Maggie Rogers – Heard It In A Past Life

Image result for Maggie Rogers - Heard It In A Past LifeSoulful indie-pop singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has been selling out concert venues before she even released this debut project. After gaining wider attention through a viral video in which Pharrell Williams nearly started crying when he heard the then-unknown NYU music student’s early demo of “Alaska”, Heard It In A Past Life has been in the making since 2016 – and Rogers certainly didn’t disappoint. While it might not be the most artistically innovative debut ever, Rogers knows exactly how to play to her strengths. The combination of her mature, emotive and deeply soulful voice with the upbeat percussion of HAIM’s brand of indie-pop and the songwriting approach of a folk or Americana singer creates a new and exciting mix of established forms – as Pharrell put it in the video, like the “genius” of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. There’s not a single bad track here, and Rogers solidifies herself as someone to watch.

Rogers and her producers have mastered the art of the slow build, perhaps demonstrating it the best of all on the energetic opening track “Give A Little”, a deceptively complex track where Rogers layers her angelic backing vocals with a clacking percussion line that keeps getting more and more involved as the track goes along. Everything comes together perfectly, from the dynamic walking bassline to the catchy high-pitched synths on top. It’s funk, it’s pop, it’s indie, and it’s a little gospel – there’s even a distorted guitar that roars in at the end. A track like “The Knife” is similar, Rogers’ backing vocals adding such a dimension of soulfulness that you don’t often hear in the breathier singers that usually deliver this kind of material, all the while the music behind her keeps offering these rhythmically complex and instrumentally varied embellishments to really highlight just how special of a vocalist they belong to. Rogers’ natural, seemingly effortless talent here is something to behold.

Image result for maggie rogers snl

You can tell that a pop mastermind like Greg Kurstin was heavily involved with the project, lending his production to most of the tracks here – these are all some maddeningly catchy pop melodies, but there’s so much more to them as well. There’s always something that pops into the mix that surprises you, like when those Lorde-esque ringing, clipped choral vocal samples suddenly turn the rapid-fire vocals and metallic synths of “Overnight” into something much more grandiose. While I wouldn’t usually be a fan of including a years-old track on a project like this, the placement of “Alaska” in a premium position early in the tracklisting is actually very welcome because you can see where she began, and how she applied those aspects of her early work to a more dynamic and exciting whole. It’s easy to see what was so appealing to music producers in the first place, the more minimal track putting more of a spotlight her vividly descriptive lyrics, the odd instrumental flourish all you need sometimes to complement that beautiful falsetto on the chorus.

If “Alaska” is Rogers at her folksiest, standout tracks “Say It” and “Fallingwater” showcase her at her most soulful – in completely different ways. The former is straight out of the 90s – you can tell how much Rogers loves Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill, who she was apparently raised on – those huge percussion hits and rapidly descending synth lines that build up to the harmonized, emotive chorus where she reaches all the way to the top of her register are such a perfect exercise in drawing out tension and finally releasing it in a payoff that just makes you want to get up and move, Rogers adding these impressive little vocal moments overtop as the track progresses.

“Fallingwater”, on the other hand, takes more of the gospel route that is so naturally rooted Rogers’ expressive vocal delivery. Assisted by another impeccable pop producer in Rostam, it’s a poppier track (minus Rogers’ most forceful vocal performance yet) that takes a turn halfway through. The tempo slows as a backing choir comes in, singing at a lower, supportive pitch and repeating a catchy, almost chanted couple of lines as the added space in the track allows Rogers to add some more diversions to her original melody.

Image result for maggie rogers

Quite a few of these tracks had actually been released much earlier, but the cohesiveness in sound of this project is among the best I’ve heard in a while. She goes to so many different places, but her blend of genres and core sonic themes of heavy percussion, triumphant, soaring synth hooks and layered harmonies keep things anchored in a consistently enjoyable musical world. “Past Life” might be the only true diversion, but the placement of a more somber piano ballad, just to completely reinforce to the listener how spectacular of a vocalist Rogers is without the complex production tricks surrounding her, is a great addition to the middle portion of the project.

The only track on here which isn’t an essentially flawless execution of exactly what Rogers was trying to achieve here might be “Burning”, a celebratory, life-affirming dedication to her happy relationship where she sacrifices that constant, rhythmic flow for a more traditionally indie-pop joyously half-shouted chorus.

Rogers recently retweeted a quote she gave in 2016 where she said she wanted to “make dance music, or pop music, feel as human as possible”, and that’s exactly what she’s done here. There are certain debuts that are so fully realized and individual that you know they’re going to do huge things. The last time I felt like this was with Billie Eilish. Maggie Rogers is up next.

