Julia Michaels – Inner Monologue Part 1 (EP)

Image result for julia michaels inner monologueSongwriter extraordinaire turned solo act Julia Michaels returns with another shorter set of tracks about a year and a half after the release of her previous EP, Nervous System – a project which I felt didn’t live up to the level of quality that its two excellent singles, “Issues” and “Uh Huh”, promised. Inner Monologue Part 1 improves on its predecessor, recruiting some of the past year’s most successful pop producers in Ian Kirkpatrick (Selena Gomez, Dua Lipa) and Louis Bell (Post Malone, Camila Cabello). The two craft fuller instrumentals that support Michaels’ traditionally dark and personal songwriting and electrifying vocals. Despite standing at only 6 tracks, Michaels continues to leave her own unique mark on the pop music landscape.

The project kicks off with “Anxiety”, a duet with none other than Selena Gomez, who has come to possess a similar whispery timbre in her more recent releases. Michaels immediately dives into her conflicted feelings about her struggles with anxiety and its effect on her social life, wishing she was at home when out with her friends … and vice versa. The acoustic chord progression shines a light on the more serious topic before the bass and percussion kick in for one of Michaels’ most well-structured and catchy melodies yet in the chorus. Gomez does her best Michaels impression on her verse, squeezing as many words into a line as she can and giggling at her own spoken asides. The slow build culminates in some great harmonies and some muted gang vocals behind them turning the track into an obvious future concert anthem, the two tackling a complicated and widespread matter in the kind of simple, yet deeply poignant and personal way that something like Logic’s suicide hotline song attempts but could never pull off.

“Happy” dives even deeper into Michaels’ chaotic psyche, specifically in the realm of relationships and their effect on her career, with the rawest vocal delivery in her career so far. “Sometimes I think I kill relationships for art … I pay my bills with it, I watch them fall apart then pay the price for it” is one of the most heart-stopping lyrics I’ve heard in a long time, especially when Michaels sounds like she’s right on the edge of breaking down in tears, some serious rasp that we haven’t really heard before in her voice. If it’s not the most musically engaging track on the project, the disjointedness as Michaels falls off the rhythm to calm down her vocals a little and dejectedly state “I just wanna be f**king happy” fits in a completely different way.

The back-to-back tracks “Deep” and “Apple” are getting the least attention, but they’re easily the two best here, Michaels finding and sinking in to a signature sound. “Deep” recalls the kind of rhythmic structure that feels like it could fall apart at any second, reflecting Michaels’ anxious but excited vocal moments, that made “Uh Huh” such a compelling track. The chorus rapidly alternates between these pounding, straightforward chords and a kind of bouncy synth-funk section as she is pulled between the hurt of a previous relationship and the excitement of a new one, her angelic backing vocals floating above it all as the track reaches its conclusion.

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“Apple” is the aftermath of the previous track, an adorable acoustic love letter where Michaels’ vocals are placed fully in the spotlight. The quieter nature of the track really brings out all the tiniest, beautiful moments in her fascinating and distinctive instrument. I’m in love with those couple seconds before the second verse, where the music cuts out and she just lets out this effortless, harmonized melody. Her vivid, detailed songwriting paints the picture of complete romantic bliss. The final track “What A Time”, a duet with Niall Horan, is a pretty straightforward pop song built on some repetitive acoustic chords, but hearing the two emotional vocalists together is enjoyable nonetheless.

“Into You” is the only real miss among the six. Michaels’ vocals are Auto-Tuned on the song, which combined with the sharp clipping on the percussion and quicker tempo of the song makes the whole thing sound overly computerized. The whole thing is a bit of a mess structurally, dropping into a couple separate hooks that don’t last long enough to be effective. Michaels’ lyrics are still as compelling as ever, but the Auto-Tune is the biggest tragedy of the song. The quirky inflections and squeaky, imperfect bits of Michaels’ voice are what drew me to her in the first place and fit perfectly for delivering the emotionally charged material that she does – imagine if the same effect were put on a track like “Happy”! Michaels’ voice needs to be left completely unfiltered.

