First Aid Kit – Ruins

Image result for first aid kit ruinsSwedish folk duo First Aid Kit’s fourth studio album continues to display the sisters’ airtight harmonies and excellent storytelling while settling into a satisfying and consistent niche throughout its 10 tracks. While the album isn’t particularly abundant in musical risks, this is the sound of a band in full control of what works well for them, and they deliver some enchanting fireside melodies here. First Aid Kit edge slightly closer to country territory on this project, their vocals possessing a slight twang over the trademark acoustic picking and background strings.

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One of the greatest strengths of the project is the consistent ability to surprise when you think their songs are one-dimensional. Opening track “Rebel Heart”, despite its emotionally powerful chorus, doesn’t change much in terms of energy throughout its first two-thirds before a brief moment of silence – which I thought signaled the end of the track – gives way to a much more upbeat and rhythmically complex instrumental section, the vocals coming back strong on top.

The sisters are masters of the slow build, often beginning tracks quietly before the instrumentation swells and the harmonies kick in stronger than before for some truly captivating vocal moments. I wish “To Live A Life” lasted a bit longer, the power they display at the end of the track isn’t quite satisfying for how much buildup it took to get there, but it’s a great example of how well they can pull off sudden shifts in energy. Another great moment is the bridge of “Distant Star”, which suddenly twists the bright major key with some more ominous notes that are barely noticeable, but give the track a definite and inexplicable feeling of unease that fits with their unsuspectingly dark lyrical themes.

“It’s A Shame” is possibly the greatest vocal showcase on the album, backed by a stronger foundation of some quicker guitar chords for the sisters to get a bit louder over. The harmonies are at their cleanest on the chorus, the artists’ proclaimed love for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours never more evident as they juxtapose their rather grim lyrics about loneliness with the sunniest sounding song here.

I really do love the interplay between their voices here, the album is seriously carried by the vocal talent more than anything else. The breaks in their voice as they jump up to a higher note and the slight melismatic tone throughout is somehow perfect for the brand of stark, confessional lyrics. They frequently sing over constant harmonized vocal support in the instrumental, a track like “Fireworks” bringing it all together perfectly.

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Despite the project’s shorter runtime, there are a few noticeably weaker tracks. When the sisters aren’t at the top of their game vocally their approach to the genre doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. A track like “Postcard” is more subdued vocally, and does contain a great piano solo midway through the track, but the instrumental is at its closest to classic country tricks here, and I feel like I’ve heard this track quite a few times before.

Additionally, the more powerful moments on this album make the tracks that don’t spend as much time progressing towards a triumphant goal at the end feel much weaker – “My Wild Sweet Love” never really reaches a climax as immediately captivating as its counterparts. The full-voiced belt seriously takes the listener aback, often dropping on them unsuspectingly, its what makes you really admire the full extent of the musicianship here.

Ruins is a very solid effort that continues to establish First Aid Kit as they slowly assert themselves in the public consciousness. The level of raw talent and songwriting ability here is impressive – the band knows exactly what they’re doing right.

Favourite Tracks: It’s A Shame, Fireworks, Hem Of Her Dress, Rebel Heart, To Live A Life

Least Favourite Track: My Wild Sweet Love

Score: 7/10

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Fall Out Boy – M A N I A

Fall Out Boy - Mania.pngVeteran rock band Fall Out Boy’s seventh studio album, delayed for four months after their bassist Pete Wentz explicitly admitted the songs weren’t good enough in an interview, is certainly a lot more impressive than I’m sure most people expected. However, as evidenced by opening EDM misfire “Young & Menace” remaining on the project, M A N I A is still inconsistent and directionless at times. But standing at only 10 tracks, there is not much room for filler, and Patrick Stump’s trademark vocals and the band’s dedication to heavier instrumentals are still as powerful as they’ve ever been.

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It appears that Fall Out Boy was at least partially inspired by labelmate Paramore’s transition into retro-pop on their fantastic After Laughter, offering some similar tropical pop chords infused with their trademark style of guitar riffs on “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. The effect of someone with a voice as commanding as Stump’s transitioning to a more modern instrumental is quite powerful – he hits some huge notes in the chorus, bringing the stadium rock anthem into a new era. As the tribal drums hit in the track’s bridge and he holds that note on the final “knife” to his voice’s breaking point, I can already picture the scores of crowds singing along to that final chorus.

