Flume – Skin

Australian DJ Flume expands into a more recognizable lane on his second effort, featuring many more songs with the presence of an array of guest vocalists such as Vic Mensa, Tove Lo, Raekwon and Beck. As proven by the current popularity of single “Never Be Like You”, Flume proves here that he has a penchant for pop hooks and has the potential to expand into the lane of mainstream radio like his contemporaries The Chainsmokers, DJ Snake and Calvin Harris. I would be interested in seeing what results from Flume taking on production duty for an established pop artist’s album. About half of the songs here, however, are Flume alone doing what he does best on the turntables. The smattering across the album of these types of songs are where the album fails as a cohesive unit. Flume’s sounds are extremely experimental, and at times it feels like listening to more of an ambient and atmospheric movie soundtrack rather than a song. While this is extremely artistic in its own right, it is not something I would enjoy listening to on a daily basis. At a lengthy 16 tracks as well, the album does drag on. While Flume is set to dominate the festival circuit with this new body of work, stretched to album length an EDM project of this kind stretches thin. The ideas are there, the execution is not.

The main strength of this album is Flume’s ability to adapt to his guests and give them the best possible soundscape in order for them to shine and enhance the overall quality of the song with their presence. The lack of this ability is what has caused me to not enjoy other EDM projects as much, such as Disclosure’s recent Caracal, since their sound is so firmly established. Flume is much more artistically diverse, providing a bouncy electro-pop beat for Tove Lo on “Say It”, a dream-pop synth journey through the clouds for Little Dragon on “Take A Chance”, and a bombastic rap instrumental for Vic Mensa on “Lose It” to create some of the album’s best songs. In future, I hope that Flume sticks more to songs which are accompanied by a featured vocalist, as his pulsating, rhythmically experimental surges of synths do not stand alone incredibly well. Many interesting ideas are experimented with here, and unfortunately fall quite flat, becoming unlistenable. Songs such as “Wall F*ck” and “Free” attempt to create sounds which have likely never existed anywhere before, but simply do not work at all. The beat of “Free” goes too hard for too long, and the accompanying treble melody is repeated ad nauseam. “Wall F*ck” attempts to create a song out of repeating brief, second-long sections of sound and stringing them together. A well-executed version of this would be very interesting indeed. “Innocence” is a 6-minute song which goes absolutely nowhere and is almost all ambience. Not even the usually brilliant AlunaGeorge can save this one. The highs, however, are very high indeed and Flume should stick to these huge pop hooks, as they will do well in advancing him in the increasingly competitive scene of EDM music.

Favorite Tracks: Never Be Like You, Take a Chance, Lose It, Tiny Cities

Least Favorite Track: Innocence

Score: 5/10

Fifth Harmony – 7/27

Fifth Harmony continues their self-described evolution as a group on 7/27, creating a nearly perfect album of empowering power-pop songs which could likely all fit right at home on the radio waves. But for an album whose title evokes connections to the group’s roots, naming it after the day they were officially formed on X Factor, one might assume the music presented would follow, perhaps being more similar to group member Lauren Jauregui’s stunning “If I Ain’t Got You” audition.  While every single one of the tracks presented here are an earworm of the absolute catchiest kind, I personally was expecting at least a few songs to have more of the 90’s R&B stylings which was prominent on the better half of Reflection (“Everlasting Love”, “Like Mariah”). However, this is certainly a step forward for the group if their goal was to become recognizable worldwide, as it will be quite difficult for the world to ignore these songs. Fifth Harmony has proven here to be more of a singles artist than an albums artist, as these songs do not necessarily all fit together on a full album listen, but individually, they all grow on you in their own way. I was quite disappointed on my first listen to worldwide smash single “Work from Home”, but like the rest of the world eventually submitted to the pulsating beat and still play it frequently today. A handful of tracks on this album surpass even that one in terms of replay value.

Any artist looking to cement their status as a powerhouse in the field of pop music is wise to work so extensively with Norwegian production duo Stargate (Rihanna, Ne-Yo), who handle about half the songs here and have an impressive list of top 10 hit singles. Other interesting collaborators are scattered throughout, such as up-and-coming EDM artist Kygo, who lends his tropical house flavour to the breakdowns of standout track “Write On Me” and … not-so-standout track “Squeeze”, as well as ex-fun. and current Bleachers member Jack Antonoff, fresh off his Grammy win for his contributions to Taylor Swift’s 1989. The sound of the album is quite consistent; a clear artistic upgrade from their ventures into the world of pop on Reflection with songs such as “Worth It” and “Bo$$”. When promotional singles “Work From Home” and “Write On Me” were released, my first impression was that the group had finally discovered how to merge the two styles they had presented previously into enjoyable music, retaining at least some of the soul behind their enormous voices while still creating commercially accessible music. This rings true for the remainder of the album as well, including upcoming single “All In My Head (Flex)”, utilizing a Fetty Wap feature to its full euphoric potential.