Julia Michaels continues to carve out her own place in the music industry – the way she arranges her tracks can be somewhat flimsy at times, but more often than not it fits the themes that she’s able to communicate so well through her lyrics and delivery. There’s no one who sounds quite like her, and every so often she strikes gold.

Favourite Tracks: Deep, Apple, Anxiety

Least Favourite Track: Into You

Score: 7/10

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Machine Gun Kelly – BINGE

Image result for BINGE mgkSeemingly capitalizing off of the many new eyes on him in the wake of his feud with Eminem, Midwestern rapper Machine Gun Kelly drops a 9-track EP that includes the now-massive diss track “RAP DEVIL”. Once a prominent force in the indie rap scene, Kelly’s 2017 pop-rap collaboration with Camila Cabello, “Bad Things”, exposed him to a much wider audience. While he certainly skews more hip-hop heavy on this EP, it still pales in comparison to a lot of his early work, especially from a lyrical standpoint. Kelly has seemingly diluted himself into a much more marketable, palatable figure, and while there are still some brief moments here where we’re reminded of what he can do from a technical standpoint, it’s telling that “RAP DEVIL” is one of the best tracks here, and Kelly didn’t even win the battle.

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The project only runs 24 minutes in length, likely demonstrating just how quickly this thing was thrown together – a lot of these tracks end before really reaching anywhere concrete. After a pretty awful Auto-Tuned warble for a minute-long intro, the project properly starts with the track “LOCO”. The track immediately drops into a droning extended bass note and trap beat, Kelly’s higher-pitched, exuberant voice sounding out of place on the instrumental while he delivers some particularly blunt and cringeworthy punchlines. I honestly used to be a pretty big fan of Kelly’s 5 or so years ago, and to hear him resort to a modified Migos flow on the chorus and a couple repeated ‘yeah hoe’s is a significant fall from grace into lazy mediocrity. He gets a little sharper and more animated on the next track “GTS”, which features a pretty fun electronic woodwind noise on the instrumental and a blistering 2nd verse where Kelly gets angrier, but it’s counteracted by his delivery on the chorus and the strange background layering of a sung note during what would otherwise be one of the more impressive technical moments here.

There are so many tracks here that are almost there and some aspect of them just throws the whole thing into disorder, which I suppose is representative of a guy with some real talent who has lost his way on the way to superstardom. Short (under 2-minute!) track “NYLON” starts promisingly with a few quotable bars and Kelly finally switching up his flow to ride over a half-time, nicely minimal acoustic trap loop, but the awkward layering (which I take is meant to make him sound tough…?) comes back in and the track is cut off abruptly with some heavy Auto-Tune and a skrrrrt. “LATELY” and the 24hrs-featuring “SIGNS” are two more lifeless trap cuts that I suppose act as filler on an EP that doesn’t even hit the 30-minute mark.

Image result for machine gun kellyMGK wearing the “Killshot” shirt

It’s not like Kelly isn’t capable though: the excellent Eminem track “Killshot” aside, I honestly think “RAP DEVIL” is a very solid diss track with some creative displays of wordplay and battle raps obviously inspired by the very target of the song. It’s significantly longer than anything here and for Kelly to keep up his spirited jabs for almost 5 minutes without much material to go off of is very impressive. Eminem said it himself, Kelly does intersperse a few compliments towards him here and its tough for him to hide just how much of his inspiration he does take from Mathers – this track is the most obvious example. “GET THE BROOM” is the really the only other enjoyable track here, featuring a fantastic dark electronic piano instrumental that’s the only one that truly fits Kelly’s attempts at malice here. He alternates from a calmer tone to a louder yell as the track goes on – it sounds like a more spastic Blocboy JB song.