Favourite Tracks: Say It, Fallingwater, Overnight, Give A Little, The Knife

Least Favourite Track: Burning

Score: 9/10

Advertisements

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy

The Chainsmokers – Sick Boy album.pngEDM duo The Chainsmokers took a unique approach to the release of this album, releasing all of its 10 songs one at a time in each month of 2018 (with a couple exceptions). Not professing to be the biggest Chainsmokers fan in the world, all of these songs are new to me now that the full project has an official release. On their sophomore project Sick Boy, the duo takes a seemingly transitional approach, devoting about half the album to even more clones of their biggest hit in “Closer” and half to trying to find new sounds. One of the most disheartening things to me about the group is that they clearly have the capacity to be talented and creative, but spend most of their time watering down their sound and catering to what they think we want to hear – and as their latest sales reflect, that’s not always retreads of the same thing forever. There are a couple moments on this project where they hit a new and exciting groove, but most of it is diluted by their adherence to the same melodramatic lyrics and repetitive, sanitized and contemplative “dance” breaks.

The duo recruit their only big-name feature in country star Kelsea Ballerini on the opening track “This Feeling”, which just feels like a logical continuation of trying to recreate as many different versions of the same hit as they can, using what sounds like exactly the same swelling synth chords building up to the dance breakdown, replacing a few instrumental elements with strummed acoustic guitars instead as Drew Taggart debuts with his female counterpart over a repetitive chorus melody consisting of little more than a few adjacent notes. It’s a perfectly passable pop song, you just wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from literally anything else if it were playing in the background. If there’s anything I really do have to hand to The Chainsmokers, it’s their ability to create a distinctive and influential signature sound – I just need to hear some variety here and there.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018

The next track “Beach House” – which is literally named after the laid-back indie dreampop duo that the sound of the track was influenced by – doesn’t fare much better, dropping into a copy-pasted half-time and explosive yet brief dance segment interspersed between Taggart’s underwritten calls out to a girl. The track “You Owe Me” as well, despite being one of the catchiest here, was clearly inspired directly from the Twenty One Pilots repertoire, continuing to display the duo’s dearth of original ideas. The lyrics only get more awkwardly histrionic later on. Taggart adopts this kind of overwrought emo cadence for the whole duration of the album, really leaning into the ever-present idea that his words addressing the basics of life are much more poignant than they really are, but it all comes to a breaking point on the title track “Sick Boy” where he takes it so far it almost sounds like he’s faking a British accent. “How many likes is my life worth?”, Taggart emotes, trying to make some kind of a political statement with disjointed buzzwords and criticizing narcissism on an album full of it.

The duo collaborate with fellow DJs Aazar and NGHTMRE as the album winds down on the tracks “Siren” and “Save Yourself”, two tracks that inexplicably recall the peak of Skrillex-fronted brostep and come across as incredibly dated. “Siren” in particular sounds identical to the form and synth textures of how Skrillex used to structure his drops – the duo clearly think they’re evolving, switching it up, but they’ve gone so far backward into a sound I never thought I’d hear again.

I call this a transitionary project due to the legitimate presence of some new ideas here, most of which are actually pretty good. The last track to be released on this project, “Hope”, featuring the subtly beautiful vocals of Winona Oak, finally switches up the rhythmic structure of a Chainsmokers track with some Prismizer-esque layering of her vocals and a marimba-esque synth tone that enhances the flow with some syncopated cascading melodies. The way the pre-chorus returns at the end of the song, interspersing with the more upbeat section of the track which is allowed to continue instead of cutting short, is another obvious exercise in song structure that the duo should have tried long ago that really completes the track.

Image result for the chainsmokers 2018 live

Frequent collaborator Emily Warren lends her vocals to the track “Side Effects”, a much darker track than we’re used to from the duo featuring some fuzzy synth-bass and a much more driving style – those piano chords in the background are an unexpected detail that completes the mix. Warren actually drops a pretty great rap verse as well, and the high-octane nature of the track when she hits her energetic peak is something completely new for the duo. “Everybody Hates Me”, if you can ignore Taggart’s return to some whiny, suffering-from-success sob stories that rival Drake at his absolute worst, features a pretty fun synth breakdown as well that represents another rhythmic switch and reminds me of the legitimately thrilling drop of their last truly great track, “Roses”.

Sick Boy represents the slightest of steps up from their debut project, and it’s good to see that they’re at least entertaining the idea of varying their sound a bit more. Still, there are way too many of their old, insufferable tricks here to justify repeat listens.

Favourite Tracks: Hope, Side Effects, You Owe Me

Least Favourite Track: Somebody

Score: 4/10

MØ – Forever Neverland

MØForeverNeverland.jpegNot typically an albums artist, Danish electropop singer and frequent EDM collaborator MØ releases her sophomore studio album and first since 2014, though she did drop the When I Was Young EP last year. Forever Neverland is a mostly enjoyable collection of shimmery uptempo dance-pop influenced tracks, MØ shining through with the unique vocals that make the tracks she’s featured on stand out so much. Her crackly tone always makes for an interesting listening experience, and often in collaboration with a few superstar DJs and producers across the board here, creates a selection of club-ready, fun tracks. There are a few misses here and there, but for the most part this is something to turn your brain off and enjoy.