The group themselves are aptly named, as the complex harmonies which characterize them are still found here in abundance, energizing tracks such as “That’s My Girl” and “Not That Kinda Girl”, which features a surprising and yet show-stopping verse from none other than Missy Elliott. The current trend of having an EDM dance section in place of a chorus is played into on “I Lied”, “Squeeze” and “Scared Of Happy”. Finally, perhaps the best showcase of the true talent behind the pop façade is shown when things are slowed down for the beautiful “Gonna Get Better”, the song which, in true Fifth Harmony fashion, grew on me the most from first listen. All in all, while this is definitely not the album I wanted, I can’t deny that this is an impressive body of work which is sure to vault what is already the most successful girl group in many years to even higher levels of superstardom.

Favorite Tracks: Write On Me, Gonna Get Better, Not That Kinda Girl, All in My Head (Flex), I Lied

Least Favorite Track: Squeeze

Score: 7/10

 

Hedley/Carly Rae Jepsen Concert Review

I deviate from my usual review of an album to bring to light a concert I recently attended at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena. For the first time, I decided to attend a concert although I was only fully interested in the opening act, as I was not going to pass up the opportunity to see at least some songs from Carly Rae Jepsen’s commercially snubbed and critically praised fantastic album E-MO-TION. However, by the end of the night I was surprised by the raw energy that can be brought about by the dying art of the true rock band, and remembered why Hedley has been capable in the past of producing some of my favourite songs in my younger days, such as “For The Nights I Can’t Remember”, and left very satisfied with both acts. The realization dawned on me that I must have been one of the only concertgoers who was there for Carly Rae Jepsen’s new music, as well as Hedley’s old music – seeing as they have drifted closer to the pop territory in recent years.

To begin with the act that initially drew my interest, it was evident that the majority of the audience viewed Jepsen as a tacky one-hit wonder, drawn into the slot of an opening act for the appeal of a gimmicky and now years-old song. I wouldn’t blame her if Jepsen strongly dislikes “Call Me Maybe” by now in the wake of her evolution to a critically acclaimed indie-pop songstress, working with the likes of Dev Hynes of Blood Orange, Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend and Ariel Rechtshaid (Sky Ferreira, Haim). It may be the reason why she only sold 16,000 copies of her latest project, as people only expect what she delivered on what became one of the biggest songs of all time. Even those in the audience I caught singing to songs other than “Maybe” were singing to the sparse additional songs from its parent album she performed, such as “Curiosity”. If Jepsen harbours any resentment to the strange situation her career is in at the moment, she certainly did not display it on stage, and the excitement and energy she threw into the 7-8 E-MO-TION tracks performed made her shortened setlist worth it all the same. One of my favourite songs of 2015, “All That”, performed in a live setting as cellphone lights waved in the air, was an amazing experience. The opener, “Run Away With Me”, where one might have expected a backing track containing the elements of the jazz band which forms the instrumental from another artist, was performed with live instruments and the catchiest of all melodys translated extremely well into performance. Hopefully the placement of E-MO-TION on many of the year’s “best of” lists will gain Jepsen more recognition in the future.

As Hedley took to the stage, I mentally prepared myself for the worst as they reserved the opening of the show for the majority of songs from their latest pop-leaning album, Hello, culminating in an inexplicable mashup of “Lean On”, “Uptown Funk” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry”. However, frontman Jacob Hoggard finally rhetorically posed to the crowd if they were familiar with their old music and brought out the acoustic guitars for “Gunnin’”, which immediately led into piano ballad “For The Nights I Can’t Remember”. This somber and yet familiar section of the setlist prepared me for the second half of high-energy rock and roll performance, and all that may have lacked in quality was made up for in charm. At one point, Hoggard berated a fan whom he caught texting to the point of going through most of the contents of her phone and calling her dad to hilarious results. Older songs such as “On My Own” and “Cha-Ching” have not lost any of what made them fun over the years. As the concert closed with a surprisingly beautiful cover of “Unchained Melody”, and a dedication to his sister, who was in attendance for her birthday, with the song “Darling”, I realized how much I had enjoyed the full set of a band which I have lost interest in over the years. Although they’ve now been going at it for 10 years, I hope they can continue to find the inspiration which led to some of the soundtrack of my late childhood.