This review is shorter than usual since there’s so little of substance to even write about here. The BINGE EP is so blatantly a quick cash grab for the rapper looking to extend his cultural relevance past a pop hit that most people associate with the feature. Maybe a removal from the public eye is what it’d take for him to stop chasing trends and return to the technical showcases and fire in his voice that he showcased in the past.

Favourite Tracks: GET THE BROOM, RAP DEVIL

Least Favourite Track: SIGNS

Score: 2/10

Rapid Fire Reviews (The Weeknd, Kacey Musgraves, Hayley Kiyoko)

MyDearMelancholy - album by The Weeknd.jpgThe Weeknd – My Dear Melancholy,

Canadian pop/R&B superstar The Weeknd releases a 6-song EP a year and a half after the successes of Starboy that sees him return to a sound that many fans have been missing. My Dear Melancholy, is much darker than we’ve heard him get in a while. While it’s difficult for Abel to completely shed his pop sensibilities at this point, this EP is as close to Trilogy as we’re going to get, the production more open and allowing his vocals and lyrics to shine. This is the version of The Weeknd that kickstarted the entire genre of alt-R&B, and he recruits a list of great collaborators to make it happen.

Opening track “Call Out My Name” became the biggest track to come from this project, and it’s easy to see why. It rides a similar vibe as “Earned It”, a song that served as somewhat of a transitionary period from one style to the next, but the passion with which he delivers that soaring chorus, his haunting pitch-shifted and distorted vocals repeating the refrain behind him, is what sells the track. We can tell that Abel is back in that tortured emotional place that allowed him to deliver his best music. Lyrically, we’re back to the nihilistic and debaucherous artist that knowingly lives a lifestyle that is mentally and physically damaging – there’s some pretty dark content on here inspired by real life events, and the creeping, grim soundscapes of Trilogy infused with parts of the synth beats and Daft Punk-esque production on tracks like “Try Me” and “Hurt You” is an interesting place to put them. The Weeknd’s persona has always been incredibly fascinating to me, and this is him at a complete juncture of an artist, almost like a career retrospective over 6 tracks.

Abel has an impressive list of producers here – Frank Dukes and Skrillex hold things down on the pop side, while Yeezus auteur Gessafelstein and Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo himself appear as well. Dukes and Skrillex’s “Wasted Times” is the poppiest instrumental here, a skittering, glitchy breakbeat that drops into an EDM-style breakdown with pitch shifted vocals – but Abel’s rhythms and state of mind are pure Trilogy, repeating “I ain’t got no business catching feelings”. The calming falsetto outro shows just how much we forget how great his vocals can be, something he displays in full on heartbreaking closer “Privilege” – the track, combined with “I Was Never There”, contains some truly compelling and deeply disturbing references to Abel’s substance abuse in dealing with pain. “Hurt You” might be my favourite track of all, a great combination of his old and new styles as Abel delivers a catchy falsetto melody over the same kind of old-school dance breakbeat as we hear on hits “Starboy” and “Pray For Me”.

There have been rumours that there will be forthcoming EPs, possibly playing off of the comma in the title of this one. If this is the case, The Weeknd knows exactly what he is doing and I’m very excited for a more commercially viable 2018 update of Trilogy.

Favourite Tracks: Hurt You, Call Out My Name, Wasted Times

Least Favourite Track: Try Me

Score: 8/10

Album Golden Hour cover.jpegKacey Musgraves – Golden Hour

Critically acclaimed country-pop artist Kacey Musgraves’ third studio album sees her trade in her cynical and witty lyrics for an incredibly adorable celebration of her new marriage that sees the world in a much more positive light. Musgraves’ warm and inviting vocal delivery has always been one of my favourite singing voices in the entire music industry, and hearing it on some more personal material here is very affecting. Musgraves’ music has never truly been pure country, and she takes some of her most ambitious cross-genre leaps yet on this project that showcase her crossover potential. With Golden Hour, Musgraves has delivered a stunning opening trilogy of albums.