After a brief intro, the first track “Way Down” immediately drops into the overdone dancehall beat that backs up most dance-pop songs at the moment, but almost as soon as it begins MØ overrides the sense of over-familiarity with some anthemic and layered group vocals building up to a speedy drop featuring a great, bouncy synth bassline. MØ distorts the formula just enough to create something that you can enjoy for being tried-and-true and easy to consume, with the slightest of twists. The primary writer on all of these tracks, MØ knows how to craft a catchy melody – the next track “I Want You” is instantly memorable, with some rapid-fire lyrics and a melody that’s simultaneously repetitive and impressively showing off her range. As the instrumental steadily builds up in intensity throughout the track, as she dives into that last chorus and the percussion explodes it’s a powerful and gratifying moment. There are multiple tracks here where MØ follows the Francis and the Lights model of layering her vocals with Prismizer and something about the computerized distortion fits her voice well – it’s employed well on the track “Blur” despite the more disappointingly straightforward instrumental drop afterwards.

Image result for mo singer

MØ saves all of her big-name collaborations for the album’s middle, kicking off with yet another track with Diplo titled “Sun In Our Eyes”. The dynamic duo team up for one of the most radio-friendly, by-the-numbers pop tracks here, but again, there are still some pop formulas that exist for a reason, and these two are seasoned veterans in following the greatest ones. Diplo provides some full, very summery synth chords here that really wrap MØ’s joyful, celebratory vocals here in the right kind of exuberant musical world – the guy can rarely go wrong. “Mercy”, a team up with former Flume member What So Not, is uncharacteristically low-key for the future-bass artist, built on a few piano chords that highlights a yearning, enormous chorus from MØ that works pretty well as she strains up to some higher notes – some live percussion finally kicks in for the final chorus and it becomes clear just how well-crafted a track it is when all the elements click together. And of course, the similarly sassy Charli XCX appears on “If It’s Over”, a manic and glitchy track where the two confidently kiss off some bad relationships.

Late in the tracklisting, “Imaginary Friend” might be the best track here, actually reminding me of some of Charli’s best work. The chorus instrumental immediately grabs your attention more than the other tracks here, MØ singing in her lower register as a distorted higher-pitched voice echoes her over some synth stabs that quickly cut in and out for a much more rhythmic track. The accompanying rapidly cascading noises and embellishments make it sound like you’re entering a dream sequence and continue to immerse you in the track.

There are definitely a couple tracks here where the formula begins to wear thin, usually the case when putting together a larger number of upbeat, dancier tracks into album format. “Nostalgia” is a track that stands out as being pretty unlistenable in comparison to the quality of most of its counterparts here, bringing back the generic dancehall beat but dropping into a chorus that just seems completely off with the layering and harmonies. She uses the same kind of layered group vocals but they don’t line up as perfectly here, especially when going for such a huge sound with a more percussion-based, minimal instrumental. MØ also delivers some half-rapped, half-casually spoken sections in the verses that just throw off the rhythm of the track and sound awkward. Closer “Purple Like the Summer Rain” feels a little rhythmically disjointed as well, the prominent percussion on the track feeling like it’s too fast for the vocals in front at times.

Image result for mo singer

A few songs just fall barely short of expectations as well, like the track “Beautiful Wreck” which features what might be the best build-up on the album with some Zedd-style vocal manipulations that culminates in a lackluster and low-impact drop, or “Red Wine” that features an enjoyable reggae flavour that breaks up some of the dance-pop monotony but features some stranger lyrics in the chorus that takes me out of it. These tracks are still pretty good, but it just makes it more evident that the creation of tracks like these can be low-effort at times.

Forever Neverland is a much more enjoyable collection of tracks than most in her genre – it’s never easy to put such high-octane music into an album format without it feeling exhausting after a while – and that’s a testament to her approach and personality being a lot more individual than her counterparts as well. Teaming up with some veteran hitmakers here, one of the most prominent voices in the dance scene keeps on rolling.

Favourite Tracks: Imaginary Friend, I Want You, Sun In Our Eyes, Mercy, Way Down

Least Favourite Track: Nostalgia

Score: 7/10

RL Grime – Nova

Image result for rl grime novaElectronic musician RL Grime, fluent in the sounds of future bass, drum ‘n’ bass, and of course grime, defies most EDM artists’ approach to drop a well thought out and cohesive project rather than sporadic singles. Nova is his second full-length, following 2014’s Void, and runs through a high-energy and endlessly fun selection of different sounds and genres, recruiting a great selection of guests as well. Most of these tracks are shell-shockingly heavy with bass and other dominant, flaring synths, and puts RL Grime in a category all on his own by sheer virtue of his ability to craft these tailor-made party tracks that still include a selection of sounds so distinctive and distracting. The transitions and clear album structure, as well, make the usually taxing task of listening to an EDM album, almost an hour straight of one-note dance tracks, much more engaging – though at 15 songs it still does fall victim to a few pitfalls of almost every electronic full-length.

RL Grime has always incorporated elements of trap music into his work, even before the huge boom in popularity of the genre, so he makes an easier transition than most in keeping his brand of EDM relevant to the musical conversation as the mid-2010s brostep wave dies out. The focus on it isn’t huge here, Grime maintaining what makes him unique, but the familiar hi-hats serve as the foundation that Grime builds his dynamic soundscapes on to a successful degree, tracks where hip-hop artists show up some of the best here. “Feel Free” is a great instrumental intro that displays his musicality as it relates to the wonky, perfectly arrhythmic future bass sound – the track is a nice introduction to the rest of his work here, being pretty abrasive immediately but dynamic and experimental enough to surprise the listener as it breaks from formula. I always love when the 2nd drop switches up the sound rather than looping the first half of the song once again.