“The Last Of The Real Ones” brings frequent Weeknd collaborator Illangelo on board, and the track evokes the same kind of indescribable dark energy that a song like “The Hills” has. I give credit to the band for still sticking fast to emphasis on the musicality of the band, actual instruments (especially that impressive drum work!) prominent on every song here where most rock bands turn to more produced pop beats and synths – where this would frequently sound dated, Fall Out Boy bring just enough modern elements in to keep the classic idea of the heavier rock band at the forefront of pop culture alive.

The back to back tracks “Church” and “Heaven’s Gate” might be the band’s best work in years, Stump channelling every ounce of soul in his voice for some more R&B influenced tracks. The latter especially features a beautiful doo-wop instrumental and Stump harmonizing with himself on some seriously impressive high notes before giving the chorus everything he has, showing restraint and emotional vulnerability at just the right moments.

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There are certainly some lyrical shortcomings on the project that bring you out of the songs for a second – especially when comparing the group to the work of some fellow surviving bands lumped together under that “emo” umbrella from the mid-2000s. Where many have grown up in their lyrical themes, there’s something a little weird about hearing a 33-year old structure a chorus around the lyric “I’ll stop wearing black when they make a darker colour” on “Wilson (Expensive Mistakes)”. Adding a few awkwardly shoehorned pop-cultural references into the mix only exacerbates this – especially when they’re as poorly timed as their villainizing of Tonya Harding on “Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea”.

The juxtaposition of that track with preceding “Champion” is noticeable for the repetition of the same tired tropes of self-empowerment they already had a big hit with in “Centuries”. They do know what they’re doing though – “Champion” is much less contrived than the former, and when everything collides together at the end it is legitimately an electrifying experience despite being derivative. Stump still possesses a live wire of a voice that can break through the mediocrity. The project can’t seem to settle on a concrete direction either, jumping between dance-inspired electronic guitar effects, finger-snap poppier tracks, and even a strange feature from Nigerian artist Burna Boy that attempts to jump on the dancehall trend.

The project is at its best when Fall Out Boy adhere to what got them here in the first place, making it less blatantly obvious that they’re trying to fit in when they incorporate some more modern pop trends on tracks like “HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T”. Still, even on such an inconsistent project, you have to give the band credit for sticking to their guns as much as they do, still capable of making some pretty great music even as the modern pop landscape starts to pass them by.

Favourite Tracks: Heaven’s Gate, Church, HOLD ME TIGHT OR DON’T, The Last Of The Real Ones

Least Favourite Track: Stay Frosty Royal Milk Tea

Score: 6/10

BØRNS – Blue Madonna

Borns - Blue Madonna.pngRetro-pop singer-songwriter Børns’ sophomore project continues to display his old-soul mentality, reviving the classic pop sounds of groups like the Beach Boys while infusing the style with more modern synth-based production and moody lyrical musings that attracted a prominent collaborator in Lana Del Rey to the project. Made with only a single producer in Tommy English, Blue Madonna is an exhilarating and upbeat experience, if the slightest bit inconsistent. Still, its highs are experimental pop at its best.

The album really hits its stride in its middle section of four, elevating itself from the slower nature of the first four tracks and kicking the album into a higher gear that never lets up. The track “Man” immediately snaps into a bouncy synth piano groove as Børns forms his own backup vocal trio with some harmonized embellishments and he demonstrates just how strong that falsetto belt can get. “Iceberg” might be my favourite song of all, a more laidback track that is the most sonically experimental thing here. Børns tenderly croons the title as the synths shimmer like the glow on ice behind him, each time he drops into the verse the main synth-bass hook getting stronger before everything converges for the rhythmically dramatic conclusion.