The entire album is infused with a sense of wonderment that creeps its way into Musgraves poignant lyrics, previously used for biting satire but now settling into “I’m alright with a slow burn, taking my time let the world turn” as she sings sweetly on the opening track. Backed by little more than a pop-country acoustic guitar pattern, the track eventually swells into a string section bridge and uplifting backing vocals. Musgraves accepts that she can’t maintain her previous position as a holier-than-thou sass machine and steps back to marvel at the beauty she can find in the world, and it’s amazing to witness. Musgraves’ instincts to write a great pop melody are still top notch, as emphasized by single “Butterflies” and especially standout track “Lonely Weekend” – the charming country background of most of these songs simply provides an interesting instrumental twist to these sensibilities. “Butterflies” is characterized by a mixture of twinkling, poppy piano chords and the acoustic, slide guitar patterns that appear across Same Trailer, Different Park. The softly delivered honesty in her vocal performance easily welcomes harmonies, and they strengthen her heartfelt declarations. When the music drops back and she reaches into her falsetto to deliver “You give me butterflies”, it’s too cute to handle.

Musgraves’ main strength is her songwriting – it should have been tough to convince us of her belief in this completely new view of the world, but the way she pours genuine emotion into every note and word makes us feel every aspect of her love for her husband. Even when tracks like “Oh, What A World” are relatively samey, Musgraves’ awestruck persona is captivating. Her classic wordplay is still present on “Space Cowboy” – which still gives me chills, and “Happy & Sad” brings back the creeping cynicism as she anticipates the inevitable end of “the time of [her] life” through the greatest harmonies on the project– it’s still the same Kacey. The most interesting track, however, is “High Horse”, a disco-influenced track that marks a completely new direction – it’s pretty incredible that she manages to keep some country aspects in the background and pull it off so well, judging by the huge 80s dance beat, synth bassline and adorably kitschy harmonies in the forefront. Closing track “Rainbow” is such a beautiful, earnest love letter that it still almost makes me cry a month later, but this review is getting too long.

I wish I had space to talk about every single track on this album, they are all perfect in their own, tiny, personal way. Musgraves’ subject matter finally matches the extremely pleasant tone of her voice, and the result is an album that successfully blocks out all the bad in the world for 45 minutes.

Favourite Tracks: High Horse, Lonely Weekend, Rainbow, Space Cowboy, Happy & Sad

Least Favourite Track: Wonder Woman

Score: 10/10!

Hayley Kiyoko - Expectations.pngHayley Kiyoko – Expectations

Dreampop artist and outspoken LGBT activist Hayley Kiyoko finally releases her debut studio album after a string of EPs, and for the most part connects with a series of upbeat, danceable pop tracks. While her songwriting could likely benefit from the hitmaking spark of someone like a Max Martin, a few melodies and chord progressions often going a different way you expect them to, in general Expectations lives up to them, especially once single “Curious” signals a seismic shift into the much more fun second half of the project.

Quite a few of these tracks ride over energetic synth basslines and ethereal, dreampop harmonies. Despite the lack of recognizable contributors to the project, the production across the board carries the project where Kiyoko’s vocal performance lacks a distinct sense of personality and artistry. After a world-establishing overture featuring the sounds of the beach, we drop into “Feelings”, a pristine pop track that takes a central melody and plays with it in as many ways as it can, dropping into a half-time trap section and a Prismizer-esque vocoder section near its back half. It’s a very well-written and catchy track that shows just how much Kiyoko still has room to grow as she gains a more mainstream audience. This is the kind of stuff a lot of people could quickly and easily latch onto. Single “Curious” is the centrepiece and is sure to be one of the greatest pop tracks released all year despite its January release date. The synth swells leading up to the tiny pause before the infectious chorus drops electrifies the track with energy, and Kiyoko’s harmonized rapid-fire vocals are something to behold – that bassline reminds of a Fifth Harmony track on steroids.