Image result for rl grime

As the tracklisting continues, Grime really does show his diversity in running through a lot of different styles here, the album rarely boring to listen to. “Shrine” re-introduces some of his older elements of high-speed drum ‘n’ bass, while “Light Me Up” brings both Miguel and Julia Michaels aboard for a bouncy, tropical pop track, Michaels’ soft and seductive vocals contrasting surprisingly well with the pounding synth line in the chorus.

The following run of 3 hip-hop influenced tracks is where the album hits its experimental and euphoric stride, however. Jeremih’s delivery on “Undo” is intoxicating, flowing smoothly over a traditional rap instrumental before Grime unexpectedly drops a quirky, jagged synth melody that sends the track into an energetic overdrive. “Take It Away” is a track that really shocked me, however. Featuring (2018 MVP?) Ty Dolla $ign, it’s one of the biggest musical sensory overloads I’ve ever experienced. The chorus features these gargantuan sliding synths, elevating upwards like some kind of twisted carnival ride, eerie yet completely celebratory and triumphant, alternating with complete silence as the undeniable effortless cool of Ty holds it all together. The same kind of euphoric, top-of-the world feeling is replicated on “Reims” – something about it just makes you feel powerful. The wailing, distorted vocal sample underscores what can only be described as a strobe light in sound form, a completely in-your-face oscillating synth line. “Pressure” is another great instrumental track, a slightly menacing bassline building to the kind of trademark off-kilter future-bass chorus Grime is known for.

Image result for rl grime live

As is to be expected with an EDM project, a few of these tracks have too many similarities to exist on the same tracklisting together, although I do appreciate how Grime tries to make it appear more than rinse-and-repeat with his transitions. There’s only so much pummelling my senses into submission that I can take in one sitting! Actually though, some of my least favourite tracks on this project are when Grime opts to tone it down a bit. “OMG” is an upbeat and fun track, but it pales in comparison to the previous two similar tracks with hip-hop artists, Joji’s laid back delivery not fitting in as well. “Shoulda” introduces a run of instrumental tracks with a more atmospheric sound bordering on chillwave that takes too long to get to its higher-energy conclusion and doesn’t align with his greatest strengths. “I Wanna Know”, featuring Daya, and “UCLA”, featuring rapper 24hrs, feel out of place tacked onto the end of the tracklisting as well farther away from their counterparts.

Nova is one of the most consistently engaging EDM projects I’ve heard in a while, due to RL Grime’s ability to switch up his style all the while inserting himself in the current musical conversation. It’s easy to see why he’s had staying power over quite a few of his contemporaries who started around the same time, and his creativity and adaptability across the board here make him stand out. I’m sure I’d like it even more in a live setting.

Favourite Tracks: Take It Away, Reims, Pressure, Undo, Feel Free

Least Favourite Track: Shoulda

Score: 8/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Decemberists, Jack White, Diplo)

Image result for decemberists i'll be your girlThe Decemberists – I’ll Be Your Girl

The Decemberists return with a delightfully melodic and cynical take on the state of the world, taking a much more electronic path than their previous works and relying more on synths. The band named New Order as a major influence for the project and it definitely shows. While the project can prove to be meandering and unsure of its overall statement, the harmonies present and the humorous juxtaposition of joyful instrumentals and pessimistic lyrics make I’ll Be Your Girl an overall enjoyable listen.

I’ve seen quite a few people compare frontman Colin Meloy’s writing style across this project to the conventions of children’s music, and I can certainly see where they are coming from. There’s a degree of catchy simplicity to many of these tracks, with repetitive, easily remembered and sung along to hooks. The greatest part is, they use these juvenile sensibilities to deliver some quite cynical lyrical content, and the jubilant earnestness with which they sing about impending doom hits a degree of absurdism that I can’t help but love. The tracks “Everything Is Awful” and “We All Die Young” – which features a chorus of children yelling the title – in particular are structured like folksy childrens’ melodies. The layered ‘everything’s building up to that small break in the music before the first harmonized “EVERYTHING IS AWFULLLL” made me crack up immediately – because it is, and we’re trying our hardest to smile about as hard as Meloy’s joyful melody suggests anyway.

Meloy’s vocals are certainly coming more from the folk and Americana side of the Decemberists’ music, a matter-of-fact tenor delivery with trademark indie vocal inflections, and the addition of computerized synths that back up his acoustic guitar often give his sharp lyrics a bit more of a punch on tracks like “Severed”. He’s the main guitarist as well, delivering a great solo that emulates the synths on upbeat, theatrical track “Your Ghost”. One of the greatest parts of the album are the strong harmonies that make these simple and beautiful storytelling melodies even better. “Sucker’s Prayer” is the best track here, bringing a catchy piano hook running through the track that cuts out at just the right times. Meloy taps into his most soulful chorus yet and higher female harmonies back up his exasperated declaration – “I wanna love somebody but I don’t know how” as a drum fill reintroduces the calmer piano chords of the verses. It’s a pretty impossibly perfect song.