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“Second Night Of Summer” and “I Don’t Want U Back” stray closer to pop territory, but Børns’ ability to switch between his softer, indie-pop vocals and his full-voiced rock and roll wail in the chorus is what gives these tracks a truly special and individual quality that could only come from him. Those crunchy synths as he extends that note on “throwin’ me that shaaade” give the track a great electronic groove. I’m not sure if another song captures Børns’ retro aspirations better than the single “Faded Heart”, which sees him reach high up into his falsetto for the kind of lovesick, saccharine and pleading chorus that could have come straight from someone like Frankie Valli – it emphasizes the effect when a kind of muffling effect is put on his vocals later on in the track, like we’re hearing the track played on an ancient gramophone.

Many of Børns’ melodies have the kind of crunchy, surprising quirks in note choice that simply aren’t around as much anymore, evoking a different time perfectly. I also certainly wasn’t expecting this album to leave me completely heartbroken at its conclusion, but the painfully real songwriting on closing track “Bye-bye Darling” is beautifully bittersweet, reminiscing on the good times and emphasizing that nobody will ever know what they had – but of course that just makes it worse in the end.

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Opening track “God Save Our Young Blood” brings Lana Del Rey out from her backup vocals position with a full feature credit, and I’m not sure if this was recorded before her brilliant Lust For Life album, but she brings out Børns’ worst tendencies for a rare misstep. He demonstrates later on in the album how much more than this somber, swaying mood music he is, and something about the chord progression into the chorus really doesn’t sit well with me, especially as the key changes closer to the end of the track.

While his trademark falsetto is often very strong at communicating the overall feel he aims for, the real charm comes from the joyful, twinkling instrumentals that accompany them, and sometimes making an album with a single producer can create some tracks that lag behind others in this regard. A song like “Sweet Dreams” is a solid track, and we feel every word he says, but the production isn’t as rhythmic as the other tracks and as a result isn’t as immediately impactful.

We’ve certainly been hearing a lot of retro flavour in pop music recently, but not many artists are going quite this far back with such a clearly loving dedication to the style they pay homage to. Børns certainly avoids the sophomore jinx here with some smart songwriting and enticing vocal delivery.

Favourite Tracks: Iceberg, Man, Bye-bye Darling, Second Night Of Summer, Faded Heart

Least Favourite Track: God Save Our Young Blood

Score: 8/10

Camila Cabello – Camila

Camila (Official Album Cover) by Camila Cabello.pngCamila Cabello’s long-delayed debut album, establishing herself as a solo artist after leaving Fifth Harmony, comes in the wake of smash hit single “Havana”, which the album was supposedly restructured around. While I can’t immediately see how this was done, as the album contains many slower ballads and more standard pop tracks, Camila is a brief glimpse at Cabello’s artistry apart from the group that is very solid, if not yet spectacular. Produced mainly by Frank Dukes, who has recently worked with numerous visionaries in Lorde, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, Cabello’s unique voice and slight Latin edge she brings to most of these tracks establishes an artist in control, even if most of her choices stay safe for now.

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“Never Be The Same”, recently released as the follow up to “Havana”, is a great example for where most of this album stands – the chorus is absolutely explosive and an earworm of the highest degree and seriously showcases Cabello’s potential as a main pop artist going forward, but the surrounding energy of the track falls slightly flat at times. The pre-chorus features her singing primarily in her upper register without much instrumental support, and she hasn’t quite figured out this area of her voice yet. As it stands, it is thin and squeaky and doesn’t convey much – but once those backing vocals swell in to support her powerful lower range on that chorus I’m immediately sold once more. The vast majority of the album showcases a select few fantastic musical moments with a single choice that holds it back from becoming truly special. “Havana” still stands out as a spectacular track due to its fully established musical direction and fuller instrumental, distinguishing from the minimalist ballad tracks that populate most of the album.

Don’t discount Cabello as a songwriter either. “Consequences” is easily the best track here. The stripped-back ballad took my breath away, and in a rare occurrence, made me stop my first listen to hear it a few times more. Cabello offers her most personal, confessional lyrics and brings some serious emotional depth to her vocal delivery as she sings of the negative effect of the end of a relationship on her mental health, losing the “steady place to let down my defenses”. The quiet piano chords backing up her softer, breathy vocals complement the track perfectly, swelling at just the right moments as Cabello hits the emotional peaks in her lyrics. This track alone gives me full confidence in Cabello’s ability to become a global pop superstar in the future – not everyone can deliver a track that affects me emotionally this much on a debut album.