The last 5 tracks of the album are pure pop magic as well, especially “Palm Dreams”, a bit of a 2000s-pop throwback perfect for summer which features pitch-shifted vocals and an almost new jack swing percussive feel, inviting listeners to an electrofunk party. “Wanna Be Missed” uses a trap hi-hat to its utmost rhythmic potential, complementing a baseline swung synth melody and earth-shattering bass as the intense chorus kicks in, while “Let It Be” is a great closer – a calm-down of sorts with a quieter instrumental that can still support a huge singalong chorus. It’s one of the best written pop melodies here, minor notes in just the right places.

Expectations can feel slightly generic at times, especially as so many of Kiyoko’s contemporaries are rapidly expanding the boundaries of just what pop music can entail – most of these tracks possess the same kind of basic structure, the same chords building up to a more explosive, percussive chorus. A track like “Sleepover” never really gets going, featuring the same synth-bass stabs as the preceding tracks without as strong or energetic of a melody. The back to back mashup tracks “Mercy/Gatekeeper” and “Under the Blue/Take Me In” continue to lose the energy and direction of the project before “Curious” snaps us back in – there are a few weird melodic decisions and abrupt shifts between ideas across the whole saga, as we wait for the pop sugar rush that we know she can deliver to kick back in.

Expectations is a very solid debut pop project that doesn’t shy away from bringing something like a bisexual duet with Kehlani to the attention of the mainstream audience. When it connects, it’s high-octane fun – there’s nowhere to go from here but up.

Favourite Tracks: Curious, Let It Be, Palm Dreams, Feelings, Wanna Be Missed

Least Favourite Track: Under the Blue/Take Me In

Score: 7/10

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

 

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.

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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

Avicii – AVĪCI (01) EP

AVĪCI (01).jpgSwedish superstar DJ Avicii returns with a brief 6-track EP in the wake of commercially underperforming 2015 album Stories and a retirement fake-out. There isn’t a lot of diversion here from the sound that helped him ascend to worldwide status, which is becoming somewhat outdated in the current musical landscape. However, it is nice to have the original pioneer back, even if the folk roots that he draws from have since fallen out of favour on mainstream radio.

Avicii’s formula is a smart one, and with assistance from features like Rita Ora and AlunaGeorge, his brand of folktronica and catchy drops that sound like they belong on a video game soundtrack could easily insert him back into the public eye. There could be a much greater degree of creativity here, but I can’t deny that these energetic and uplifting tracks do their job effectively.

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The album opens with some acoustic chords and a bouncy bassline, as a pleasant tenor voice starts singing about friendship. We could be watching a guy strumming a guitar at a campfire here. Avicii still definitely knows how to tap into this sentimentality, and there isn’t really anyone else in this exact lane.

I really do have to commend him for how he was able to keep some of the aspects of tracks like “Wake Me Up”, but do just enough to modernize his sound as well, especially on “Friend of Mine”. THe voices aren’t overly folksy, the acoustic strumming cuts out at the most climactic portions of the song. It’s a very intelligent approach.

“So Much Better”, a remix of Swedish singer-songwriter Sandro Cavazza’s track, sees him abandon his style the most and tap into some more current EDM trends – there are some definite tropical house influences here as he attacks listeners in a quieter manner like a Kygo or Cashmere Cat. We get a single main synth and some rhythmic bass stabs, and sometimes that’s all we need. He fits quite well into the newer laid-back style. Cashmere Cat actually appears alongside Benny Blanco for “Lonely Together”, but it doesn’t stand out as much due to Rita Ora’s overly poppy vocals.