The band’s transition to a more electronic influence isn’t always seamless. The ascending and descending synth arpeggios that cascade through a track like “Cutting Stone”, which opens with the folksiest of acoustic chords, seem incredibly misplaced for the melody of the track, which is clearly influenced by the simplicity of Americana melodies. The instrumental is too busy for the beauty of Meloy’s stark vocal. The middle of the album becomes a bit similar, not possessing the energies that open and close the album, particularly on the one-note “Tripping Along”. The intersection of genres and trepidation towards a full commitment to making the album political shows a lack of direction, and nowhere is this better emphasized than the 8-minute “Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes”, a slow and meandering track that sees Meloy, out of nowhere, begin describing a tale of some sort of Russian succubus mermaid. It doesn’t really serve a purpose here, either narrative or musical.

I’ll Be Your Girl is one of the calmest and most comforting albums about how, well, everything is awful that I’ve heard. The vocals are top notch across the board – enjoy a quirky mashup of electronica and indie-folk.

Favourite Tracks: Sucker’s Prayer, Everything Is Awful, Your Ghost, I’ll Be Your Girl, We All Die Young

Least Favourite Track: Rusalka, Rusalka/Wild Rushes

Score: 7/10

Image result for boarding house reachJack White – Boarding House Reach

Former White Stripes member and garage and blues rock guitarist Jack White drops his most polarizing and confusing work yet, hitting a degree of experimentation that will determine listeners’ enjoyment level based on their willingness to embrace White’s most theatrical and whimsical tendencies. White barely sings on Boarding House Reach at all, filling the project with spoken word pieces, extended bluesy instrumentals and distorted backing vocals. I fall onto the side of loving this project, as I simply haven’t heard something this sonically ambitious on a mainstream release in a long time. White throws song structure out the window and takes listeners on a consistently surprising electronic journey through the capitalist apocalypse.

As White’s career progresses, he’s adopted more and more of a flair for the melodramatic. Throughout the album White’s vocals are intentionally so passionate that they almost fall off the pitch, while his backing vocalists are always at full volume. Rock ballad “Connected By Love” opens up the album, the drums rolling and something like a rock organ pounding away as White relishes in the sonic misdirection of the clashing tones of the track, shouting his proclamations of love and thriving in the chaos before bringing it back down with the most mournful “what have I done” you’ll ever hear. The authenticity White brings to his delivery is always evident, sounding absolutely miserable on the philosophical “Why Walk A Dog?” as he contemplates his passive acceptance of his slavery to the music industry’s demands.

The theme of capitalism persists throughout the project. White adopts the voice of a commercial announcer on interlude “Everything You’ve Ever Learned”, suggesting that all information has a corporate attachment – “brought to you by…”, but the greatest culmination is outstanding track “Corporation”. The first half of the track is entirely instrumental, filled with interlocking punchy blues rock guitar hooks and a mad bongo drummer before White arrives with the ferocity and conviction of a deranged preacher, rhythmically rallying people to join him in starting a corporation, which he states is the only way to succeed today. The slight shifting of the basic instrumental motifs building up to White’s most wide-eyed declarations is an absolute experience. “Ice Station Zebra” feels almost like old-school hip-hop, a stuttering boom-bap beat backing White’s rapped vocals and some catchy blues piano riffs, while “Over and Over and Over” is classic White Stripes with some intense rock vocals and chilling, horrific pitch shifted vocals signifying futility. There are too many great tracks to acknowledge here, but “What’s Done Is Done” is hilarious – White harmonizes a somber country ballad with full acknowledgement of his own ridiculousness, resorting to ending the life of one of the two in a failed relationship – “and it won’t be me”, the female voice closes the track.

White himself has acknowledged how annoying this album has the potential to get on tracks like “Hypermisophoniac”, in which he was apparently actively trying to create something listenable out of the most annoying sounds possible, starting with the beeps and whirs of his son’s toys. It doesn’t line up on purpose, and this is the track where this idea is pushed too far to the point of unlistenability. “I don’t think we succeeded, but we definitely got the annoying part down.”, White said. The title of the track refers to an affliction causing extreme hatred of certain sounds. A few tracks at the end feel underwritten – I really want to hear White’s command of the mic more, but tracks like “Get In the Mind Shaft” and “Respect Commander” still have a great experimental garage rock feel.

Boarding House Reach is certainly not for everyone, and it is sure to be one of the most divisive recordings of the year – think Kanye’s “Yeezus”. White’s theatricality and social commentary turns the project into grandiose, intense performance art. It’s a daring and ambitious statement, and I think the risk paid off.