Ariana Grande – Dangerous Woman

Ariana Grande continues her prolific speed of releasing albums with her latest character-driven work, Dangerous Woman. The project manages to combine some of the most positive aspects of her previous two albums into a final product which proves to be an extremely rewarding listen, even though at times it seems to be geared directly at pop radio. Many renovations were done over the course of this album’s creation, as numerous songs such as the meant-to-be lead single “Focus” were scrapped along with the previous title Moonlight – although the stunning title track remains the album’s intro – and well-known manager Scooter Braun, who also has artists such as Justin Bieber and Tori Kelly under his wing. The struggle of determining the creative direction in the album’s early goings possibly contributes to the scattershot range genres of present. However, while a similar feature may have existed as detraction to her previous effort My Everything, the thematic undercurrent on Dangerous Woman assists to tie the project together into a cohesive whole despite this. Grande embodies a leather-clad superhero – or perhaps a supervillain – of sorts on the album artwork and this character crosses over into the songs. While not completely overt, many tracks contain a subtle reference to living dangerously, or knowingly doing the wrong thing. Grande proclaims “Boy you make me make bad decisions” on one of the album’s standout tracks. The subpar My Everything can now be seen as a transition period from one image to another, and the dangerous woman we see now, under her own creative direction, presents exciting music indeed.

Most of the production is handled by Swedish pop masterminds Max Martin, who by now is a constant presence in the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10, and his frequent collaborator Ilya Salmanzadeh, though doo-wop and R&B producer Tommy Brown, who worked extensively on Grande’s first retro-R&B-leaning album, makes sporadic appearances as well. The presence of both of these sides of the production coin on this album creates the divide between radio-ready, pure pop and EDM style music and orchestral, cinematic R&B tracks which fall more in line with her debut which was mostly ignored by the general consumer – although critically acclaimed – for this reason. Known to anyone who has seen one of her live performances, Grande is an otherworldly talent and her vocals are similarly stratospheric on this project. While this voice is built to be the centerpiece of every song she graces, however, over the course of her career as a well-known pop star it has tended to be buried in synths and production for the purposes of making a hit song. Those who listen to her full albums, especially her first Yours Truly, know that past these radio hits she is also capable of minimally beautiful R&B tracks which focus on her instrument, such as “Moonlight” and “I Don’t Care” here. The difference from her previous work to this one, however, is that this new image presented on tracks such as “Into You”, just released to radio and sure to become possibly the biggest hit of her career, works extremely well for her. In addition, the presence of more experimental additions (perhaps inspired by her recent interest in Imogen Heap’s voice-bending invention Mimu Gloves) such as forays into vocoder use and booming guitar-based instrumentals makes for a more interesting listen than the majority of standard pop fare. The album is spiced up further with a reggae instrumental on the Nicki Minaj-featuring “Side To Side” which works surprisingly well, and an out-of-left-field appearance by none other than Macy Gray on the dramatic R&B torch song “Leave Me Lonely”, which sounds like it could easily be a Bond theme.

Grande proves to demonstrate on this album that she is capable of almost anything to the degree where the album threatens to lose the cohesiveness that ties an album together, but infuses the personality which lacked in previous years into her latest body of work to deliver an incredibly satisfying album. As Grande is now firmly cemented in the public eye, it remains more radio-driven than Yours Truly, and yet a great deal more fun than similarly-styled My Everything. Grande still has a lot of work to do to reach the level of an iconic and generational talent, which she is fully capable of achieving, but Dangerous Woman is a step in the right direction.

Favorite Tracks: Greedy, Into You, Bad Decisions, Moonlight, I Don’t Care

Least Favorite Track: Knew Better/Forever Boy

Score: 8/10

 

Meghan Trainor – Thank You

A primary note before I get into the full extent of this album: Meghan Trainor is a very talented artist. She has certainly proven that to even her casual listeners, as her top 10 hit “Like I’m Gonna Lose You” was without a doubt one of the best songs of 2015. The nagging problem with the vast majority of her music lies within her inconsistency. Over the course of Trainor’s 2nd full length album after quickly rising to superstardom with earworm “All About That Bass”, Thank You, we hear brief glimpses of the aspects of Trainor which won her Best New Artist at the most recent Grammy Awards, but to get to this material, we must also slog through track after track of extremely watered-down, consumer-ready songs which undermine the great artist hiding underneath. When half of your album sounds like All About That Bass 2.0, a problem with the personnel may be present.

Nearly every song on this album is produced by Ricky Reed, a producer behind hits for artists such as Jason Derulo (“Wiggle”, “Talk Dirty”), Pitbull (“Fireball”), and Fifth Harmony (“Bo$$”), and his brand of hip hop-infused, confidence-exuding pop music is certainly upheld, although without producing much of the desired result. Often, the usual flaws present in this style of music can be overlooked if the song is fun enough – but many of the lyrics Trainor delivers on this project seem to be aimed only at creating a caricature of herself as a pop music persona, the kind that came across in that viral All About That Bass video. Numerous references to her weight are made, and there are multiple songs entirely devoted to Trainor’s self-confidence and love of herself despite her image. It feels like we’ve heard it all before too much for us to submit to the pulsating beats. There may be only one time it succeeds, on the synth-laden dance track “Me Too”. This is one of those tracks that is “so bad it’s good”, and I can see it becoming a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s also the next single set to be released to radio, so we may have to hear Trainor proclaim to her haters “If I was you/I’d wanna be me too” ad nauseam this summer.

