Years & Years – Palo Santo

Image result for years and years palo santoBritish electropop trio Years & Years unleash their sophomore effort Palo Santo, an endlessly danceable homage to the upbeat and explosive synthpop sounds of the 80s that features refreshingly openly gay lyrical content that dives further into the real stories of frontman Olly Alexander – often with the use of religious imagery. I wouldn’t blame any listener for missing out on the lyrics completely though – while not the most consistent or original of albums, slowing down its frenetic pace in the middle and lifting some recognizable melodies and rhythms, many of the tracks that populate Palo Santo are simply ridiculously fun, built on inescapable rhythms that reach levels of modern synthpop mastery on an equal playing field with someone like a Carly Rae Jepsen.

Alexander doubles as a theatrical actor, and the extravagance of live performance is reflected through his expressive and dynamic vocals. Quite a few of these songs veer into pretty heavy territory, Alexander speaking about his romantic experiences as a gay man, without concealing any of the giveaway pronouns in the process, with the veneer of religion. He speaks about his desires both as something inappropriate and sinful that he finds some kind of absolution in regardless, asking a man who claims to be straight to “Sanctify” him or comparing partners to a religious figure “preaching a lie”. The album first sets off its ethereal dance party on its second track, “Hallelujah”, however, Alexander finding the spiritual healing that he seeks through dance and the escape of pop music. Produced by veteran Greg Kurstin and written with help from Julia Michaels, the percussion unremitting as Alexander delivers a rapid-fire, harmonized chorus. The beat dropping for the final time as he extends his note on an ascendant repetition of the title phrase is one of the greatest moments here.

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This leads directly into “All For You”, which might be the best song on the whole project. Another Kurstin track, the chorus is one of the most immediately infectious you’re likely to find all year. The slowly swirling synths eventually build into a buzzy, syncopated rhythm that’s echoed by the vocals as Alexander gets caught up in burning desire. The delivery on that opening “you look like you’re so damn scared” is electrifying, especially when the music cuts out briefly for the final chorus. Years & Years aren’t scared to slow things down either, “Hypnotised” a quite aptly named track as Alexander’s voice is allowed to shine without the surrounding pizzazz for an aching, beautifully harmonized track where his acting talents can be clearly heard.

Palo Santo can suffer from a lack of originality at times, even if the music is so fun you’re a lot less likely to care. A track like “Karma” is so heavily inspired from late 90s-early 00s female R&B hits that you could apply certain sections of the track to individual songs. It’s a lot more similar than it should be in a world where musicians are being sued for emulating a “vibe” – remnants of Lauryn Hill and Destiny’s Child’s biggest hits haunt the song, but it’s still very upbeat and fun by adding a prominent synth line that the aforementioned artists never had. “If You’re Over Me” stands out in the tracklist for all the wrong reasons as well. For the most part, this is forward-thinking pop music that seamlessly updates an older sound for modern purposes, but this song essentially copy-and-pastes the car-commercial-esque synth line from American Authors hit “Best Day of My Life”, and the surrounding track is just as dated and uninspired, produced by the increasingly bland Steve Mac, who just landed the biggest hit of his career with “Shape Of You”.

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As the tracklist reaches its end, the revelry continues, it just doesn’t reach the same levels as the early goings, one small part of the track missing before it reaches its full potential. “Preacher”, for example, is constructed out of a flashy bassline and Alexander’s falsetto ‘woohoo’s, but I feel like the chorus lags one measure behind where it should, leaving too much silence. It finds its footing once again on penultimate track “Lucky Escape”, however – the hi-hats slow things down to a more R&B leaning half-time tempo, synth-piano and falsetto harmonies driving one of the catchiest tracks here, put over the edge by Alexander’s triumphant and sassy inflections as he celebrates “dodging a bullet”.

Palo Santo certainly expands Years & Years’ musical range from their debut, in a rare feat of improving rather than falling victim to the sophomore curse. The religious themes throughout make the act of enjoying pop music feel like a kind of spiritual liberation, and the collaborators here knock it out of the park in an homage to a genre past. Even if it comes off too close to replication at times, it’s a great step forward for the trio.