“You Be Love”, even though I fully recognize how many of the boxes it ticks on the “overly sugary party track” checklist, gets me to submit all the same. It is the most rhythmic track of all, as Clean Bandit-esque synth-piano chords begin pounding away and a quickly oscillating and high-pitched main synth line activates the confetti cannons and the beginning of the party. Billy Raffoul’s slightly gravelly vocals syncopate well with the rhythm and give it a bit of an added dimension of soul. I was very surprised to learn that the track was written by massive country songwriter Hillary Lindsey, who doesn’t seem like she belongs anywhere near this world but has given us some great stuff in the past.

Despite all this, Avicii seems to have forgotten that the first track that got him any recognition was “Levels”, a completely instrumental track. The instrumental bits really still are the best parts of his songs, and for the most part, they end far too abruptly here.

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The release of energy that the track builds up never lasts long enough and ends up making me resent the gimmicky nature of the remainder of the track. Avicii knows that he can rely on a basic formula of wholesome lyrics and a brief infusion of electronic aspects and coast on it. The AlunaGeorge track is basically entirely this without even getting to the drop – it sounds like a more electronic version of a track like Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me”. That’s how overly saccharine some of this stuff gets, as Avicii uses their childlike voices to maximum effect.

Even on a very short 6-track EP, it feels like Avicii’s old tricks grow tiresome quickly. Buy the time “Without You” comes on and we get the 4th track in a row of a voice with some indie inflections singing a very basic melody over an acoustic guitar, eventually being taken over by a massive synth breakdown that sounds like a same instruments were being used every time, you begin to tire of all of it and that’s a problem for a project so short.

This is really the underlying problem with doing in-depth reviews on EDM music, because so often the album format is not really how these tracks were meant to be consumed. I’m confident in saying I would lose my mind if any of these came on in a social situation.

Ultimately, these tracks are far from my favourite EDM material I’ve heard this year but they meet my expectations for an Avicii project and I respect what he’s doing. This is supposedly the first EP of 3 that will combine into the album, so I’m excited to see if he takes a few more risks later this year.

Favourite Tracks: You Be Love, Friend Of Mine

Least Favourite Track: Without You

Score: 6/10

Julia Michaels – Nervous System EP

Image result for nervous system epMassively successful pop songwriter turned solo artist Julia Michaels has finally released her first collection of songs in the wake of hit single “Issues”. Ever since I heard that track and follow-up single “Uh Huh”, I’ve been waiting rather impatiently for more of that magic we get when combining her dark and incredibly personal lyrics with that dynamic flutter of a voice. However, while Michaels does deliver 7 very solid pop songs here, I can’t help but feel like she already gave up many of her greatest songs to other artists.

The new songs here are more radio-friendly, without as much of a dimension of uniqueness and creativity that tinged the others. Still, despite being frontloaded with singles, Michaels demonstrates why she is one of the most exciting new artists to come out of 2017 on her Nervous System EP.

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Producers Mattman & Robin, who have been rather hit-or-miss this year and are known for grandiose and in-your-face pop tracks like DNCE’s “Cake By The Ocean” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself”, handle the majority of the tracks here. It’s a somewhat surprising choice even with the success of “Uh Huh” – “Issues” is handled by more proven hitmakers Benny Blanco and Stargate, and what might be the best new track here in “Don’t Wanna Think” was actually done by Michaels herself. The track is a stripped-down piano ballad where Michaels lays her emotions bare, struggling with moving on in the wake of a break-up even though she knows it would be violently destructive to both of them if she went back.

We all know “Issues” by now, and it still stands out as one of the greatest songs of the year. I love a good slow build in a song, and as we ascend from that simple melody of the pre-chorus into the dramatic conclusion, all the motifs brought up over the course of the song colliding into each other perfectly, it reminds me why I fell in love with the track in the first place.

Follow-up track “Uh Huh” is almost as good just due to the fact that it doesn’t sound like a typical pop song in the same way. The track goes to a lot of unexpected places, beginning with a neatly picked acoustic riff and then hitting us with that distorted chorus as Michaels’ voice turns into a high-pitched squeak and crams in more syllables than should ever fit into a line. The two tracks seem like the least likely of these seven to be serviced to pop radio, and yet, here we are. The refreshing nature of these tracks is quickly removed for some more standard fare.