Favourite Tracks: Corporation, Over and Over and Over, Ice Station Zebra, Connected By Love, What’s Done Is Done

Least Favourite Track: Hypermisophoniac

Score: 9/10

Image result for diplo california epDiplo – California EP

EDM superstar and producer Diplo drops a brief, 6-track hip-hop leaning EP that shows him perfectly embracing summer sounds about as well as contemporary Calvin Harris did with his Funk Wav Bounces. Diplo brings his trademark influences of dancehall and trip-hop to a pulsating, gyrating mixture of fun synth lines – just enough to disguise the heartfelt emotional content lurking beneath. Diplo recruits an all-star crew of rap’s new insurgence of earnest goofballs and emotional crooners that believe every word they’re saying, including Lil Yachty, Lil Xan and Trippie Redd. It’s tough for Diplo to go wrong at this point – the man knows what he’s doing, and his take on new rap trends with his own signature electronic sound is another success.

Diplo plays directly into the strengths of his guests, providing the soundscape each can excel in while still maintaining the aspects that make these tracks easily identifiable as a Diplo song. We open with “Worry No More”, a track that plays into the carefree, childlike side of Lil Yachty and complements it with the high-pitched voice of Santigold. “I’m chasing after my dreams”, Yachty sings in an intoxicating melody over a beat that sounds like it comes from those Jimmy Fallon videos where he replicates a song with classroom instruments. “Look Back” is a much more cinematic track perfect for the gravitas of DRAM’s booming R&B singing voice. The track plays out like Diplo’s take on a Bond theme, orchestral synths swelling in the background to match DRAM’s theatrical and distressed wails at the top of his range.

The final 3 tracks on the project are where Diplo’s blend of his older style and the trends of today are fully realized. “Wish” immediately drops into an incredible 90s piano groove reminiscent of classic Diplo production, the upstart Trippie Redd opening with a catchy pop melody that quickly grows into the depressed proclamations and emo vocal inflections he is known for. It fits shockingly well, even as every musical sensibility is screaming that it shouldn’t. On “Color Blind” Lil Xan’s subdued, barely there delivery is played off of like its own instrument with the most aggressive instrumental on the project, hitting the listener with a barrage of synth triplets at the forefront of the mix. The closing track, a new remix of “Get It Right”, is simply classic pop Diplo. Set to triumphant and uplifting piano chords, Mo’s shouty prechorus kickstarts a huge buildup that drops into a glitchy chorus of pitched vocal samples and a soulful rap verse from GoldLink. It’s easily the most dancefloor-ready track here.

“Suicidal”, featuring Desiigner, is the only misstep here, a much emptier track in comparison. Diplo often specializes in crowding his tracks with an immersive wall of sound, and this track’s repetitive nature and Desiigner’s delivery doesn’t really command the more ethereal, spacey instrumental.

Now 40 years old, Diplo has been making hits for long enough that he’s reached the perfect place in which he has a complete command of a unique personal style, and yet can release a great EP like this that adapts to trends of today like it’s simple. The veteran producer keeps on rolling, and with a collaborative project with Sia and Labrinth in the works, it’s looking like another great year for him.

Favourite Tracks: Color Blind, Get It Right Remix, Wish

Least Favourite Track: Suicidal

Score: 8/10

 

Above & Beyond – Common Ground

Image result for common ground above and beyondVeteran British trance trio Above & Beyond meet a wider audience with their fourth studio album, Common Ground, and while they succeed at the genre’s basic aim of calming listeners and absorbing them in an ethereal realm of sound, some of the poppier elements they add here make the album feel increasingly uninteresting, utilizing the same patterns to achieve their aims each time. Above & Beyond’s music is clearly very carefully crafted, each tiny blip of sound in exactly the place it was intended, but ultimately becomes very forgettable, not pushing itself to the forefront of the listener’s consciousness.

Image result for above and beyond

The project opens with expansive, cinematic synths, drawing listeners in to the slower pace of the project. While the instrumental opener “The Inconsistency Principle” is certainly very beautiful, it’s not something I see myself having any desire to listen to repeatedly. The main thing about Above & Beyond is that their music feels like the kind of widely appealing and yet disposable music that appears as the backdrop to commercials and documentaries.

Some of the greatest moments on the project are when Above & Beyond opt to get a bit more rhythmically complex, a track like “Naked” reaching a thrilling climax in the middle of the chorus as a faster-paced synth arrives to disrupt the slow crawl of the sweeping soundscapes associated with many of these tracks. The best track here is “Sahara Love”, vocalist Zoe Johnston delivering some great harmonies on the soaring chorus as her voice is digitally manipulated in the perfect way. The song sounds less like a dance track than any on this project, relying more on the strength of the vocals and driving guitar riff than tried-and-true formulas of the buildup to a drop and calming, higher-pitched melodic elements.

After getting a few tracks in the formula becomes increasingly evident, as Above & Beyond deploy a constant melodic, shimmering synth line and softer-toned, ethereal vocalist before getting suddenly louder with the same brand of rhythmic, syncopated and danceable synth stabs that have been echoing through EDM sets since the beginning of time. The trio are certainly good at what they do and have settled into a groove that have allowed them to conquer in their specific niche, but the best dance music is beginning to move past this and discover some new trends. At the end of the day, I’m looking for music that aspires to more creatively than the exact sounds the average rave attendee would want to hear in that moment, exhibiting more of a sense of musical innovation.