Favourite Tracks: All For You, Hallelujah, Hypnotised, Lucky Escape, Sanctify

Least Favourite Track: If You’re Over Me

Score: 8/10

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Future – BEASTMODE 2

Beast Mode 2 by Future.jpgSuperstar rapper Future continues his torrid release pace with the sequel to one of his breakout mixtapes, 2015’s Beast Mode. Teaming up with the same producer as the former – innovative trap pianist Zaytoven – for the project’s entire duration, Future continues to do what he does best. While there certainly are some pretty great beats on here, Zaytoven flexing his classically trained muscles to give the run-of-the-mill trap instrumental a higher degree of musicality, it’s honestly getting increasingly difficult to get legitimately excited about Future’s brand of slurred, Auto-Tuned delivery over consistently basic hi-hats in a world where trap artists who put in more noticeable effort exist. BEASTMODE 2 is far from a bad project, the formula’s just getting boring – I heard a similarly average Future mixtape in SUPER SLIMEY only 9 months ago. Still, Future’s trap bangers get the baseline job done more consistently than most.

Most of these tracks give an immediate burst of energy as Future descends onto the track for the first time and the beat clicks together, but over the course of the whole track it manages to fizzle out completely by the end. On more than one occasion on my first listen I thought I had finally reached the first track to truly wow me on the project, only to end up getting bored of it by its ending. “WIFI LIT”, the opening track and apparent fan favourite, is nothing we haven’t heard before, featuring a woodwind instrumental and Future’s flow never deviating from the norm. It possesses the initial euphoric rush that most trap songs have, but the same kind of thing goes on for too long.

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Tracks like “RACKS BLUE” and “RED LIGHT” that prominently feature Zaytoven’s work on the keys are where the project shines more, especially the latter, the intro of the track displaying some seriously impressive rapid-fire scales up and down the keyboard. “RACKS BLUE” is one of the more memorable tracks on the project, the trap beat enhancing Zaytoven’s work up in the piano’s higher register for a contemplative and rhythmic pop-leaning sound, one of the catchiest instrumentals here. The song “DOH DOH” is the only track with a guest feature in Young Scooter, and his cleaner, more distinctly rhythmic approach was very welcome to my ears after 5 straight tracks of low-effort Future delivery. Future’s melodic hook here is him at his best as well though. The frenetic instrumental features a menacing low brass note in place of a bass line that anchors the track well, and the jumpy, high-pitched synths inject more energy into the song than most here.

For a project that’s only 31 minutes long, too much of this feels like filler. Of the two, I expect more creativity from Zaytoven, so when he resorts to more straightforward trap instrumentals the quality suffers. “31 DAYS” is one of those, and Future’s lazy lyricism and awkward flow suck most of the fun out of the ode to mutually understood brief relationships as well. Of course, Future has always been so much more about the way he says things than what he says, but he hasn’t been varying this up much recently as his release schedule gets more crowded. There’s nothing here as instantly iconic as a “Mask Off”, a “Jumpman”, a “March Madness” – 3 tracks that are great for very different reasons. “WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT” is definitely a pretty fun track, but it could have been even better – the cascading piano is inexplicably buried deep in the mix in lieu of Zaytoven doing the same “Dilemma” pitched vocal sample trick that’s shown up in quite a few popular songs recently, while “SOME MORE” is the poppiest track Future’s ever released, his muddled voice sounding out of place on the uncharacteristically pleasant instrumental.

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The high-pitched and plaintive sounds of the piano do allow Future to take things to a more personal place, however. At times, the natural vibrato his voice possesses sounds more like a waver before he breaks out into tears – and it makes closing track “HATE THE REAL ME” one of his most compelling ever. “I’m tryna get high as I can”, he repeats on the infectious hook, but he sounds more remorseful about it than anything, the faintest hint of emotion creeping into his tough-guy persona. Over the course of the track, he details his excessive drug use as a result of trying to escape his inner demons and anxieties, changing himself into someone else in the pursuit of love and the other excesses of fame. When so many huge artists sound whiny when talking about struggling from success, it’s Future of all people who sounds completely genuine, and Zaytoven’s expressive production helps to bring this out of him.

BEASTMODE 2 is pretty standard Future fare for the most part, and it’s clearly been working out well for him as his popularity continues to skyrocket. Hearing him team up with Zaytoven once again is a pleasure, even if his delivery has become more uninspired since the last time. Future has the potential to drop a knockout track on us when we least expect it – I’m just not sure it’s on this particular project.

