us feel like we are staring at some great expanse, awestruck. Aspects like these have the potential to really work, and frequently do here, when that little something extra is added in. But too often, it never comes.

ODESZA’s sound is certainly unique and their ability to transport the listener to their own musical world is unmatched. Perhaps if the album was scaled back a bit it would be especially captivating, but at this point I’ll be content with some extended glimpses at the duo’s potential.

Favourite Tracks: Boy, Line Of Sight, Higher Ground, Falls, Across The Room

Least Favourite: Thin Floors and Tall Ceilings

Score: 7/10

Alvvays – Antisocialites

Image result for alvvays antisocialitesToronto indie-pop quintet Alvvays release the follow-up to their critically acclaimed self-titled debut three years later, and expand upon many of the aspects that drew fans to them in the first place. Antisocialites sees Alvvays step further into their unique musical niche, providing dreampop vocals and the structure of an indie band but backing this all up with heavier, guitar-laced instrumentals.

Many of these sounds wouldn’t be out of place on a punk album from the 80s, but vocalist Molly Rankin’s sweet and lilting vocals and very melodic songwriting style complement them much better than you might expect. Although there are still a few kinks to be worked out with their loudest tracks, Antisocialites is a brief, joyous whirlwind.

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Rankin’s voice really carries a lot of these ideas throughout the course of the album. It is breathy yet powerful and assertive, playful yet seductive. She reminds me of an edgier Carly Rae Jepsen at times, and really brings out these great melody lines. “In Undertow” is a great introduction to the album, as she harmonizes with herself repeating that lovely “there’s no turning back” melody of the chorus and ends the song with a striking high note that comes out of nowhere.

Much of the appeal of this album comes from Alvvays capturing a few aspects of different retro sounds and blending them together nicely. At one point “Plimsoll Punks” hits this surf-rock guitar fill that catches the listener off guard in the best way. Hearing all of these speedy, crunchy guitar parts with a very feminine voice overtop just brings to mind the spirit of another time. “Lollipop (Ode To Jim)” sounds like some ancient punk-rock television performance, as the guitar provides the main melody and Rankin’s echoing vocals recall the simple yet sweet musicality of the past.

Even so, I believe that Alvvays has so much more potential to explore if they embraced the full extent of their dreampop aspects. The aptly titled “Dreams Tonite” is far and away the best song here, and it is also the poppiest. Building up slowly, it captures a retro-pop sugar rush as Rankin’s vocals layer on top of each other, wistfully dreaming about a stranger she passes by. Her voice slides up and down between notes, with a tone that just brings a smile to your face. The crunch guitar is absent, opting for some cleaner power chords and twinkling synths.

Antisocialites can be viewed as somewhat of a concept album, as the first nine tracks see Rankin coming to terms with the end of a relationship. She goes through various stages of sadness, feigned indifference and rediscovery of herself before starting all over again on the final track. These topics can bring out some pretty powerful lyricism, and across the board it is stronger than most of the peers in their genre.

“Not My Baby” is one of the most compelling here, as Rankin runs through all the ways her life will improve being single, repeating “I don’t care”. But even though she never admits it, the somber tone in her voice and forced repetition of the mantra indicates she does indeed. By the end of the song, she’s finally convinced herself it’s for the best, feeling “alive for the first time”.

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Closer “Forget About Life”, in contrast to the rest of the album, is equally incredible. Over an ethereal, minimalist instrumental, Rankin describes the beautiful blossoming of a new relationship. She paints a scene “underneath this flickering light”, asking her partner to forget about the stresses of everyday life with her. The raw emotion captured here paints a picture as lovely as her melodies.

There are a few times when the mix gets muddled, the guitar becoming less clear and starting to overpower Rankin. Sometimes she compensates for this by hitting more and more climactic moments in her vocal delivery, and since the songs are already so fast-paced and hectic, it becomes a bit of a sensory overload.

“Your Type” is one of the shortest songs on the album, but you’d never know it with how much they attempt to cram in. As the guitar increases in volume and distortion and Rankin is up in the stratosphere, some musicality is lost. “Hey” is another louder track, once again speeding through too many musical concepts without giving the listener time to catch their breath. Rankin’s more conversational delivery would be interesting if it were developed before switching to an off-kilter, eerie bridge and a bombastic conclusion. You can’t deny that effervescent spirit is there though!

Alvvays stands out because there is so little like it right now. Rankin sounds like she’s having a great time, and the energy of these tracks is through the roof. Who said great dreampop had to be calming?