I really do love the Latin, tropical flair Cabello brings to a lot of these tracks – even if something like “She Loves Control” carries elements of the dancehall craze that is dominating the radio waves at the moment, there is a greater degree of authenticity in Cabello’s delivery – this isn’t Drake with a fake patois, and an artist who can turn something like “Havana” into a hit single is very refreshing as aspects of Latin music are increasingly popularized. Those few seconds of a Spanish guitar at the end of the track are a great touch and brings the listener further into the bigger picture of what Cabello represents in today’s musical landscape.

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“Real Friends” and “Inside Out” are a couple of fun, tropical pop tracks that carry the same Frank Dukes feel over from “Havana”. While much more lyrically basic, getting inane as the track continues to its conclusion, hearing pop music based on something like the island piano loop on “Inside Out” is enough of an interesting sonic experience that the novelty of the project is enough – when she starts singing in Spanish on the bridge it just carries it even more.

Ultimately, Camila gives a brief, introductory glimpse at the picture of Cabello as her own solo artist, free to add the artistic flourishes that a more manufactured group like Fifth Harmony lacks. As a result, the project has a much greater degree of personality than her ex-bandmates’ latest effort, even if they are both solid yet unspectacular pop projects. Still, there is no filler here, these are all well-structured and catchy pop tracks that suggest Cabello is here to stay.

Favourite Tracks: Consequences, Havana, Real Friends, She Loves Control, Inside Out

Least Favourite Track: All These Years

Score: 7/10

CupcakKe – Ephorize

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Cupcakkeephorize.jpgCupcakKe, the raunchy rapper and proponent of memes, releases her third studio album and continues to establish herself as much more than a source of exaggeratedly sexual punchline raps. Ephorize, while still certainly containing some of the material you might expect, expands on CupcakKe’s persona with some more personal tracks, while the improved level of production allows her to flash more of an impressive technical skillset. Still only 20 years of age, Ephorize is the beginning of CupcakKe coming into her own as a well-rounded artist – as long as you can go along with the joke when the more nauseating side of her work kicks in.

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The project opens with two of its strongest tracks in “2 Minutes” and “Cartoons”, which immediately exceeded my expectations. Both tracks show CupcakKe’s dynamic mic presence, her lower, huskier voice and quicker flow showing full command of the instrumentals. “2 Minutes” shows her emphasizing the value of her tireless work ethic over calming piano and choral samples, while “Cartoons” is an absolute banger – the clinking pots and pans remind me of an old-school beat from Bangladesh, and she seriously displays her talent and technical skill over a very demanding beat – the thematic references to cartoons are a nice touch, and her punchlines, even the obscene ones, are often quite hilarious.

CupcakKe says whatever’s on her mind, and the result gives her music a genuine, endearing quality – we love her at her most ridiculous, and when she becomes more introspective it is legitimately affecting. She introduces “Cinnamon Toast Crunch” by explaining “I was hungry as hell writing this” before dropping into a chorus where she essentially yells the track’s title as loud as possible. I have no idea why it’s so funny.

Tracks like “Self Interview”, in which she offers a touching self-examination of how her actions and her artistry ultimately effect people’s perceptions of her and desiring to be viewed as more than a caricature making songs “about sex and killing”, and the LGBT-positive anthem “Crayons” show a more well-rounded side of her over some larger-than-life beats that let her, and the listeners, have a lot of fun while doing it. Some of the metaphorical connections she draws could only come from her mind – “Navel” sees her getting violent over a “Mask Off”-esque flute instrumental as she punctuates another impressive flow by comparing a bullet hole to the titular body part

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Although a track like “Duck Duck Goose” was clearly structured to be somewhat of a centerpiece to the album, with a pretty catchy Eurodance style instrumental reminiscent of Katy Perry’s recent “Swish Swish”, I can’t sit through these tracks where CupcakKe approaches her lyrical content with no intentions other than shock value. Her breathy delivery introducing the chorus are clearly meant to be taken as a joke, but this isn’t something I’m going to giving repeated listens to. Don’t get me wrong – CupcakKe is miles above anyone else when it comes to actually effectively communicating this shock value, and that says something in and of itself, but there’s a point where a joke goes a bit too far.