Favourite Tracks: HATE THE REAL ME, DOH DOH, RACKS BLUE, WHEN I THINK ABOUT IT

Least Favourite Track: SOME MORE

Score: 5/10

Florence + The Machine – High As Hope

HighAsHope.pngIndie-pop band Florence + The Machine return after 3 years with their 4th studio album, their most minimal and personal yet. Standing at a concise 10 tracks, Florence Welch’s immediately distinctive vocals take the spotlight once again, especially as the instrumentals behind her calm down for the most part. The band draw on some gospel sensibilities across the board here, infusing some of these tracks with rich harmonies and powerful choral moments. Although I prefer the scarce occasions when things get a little more upbeat here, Welch’s voice the unrestrained ball of energy over the driving percussion, High as Hope is another overall solid project from the consistent group.

Opening track “June” quickly draws listeners in to the ethereal world of Florence + The Machine, Welch’s raw, fluttering and emotional vocal delivery backed by some sparse, moody piano chords and twinkling effects to further enhance the dreamscape that her vocals belong to. While the track and quite a few others here are less structured than I’d like them to be, the rhythms of the piano chord progression lining up in a slightly awkward fashion, the focus on Welch’s very personal inner monologues pull the stripped-back sound together, the surrounding instrumentals representing the chaos of the personal struggles she describes. Second single “Hunger” pulls all the great elements of the band together – Welch speaks on her struggles with an eating disorder as the gospel chords pick up and the percussion settles into a steady rhythm. The band’s greatest singles have always had this same quality of an anthemic mantra, Welch’s passion just selling the message. It’s a track that’s equal parts powerful and brilliantly catchy.

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“100 Years” is one of the only other upbeat tracks here, a prominent, fun stomp-clap rhythm backing up Welch’s empowering message of persevering despite disheartening world events – 100 years marking the length of time since women first voted in her home country of the UK. The band recruits a great list of collaborators here, and you can feel their effect – the whole album is produced with superstar indie producer Emile Haynie, but the writing credits boast unexpected names in Jamie xx, Sampha and Tobias Jesso Jr. You can hear Sampha’s influence especially on his co-written track “Grace” – the evocative piano and blunt, specific lyrics could have fit on his debut Process. The slow build of the track as Welch puts more power into the chorus each time, leading to a full-voiced, expletive-laden shout at the conclusion, is a perfect contrast to the verses where we hear the calmer, surprisingly sweet side of her voice. Quite a few of these songs capture a kind of larger than life, awestruck cosmic feeling as the deafening backing vocals roar in for the chorus. It’s the same thing we hear on their classic tracks like “Dog Days Are Over”, and it’s a truly unique thing that the band is able to bring out.

Penultimate track “The End Of Love” is the album’s greatest, featuring a chorus built on chilling layered harmonies. It’s a very minimal song, but it makes the bigger moments all the more powerful. The saxophone that briefly wails in as Welch describes a rushing river is a great touch that shows attention to detail, but that beautiful, shimmering chorus is the deserving centerpiece of the work.

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Some of the quieter tracks here fall a bit short due to the traditionally uncontrolled, warbling nature of Welch’s voice – the band doesn’t give enough to rein in and support its wilder qualities at times here, giving off the impression that she’s making up these melodies on the spot. A track like “South London Forever” has one of the safest instrumentals here, a steady, reflective pop piano loop that doesn’t mirror Welch’s shouted vocals, the hook suddenly cascading in unexpectedly without the track doing much to signify its arrival. Welch sings with reckless abandon, throwing in the squeaks and uncontrolled vocal runs that make her so unique – on tracks like “No Choir” and “Big God”, we get to focus more on all those quirks without the energetic instrumental behind. While Welch’s lyrics are still very compelling, the vocal eccentricities sound improvised and out of place when the supporting cast isn’t as dynamic and passionate as she is.

High as Hope finds Florence Welch at the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen her, and the quieter contributions from the band exposing her raw vocal delivery reflect this move. Running through loss of family members, relationship struggles, religion and personal anxieties, Welch’s lyrics are the primary focus here. While the music can leave me anticipating more of the high-energy experiences Welch’s distinct instrument is more than capable of delivering, this is a very cohesive and well-thought-out project.

Favourite Tracks: The End Of Love, Hunger, Grace, 100 Years, June

Least Favourite Track: South London Forever

Score: 7/10

Drake – Scorpion

Scorpion by Drake.jpgCanadian singer, rapper, walking meme, marketing genius, and – gasp – FATHER, Drake, only 16 months removed from his previous project More Life, releases yet another bloated project where the biggest artist in the world sees fit to deliver the bare minimum, attempting to coast through on charm. Scorpion certainly has more highs than More Life did, largely thanks to the production work from primary OVO sound man Noah “40” Shebib and some experienced classic hip-hop producers that tap into an era of samples and sharp rhythms, but Drake himself is once again simply going through the motions of exactly what people expect from him. As he does, he drops the odd brilliant or terrible line or melody into the mix, often directly adjacent to each other, but for the most part Scorpion upholds Drake’s reputation as the guy who always stops at “good enough”. This is interspersed with some frustrating responses to Pusha T’s attempted career demolition where he contradicts himself – both trying to act tough and place himself above the situation on differing tracks. But, of course, it’s so hard not to like the guy when he’s on his game.