Favourite Tracks: Dreams Tonite, Forget About Life, In Undertow, Saved By A Waif, Not My Baby

Least Favourite Track: Your Type

Score: 8/10

The Script – Freedom Child

Image result for freedom child the scriptIrish pop group The Script’s fifth studio album Freedom Child is half a decade removed from their last significant hit, as they attempt to modernize their sound to better fit into the current radio climate. The band’s work is more electronic than before, adding the odd dance drop, contrasting with the still-present crowdpleasing pop-rock.

Even more prominent, however, is a shift in subject material. Many tracks here present a political angle, touching on a number of issues. Unfortunately, Freedom Child is extremely hollow, with only the most surface-level observations or such little attention to detail it becomes inadvertently ignorant.

It feels like The Script is using the current chaotic state of the world as a springboard to generate attention and clamber back into relevance, and the result does not look good on them at all. The blatantly emotionally manipulative songwriting and jarring shifts in genre and energy mid-song do not help their cause, as The Script delivers one of the messiest albums of the year.

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The album opens in a way that you believe for a second it won’t be a complete disaster, as the electronic aspects are integrated pretty well on “No Man Is An Island” and frontman Danny O’Donoghue taps into the best part of his falsetto range to write a unique and charming melody for single “Rain”, but we quickly drop off a cliff.

“Arms Open” was produced by MAGIC!’s Nasri Atweh, and it is easy to see the influence the band had on the rest of this project, as The Script draws from all of their worst tendencies. The track in question begins the trend of repetitive and awful songwriting, trying to capture the wholesome and romantic ballads of their past by stringing together some awkwardly rhyming lines and offering “my arms are open” in response to each one of them.

The Script really aim for some kind of feel-good, inspirational angle with everything they do. It is annoying on tracks like “Rock The World”, where they throw in some generic lines about rising above and proving people wrong before legitimately constructing a chorus around that cheesy title, but it is even worse when they incorporate this mentality into their political material.

This political angle is introduced on the less than subtle “Divided States of America”, where The Script acts as if listing a few events and asking “what the f**k is going on?” is effective social commentary and activism. O’Donoghue throws a few emo inflections on his cadence to appear as pitiable as possible, spinning the state of a country he doesn’t live in into a cash grab.

Nothing O’Donoghue says on this project shows any sense of analysis or intelligent thought, he is simply observing that these events are happening and suggesting they change. “Put confetti in an atomic bomb”, he suggests on the closer “Freedom Child”. “Instead of war, we’re declaring love”. It gets no deeper.

The absolute worst of these trendy, topical tracks is “Make Up”, which had my mouth wide open at how much The Script’s good intentions could go hopelessly wrong. O’Donoghue tells the story of a few transgender characters in the process of dying from their surgery. This is a real premise of a song that is in the same happy, uplifting vein as their others.

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From the perspective of a supportive father, O’Donoghue sings “You don’t need makeup”, “You’re doing me proud”. The reason why I believe they have no idea what they’re even getting into here is that they couldn’t even bother to keep their pronouns straight, addressing the same subject as “he” and “she” in the same verse. Their biggest revelation about the whole issue is “That’s the saddest f**king thing, yeah”.

The Script’s shifts in genre are always awkwardly executed here, but none are worse than when O’Donoghue insists on rapping on a few tracks. In the whitest sing-song voice possible, he offers “I’m your great white, you’re my piranha/We don’t give a, we love the drama” on “Mad Love”. It’s tough not to burst out laughing.

“Deliverance” is one of the more electronic tracks here, as a sudden synth stab introduces a pounding bassline that comes in on seemingly the wrong beat and throws the rhythm of the track out the window.

I read another review that termed the project “sonic wallpaper”, and that couldn’t be more accurate. So many of these tracks are just aiming to be passable, with an attention-grabbing lyrical aspect (Tinder, politics, etc.) that they just use as a Chainsmokers-esque basic word prompt. Eventually, they find some kind of off-kilter idea or awkward lyric that sinks the ship. This is at its most evident on “Wonders”, the chorus listing a few wonders of the world in an incessant two-note melody jumping up and down overtop some faux-dubstep nonsense.

Finally, “Love Not Lovers” sees O’Donoghue crooning “swiped right on Tinder”, and that’s all I’ll say about that because this list of complaints is getting too long.

This album only escapes 1/10 status by virtue of the first two tracks, as “Rain” won’t be leaving my head for a while. The lyrics here are honestly embarrassing, and it’s just too easy to see through O’Donoghue’s wholesome white guy with a guitar image.

Favourite Tracks: Rain, No Man Is An Island

Least Favourite Track: Make Up

Score: 2/10