Image result for above and beyond live

Above and Beyond essentially present themselves as the Coldplay of EDM on this project, with easily consumable charm, frequently eye-rollingly cheesy lyrics and catering their sound to fit arena-sized ambitions. The vocalist Richard Bedford in particular appears a few times to deliver lyrics about boundless happiness, indulging the trio’s most overtly cloying tendencies to their absolute limits. “You can never take my soul” he emotes repeatedly on “Northern Soul”. By the time we reach the middle of the album and some less eventful tracks begin to take over, the nearly 6-minutes without much of a satisfying moment for the amount of restraint a track like “Is It Love? (1001)” shows becomes hard to sit through.

Too many of these tracks begin with a promising melody from the vocalist before the drop hits and Above & Beyond resort to the same EDM tricks we’ve heard far too many times, which might work on the dance floor but fail to make much of an impact on active music listeners. It’s easy to see why the trio have come as far as they have, but Common Ground is too formulaic for me.

Favourite Tracks: Sahara Love, Naked, Cold Feet

Least Favourite Track: Is It Love? (1001)

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.

Image result for galantis

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.

Image result for galantis

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.

Image result for odesza

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.

Image result for odesza

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

LCD Soundsystem – american dream

LCD Soundsystem - American Dream cover art.jpgCritically acclaimed new wave group LCD Soundsystem reunite for their fourth studio album and first in seven years, american dream. The band returns to their traditionally lengthy tracks and winding, electronic and funk-infused instrumentals, as frontman James Murphy delivers some self-aware lyrics about his declining creativity and increasing age in a faster-paced world.

american dream is a slow burn in every sense of the word, many of these tracks seemingly going on forever and containing ideas both negative and positive before we reach our destination. Murphy’s voice is shaken and strained for dramatic effect, and in a vibrant and frequently overcluttered world of sounds, the underlying melody often gets lost in the shuffle. LCD Soundsystem still has a wealth of unique indietronica flavour, but american dream is tough to get through at times.

LCD Soundsystem continues to prove their versatility across the board, some of the better tracks on here reminding me of anything from experimental electronic work like Aphex Twin to the chilled indie-pop of Tame Impala.

Image result for lcd soundsystem

“other voices” stands out for being more like the former, tapping into a more rhythmic side as the instrumental builds itself out of a funk bassline and numerous interlocking sounds of percussion, eventually building into some wailing synth keyboard solos. Murphy’s voice drops into some dramatic chants rather than singing, feeding into the energy of the track and even ceding a similar verse to keyboarding Nancy Whang.

Murphy’s lyrical themes can be very poignant and poetic. On “tonite”, the instrumental emulates more mainstream electronic music as he criticizes the similarity of the hits, and the tendencies of materialism and instant gratification that come with the culture. He imagines a future where the internet is permanently down: nobody will know what to do and society will grind to a halt, but at least those embarrassing pictures will be gone forever.

His lyrics can certainly be hilarious in their bluntness: “emotional haircut” sees Murphy detailing his quest to stay young and hip with a unique haircut – and the subsequent negative reaction to it. The title track, “american dream”, takes a break from the bombastic instrumentals to focus on Murphy’s words, as he tells the story of an older man waking up after a drug-fuelled one-night stand and contemplating his lifelong regrets, the idea of the prototypical “American Dream” likely being dead for him.

Murphy’s voice can be very affecting when at its most emotionally fraught, such as on closing track “black screen”. A 12-minute ode to the friendship Murphy developed with idol David Bowie shortly before his death, he expresses regret that he didn’t make as much use of the time together as he could have. “I’m bad with people things”, he states, before concluding the album with a somber repetition – “you could be anywhere on the black screen”, of the night sky.

For how long many of these tracks are, frequently extending past 6 minutes, some of them can be painfully underwritten. I understand that the band focuses more on the instrumental a lot of the time, but I want to hear more of Murphy’s more intelligent lyrics. Opening track “oh baby” stands in stark contrast to something like the title track, as he offers some very bland and overused themes surrounding a break-up.

Image result for lcd soundsystem live

These tracks frequently have too much going on in the instrumental for my tastes, starting with a few interesting sounds before adding too much into the mix as the song winds through its full length.

“change yr mind” begins with a familiar funk bassline, but insists on adding some elements from other musical worlds that only distract. A distorted guitar wails with reckless abandon and hits some off-key notes that are way too prominent in the mix to achieve their rhetorical aims, while the percussion switches up too often. About 1/3 through, a faint alarm clock begins ringing for nearly the whole remainder of the song. There are far too many sounds here. It’s a shame, because Murphy’s harmonies with himself here are actually very nice.

On the other side of the coin, the more static tracks that don’t contain as much rhythm as others can quickly devolve into a meandering journey that eventually goes nowhere in particular. “i used to” is one of the more rock-influenced tracks here, but the instrumental uses more or less the same plodding riff throughout its 5-and-a-half-minute runtime, and Murphy’s falsetto wails don’t do it many favours.

The 9-minute “how do you sleep?” is even worse in this regard, as a mostly empty instrumental continues to trudge on as Murphy’s voice echoes. The passion in his voice as he speaks about his real-life legal dispute is not enough to stand in for the utter lack of melody.