For an album that I disliked as much as I did, the fact that I was compelled to download 3 of its songs highlights Trainor’s inconsistency. How can an artist that I’ve come to dislike so much have so many songs that I love? A glance at the album credits reveals the answer: all the best songs on this project have a production credit given to Trainor herself. She truly is an amazing composer and songwriter, and a full album of Trainor-produced and written songs without interference with lowest-common-denominator pop music producers would likely be one of any year’s best. “Hopeless Romantic”, “Just A Friend to You”, and “Champagne Problems” rise above the pack of endless dance-pop bores. All in all, this album is a frustrating listen, as the evidence of what could have been is so beautifully presented to the listener, and then snatched away by dismal tracks like opener “Watch Me Do”, in which Trainor states – no really – “I ain’t saying I’m the bestesest/But I got nice curves, nice breasteses/I don’t erase the texteses from my exeses/All in my DMs, leaving messages”. Sigh.

Favorite Tracks: Hopeless Romantic, Just A Friend To You, Champagne Problems

Least Favorite Track: Dance Like Yo Daddy

Score: 4/10

Chance The Rapper – Coloring Book

chance-the-rapper-chance-3Chance the Rapper has returned with his first solo project since 2013’s soulful and extravagant Acid Rap, and in the process elevates the sound we’ve come to love from him to a new level by infusing it with his newfound interest in gospel music. Chance’s diverse musical palette and wide range of influences and collaborators displayed here does create a highly confusing, almost too experimental album which certainly took me some time to make sense of – but like his new mentor Kanye West’s Life of Pablo earlier this year, somehow, it all just works.

Chance’s intonations and cadences on this album, as they’ve done in the past, drift closer to the realm of impassioned slam poetry – or perhaps in the context of this album, delivering a sermon – than the genre which his moniker suggests. He continues to prove he is much more than Chance the Rapper, as he spans a wide range of genres over the album’s course, not only within the umbrella of hip hop but delving into the world of jazz music as he previously had with his contributions to The Social Experiment’s 2015 album Surf. The Social Experiment make their presence felt on over half of the album’s tracks, including highlights “Angels”, “Blessings” and “Finish Line/Drown”. It is interesting to observe hip hop artists continuing to use the conventions of jazz in their music in the wake of Kendrick Lamar’s magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. But while Kendrick opts to rhyme over spiralling, chaotic freeform jazz, Chance gives us bright and cheerful horn sections. It is almost impossible to listen to this album without a smile permanently plastered on your face.

With this being said, Chance’s studio time with Kanye West – the same studio time which produced that outstanding “Ultralight Beam” verse – is clearly evident on this project. Kanye’s recent, oft-tweeted message of “#positivevibes” has crossed over to fellow Chicagoan Chance’s work – yielding tracks which frequently sound like they might have fit directly onto The College Dropout. This is truly creative, experimental work, and like Pablo, it forms somewhat of a beautifully cohesive mess rather than a fully realized cohesive whole. It could be argued that with such drastic shifts in the sounds being delivered, Chance risks alienating listeners as the album continues – this certainly contributed to my initial confused reaction to the project. While Chance leaps across these genres, however, he impressively displays his wide range as a musician, even almost adapting to his guests! He brings on Young Thug and Lil Yachty for trap anthem “Mixtape” and adopts their woozy cadence. He slows things down and joins Justin Bieber in his R&B crooning on “Juke Jam”. He even masterfully picks up Jay Electronica’s complex flow on “How Great” – that being said, Jay Elec absolutely steals the show as he tends to do. Chance’s many talents are on full display here.

A main detraction from my full enjoyment of this album is that often, certain aspects or sections of the songs overstay their welcome. While I certainly did enjoy the religious themes of the project, as it is something you don’t often hear in hip hop music, the 2 minute gospel choir intro to “How Great” before the beat kicks in will not have me itching to give the song multiple listens, regardless of how fantastic Chance and Jay Electronica are on the second half. The albums outro falls into this category as well, as the same 2 lines are repeated for the majority of the track. Also, while I’m sure the Future Hive love Chance’s foray into that world of music, “Smoke Break” is not for me. However, the highlights of the project all reside in its joyful and sunny sounds, and there are many. This is a very special album, continuing the trend of risky and experimental hip hop music paying off. I hope Chance maintains this level of creativity as he continues in his career, and under the wing of Kanye West, it is a safe bet to be as optimistic as Chance himself is on this project.

Favorite Tracks: No Problem, Blessings (First Time), Angels, Finish Line/Drown, All Night

Least Favorite Track: Smoke Break

Score: 9/10