Standing at 15 tracks, the project overstays its welcome a bit as tracks closer to the tail end start to get more similar. It would be beneficial for CupcakKe to vary her delivery more, as many tracks start to simply become standard trend-riding instrumentals, her voice constantly at its most energetic level of attack, and tracks with a loosely thematic lyrical concept with the odd sexual punchlines thrown in. “Total” and “Post Pic” are pretty bland tropical-house style tracks, while an aggressive rap track like “Meet and Greet” feels rather redundant near the end of the track listing as better prototypes came before it.

Despite all of this, CupcakKe overrides just about anything with her genuine and hilarious personality, and now that she’s shown she has a lot more than meme material in the tank, it’ll be very interesting to see how the young rapper’s career progresses from here. She’s shown a lot of potential here and there’s only room to keep improving

Favourite Tracks: Cartoons, Fullest, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Self Interview, 2 Minutes

Least Favourite Track: Meet & Greet

Score: 7/10

 

Travis Scott/Quavo – Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho

Image result for huncho jack jack hunchoIn yet another rap collab that dropped as 2017 came to a close, not to be upstaged by fellow Migos member Offset, Quavo recruits a kindred spirit in Travis Scott for a solid but unsurprising effort. The two stick to exactly what they know and exactly what they’ve been doing for the rest of the year, and since they are more similar in terms of artistry than many collaborative projects over the course of the year, it seems like the album doesn’t have much to offer that we haven’t already heard before.

While I personally wanted to hear more bars and less mumbled, autotuned crooning that the two have become known for, Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho shows two artists who are as understanding of their audience as they possibly could be, delivering a select few great moments in a sea of mediocrity.

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The project opens with its most immediately catchy song in “Modern Slavery”, which features a more energetic trap beat than most of the generic offerings on the rest of the project and features Quavo “shaking his demons off” and then “dipping his dreams in sauce”. The shorter length of the track, as well as the multiple delays on the project, makes me think that the logistics of the project did not come together as well as most, since this album basically exists solely due to internet hype on Twitter. I wish it had gone on for longer.

The only features on the project come from fellow Migos members Takeoff and Offset, and it really speaks volumes to how well Migos work as a trio, since the distinct voices they bring to their respective tracks really breaks up the monotony here. Scott and Quavo are almost indistinguishable here, not playing off of each other at all or complementing each others’ strengths because they essentially do very similar things on each track.

The tracks “Dubai Sh*t” and “Best Man” stand out as well, the former demonstrating the quotable, goofier side of their respective rap personas (if you can ignore the similarities to Drake’s More Life highlight “Gyalchester”) while the album closer “Best Man” offers something a little different from the trap sensibilities and rhythmic adherence to rather straightforward beats. The collaborators express their brotherhood and tell some stories of their early friendship over Young Thug producer Wheezy’s more spacey, ambient beat that accommodates their melodies better.

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Scott and Quavo’s more freeform, flowing style doesn’t contrast as well with more dynamic beats, since almost all of the energy of the track is lost when a beat calms down due to the rappers not explicitly sticking to a solid rhythmic pattern. While there is certainly appeal in the style, as evidenced by the two rappers’ enormous popularity, after a slew of collaborative projects that only served to amplify artistic aspects that weren’t as prominent on solo work, the safe approach to this project didn’t sit as well with me. Too much of the project sounds like an amalgamation of just about every track Travis and Quavo appeared on over the course of 2017, using the same flows, same beats, same adlibs and same lyrical content and even some of the same punchlines.

Quavo’s voice is the hip-hop universal solvent at this point, and Travis Scott at his most energetic can be truly invigorating, but it is clear that there wasn’t a high degree of effort put into this project, not wanting to delay its release to 2018. There are certainly moments to enjoy here – these two have exploded into the public eye recently as they continue to shape exactly what modern hip-hop sounds like, and this can be partially credited to the strength of their prolific collaborations – but usually, their presence is a welcome juxtaposition and different perspective to a track by someone with a completely different approach. These artists aren’t as one-dimensional as this project makes them seem.

Favourite Tracks: Modern Slavery, Moon Rock, Best Man

Least Favourite Track: How U Feel

Score: 4/10