Every track here has a truly interesting and unique musical idea at its backbone, and Murphy’s vision is clear. However, the meandering tracks and cluttered instrumentals makes it hard to see me revisiting american dream much.

Favourite Tracks: american dream, tonite, other voices, black screen

Least Favourite Track: change yr mind

Score: 5/10

 

Billie Eilish – don’t smile at me EP

Image result for billie eilish don't smile at me15 year old indie pop prodigy Billie Eilish has released her debut collection of songs after piquing interest with the haunting single “Ocean Eyes”. With her don’t smile at me EP, Eilish quickly establishes herself as one of the most exciting new acts at the moment. It is impossible to believe that she is only 15 – not only due to her talent and fully developed artistic vision and identity, but also due to her subject matter.

Eilish’s dark and menacing lyrics, and that cold stare she stares at you from her music videos, can be genuinely terrifying. Clearly inspired by the blend of sweet sounds and disturbing thoughts recently popularized by artists like Melanie Martinez, Eilish delivers on 8 tracks with an aching, paper-thin voice and outstanding musicality.

Much of the project is actually a collaboration with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, who produces every track and provides harmonies on a few. Known primarily for his acting work on Glee, his contributions to the instrumental do quite a bit to help his sister stand out.

Image result for billie eilish

Many sound like an amalgamation between more creative trap beats, using elements of the genre to make more complex rhythms, and the most aggressive material to come out of the dubstep boom of the early 2010s. The creeping bass and other elements that sound like they’re from a haunted carnival really paint the picture of Eilish’s words.

Eilish’s vocals are the centerpiece of each and every song despite how much is frequently going on in the background – “COPYCAT” drops into its chorus with some skittering hi-hats and a punishingly loud bassline, but the attention is snapped right back when she first hits that three-part harmony on the chorus.

We get the first glimpse at just how dynamic here vocals can be when the song hits its bridge – after threatening “watch your back” at the copycat in question, the electronic instrumental drops out and is replaced by some sparse piano notes. Eilish reaches into the top of her range and sounds like she’s about to cry as she apologizes for being so antagonistic. Then, she whispers “sike”, and the bass drops again. Her voice does sound very similar to Martinez’s, but these songs are a lot more rhythmically driven, and perhaps even more lyrically twisted.

“idontwannabeyouanymore” drops into one of those 3/6 time signatures that hook me every time. The piano ballad adds a swinging drumbeat in the chorus as she delivers some beautiful and breathy harmonies. It’s the best melody line on the whole project, as she alternates hitting her biggest notes with the off-beat of 4 pounding piano strikes. The song’s title is spoken to Eilish’s mirror, as she sings about her insecurities.

“my boy” is even more reliant on rhythm, as she once again navigates speedy hi-hats, a beat switch, and adds a few extra syllables to words resulting in a delivery almost like a rapper’s triplet flow.

“bellyache” is the darkest song here, and the most musically upbeat and unique. Written from the perspective of a serial killer who kills all her friends and then herself, Eilish wails “Where’s my mind?” and muses on how “funny” it is that she’s “too young to go to jail” as the police close in on her house. “It’s really fun to put yourself into a character”, Eilish said in an interview. “You don’t have to kill people to write a song about killing people”.

Eilish’s songwriting is never overly wordy, but makes the most of every word she writes down to affect listeners without saying a lot. It’s the smartest and most concise pop songwriting I’ve heard since Lorde, who also got her start young. “Party Favor” is perhaps the best juxtaposition here – the sugary sweet melody and instrumental punctuated by ukulele and a children’s toy piano sounds like a bedtime lullaby, but the lyrics betray something else.

Image result for billie eilish live

The song’s first minute is low-fi, framed as a voicemail breaking up with an overly possessive boyfriend. “I hate to do this to you on your birthday”, she says. “Happy birthday, by the way…”. As she cheerfully cuts him from her life, she threatens to call the cops – or worse – his dad. It’s one of the only moments where we’re reminded we’re hearing a teenager’s voice.

By the time we get to “ocean eyes” at the end of the project, the warmer sounds and poppier sensibilities give us some much needed reprieve from all the dark thoughts we’ve heard. She finally starts singing about falling IN love instead. I really can’t say enough about how flawless Eilish’s vocals are – the track is less in your face with the production here and her laser-focused pitch on some difficult high notes is highlighted here.

Written when she was only 13, her confession “I’m scared … never fallen from quite this high” is very emotionally affecting due to her delivery. She sounds scared, and we were all there once at her age. Her words are all the more meaningful when placed after 6 tracks of scathing anger directed at herself and others.

It’s easy to see why Eilish is already getting attention from some very innovative artists like Marian Hill and blackbear, who have both offered remixes of her songs. Regardless of her age, this is one of the most unique and interesting debuts I’ve heard in a very long time.

I try to be stingy with my 10s and wouldn’t normally give one to an EP but Eilish’s fully realized vision completely shocked me. She deserves it, and here’s to a long career ahead.

Favourite Tracks: idontwannabeyouanymore, my boy, ocean eyes, bellyache, COPYCAT

Least Favourite Track: watch

Score: 10/10