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Scorpion is divided into two equally inconsistent sides, one leaning more hip-hop and the other R&B. The hip-hop side opens with some pretty standard Drake fare, “Survival” and “Nonstop” both featuring his monotoned, disinterested voice over some dark, moody instrumentals. The latter is clearly supposed to be a hype track, but it only appears so because Drake punctuates his low-effort delivery with even sleepier ad-libs – which I think is the opposite of what an ad-lib is supposed to do. He turns into an accidental caricature of himself on the whiny “I’m Upset”, complaining about trivial issues in an uninteresting way. The first half works better when Drake combines his strengths, improving on an otherwise bland instrumental on a track “Elevate” by alternating between raps and a catchy sing-song flow.

The producers steal the show here, however. Of course, before the two camps were sending shots at each other, Drake was once a young Kanye West fan and many of these beats sound more like “Old Kanye” than ever. “Emotionless” is an absolute standout, Drake rapping over a chopped vocal sample of Mariah Carey’s classic “Emotions” and gospel piano chords from the legendary No ID, some energy creeping back into his voice as he acknowledges his son for the first time on an album clearly updated with additional discussion on the subject. Drake pulls a Taylor Swift marketing move, flipping the narrative, embracing the role he’s been given, and expanding on his position. Boi-1da drops a sample of some soulful Marvin Gaye chords onto “8 Out of 10”, Drake’s sing-song, syncopated flow sounding like it’s directly off of Graduation. Another Boi-1da beat, “Mob Ties”, despite some pretty terrible punchline bars, continues to show that Drake can excel when people other than his team of yes men come around – the eerie, high-tempo synth stabs and very prominent hi-hats are conducive to the erratic, threatening persona he presents. Never staying consistent though, tracks like “Can’t Take A Joke” and “Is There More” that close out the first side bring it back down to the basic hip-hop beats and straightforward, phoned-in delivery.

Side B is a bit less structured, and it honestly works better for him – it’s fun to hear Drake messing around a bit in the studio, his R&B vocals calling back to the endearing cheesiness of male R&B in the 90s. Single “Nice For What” has always been a great blend of Lauryn Hill and New Orleans bounce, and it shows that Drake’s ear for a catchy melody might be his greatest asset. The track “In My Feelings” is pretty ridiculous in concept, Drake naming a different girl in each chorus as he calls out to them “do you love me?”, but that melody never leaves your head, and eventually, it just becomes hilarious and you can’t help but love it. The genuine comedy continues on “After Dark”, a tribute to slow jams of the 90s that features a smooth feature from Ty Dolla $ign and Drake absolutely selling the sleazy ladies’ man angle over some dreamy acoustic noodling.

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The side also features some interesting new sonic directions from Drake, which is very welcomed on an album with so much filler. “Summer Games” features some of Drake’s warmest vocals over a persistent, throbbing synth line and a steadily building tribal percussion rhythm that shows the versatility of his instrument … if he so chose to use it. The side still isn’t without it’s shortcomings – tracks like “Peak” and “Ratchet Happy Birthday” don’t quite click, Drake’s meandering melodies not lining up with much, both punctuated with too-prominent annoying effects – a synth line, or Drake’s “BRRRRR”. “Jaded” is boring in comparison, while “Don’t Matter To Me” throws aside the creation of an enjoyable, coherent song for the sole purpose of proving that Drake has the money to throw at the acquisition of previously unheard Michael Jackson material.

Scorpion is Drake’s best album since he decided to go the route of bloated projects for the sole purpose of increasing his streaming numbers with 2016’s Views. The duality between the sides keeps the listener engaged as Drake steps into his fatherly role with some compelling tales. Still, the glimpses of just how much more it could have been remain pretty infuriating. Drake’s inconsistency continues, but if that scathing Pusha T diss track couldn’t deter his continued rise, I’m sure he won’t mind what I have to say.

Favourite Tracks: Nice For What, After Dark, Emotionless, Talk Up

Least Favourite Track: Is There More

Score: 6/10