Despite how novel an artist Michaels is, many of the new songs here fall flat on the actual structure of the song. After how dynamic her first two singles were, tracks like “Worst In Me” just sound like a boring pop song. Something about the melody in the chorus never sticks. It might be due to how upbeat the track is juxtaposed with such bleak lyrics from Michaels – it feels like with how much her voice is capable of emoting, the track should be a lot sadder. A clicking beat and some bright piano chords speed the track along, and it feels like the production drowns out her voice at times.

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“Make It Up To You” is another very upbeat and electronic track that feels strangely underwritten for a Michaels song. The instrumentals need to be giving Michaels a lot more room for her voice to breathe. It comes with enough surprises and quirks to steal the show every time. “Pink” seems like it’s trying to achieve the same effervescent and flirty quality of her first two singles, but the idea isn’t executed nearly as well. Numerous times in the track, all music cuts out to allow Michaels to deliver two lines of the chorus in a full whisper. This might have worked if they only did it once, but as it stands it kills the energy of the track.

Michaels is a songwriter at heart, and this is where she shines. Many lyrics on this project are very personal, with blunt and specific musings on relationships gone disastrous. As she told us, both of them have issues. She comes across as so much more real than most, especially when she drops lines that are simultaneously tongue-in-cheek and depressing. She asks if he remembers when he “could go out with [his] female friends and I’d be totally fine”, or dreads the “seven texts and three calls” she knows she’s going to send.

Many of these tracks tackle some pretty dark topics in this way, all mostly coming down to Michaels’ criticisms of her own behaviour. She realizes that most of her problems actually stem from her own attitude. Newer tracks “Don’t Wanna Think” and “Just Do It” stand out because there is the least distraction from Michaels’ delivery of these emotions in the way only a brilliant songwriter can.

Can you imagine if Michaels had kept a track she wrote like Selena Gomez’s “Bad Liar” or Ed Sheeran’s “Dive” to herself? She’d be spectacular, and her full portfolio of work shows so much more promise than this EP has to offer. I’ll just get back to playing “Issues”.

Favourite Tracks: Issues, Uh Huh, Don’t Wanna Think

Least Favourite Track: Make It Up To You

Score: 6/10

John Mayer – The Search For Everything – Wave One

Image result for john mayer the search for everythingThis is really the last week before interesting projects are going to start dropping in rapid succession once again, so forgive me for reviewing a 4-song EP this week – the picking are very slim and the story behind its release is quite interesting indeed. Ubiquitous singer-songwriter and impressive guitarist John Mayer is back for the first time since 2013’s Paradise Valley, continuing to do what he does best although he hasn’t had a truly large hit in close to a decade. As artists continue to find new ways to alter the conventions of releasing music, Mayer has announced that he will release 4 new songs every month of the year, giving us many albums’ worth of material by the year’s end. While that much Mayer might sound incredibly unnecessary to a few people, there are a number of things to enjoy about this EP, especially concerning the frequent reminders at just how fantastic he is with his guitar. There’s not much new here, but the veteran artist knows which buttons to press.

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The overall sound of the EP is very laid-back, a style that has always fit with his famous vocal delivery that is easily identifiable and defining by now. He strips back the percussion and lets the guitar take over as the driving force of the majority of these tracks – as it should. The tracks begin to sound more like they came from early on in his career as a result, generating some very melodic and bluesy sounds. Despite the running themes, the four tracks are actually quite different and showcase aspects of the many approaches to his music he’s taken over the years. Of course, some of these styles (like the bluesier aspects of the opening track) have always worked better for him than others — saccharine and introspective pop song “Changing” is as dull as his other songs in the same category, for example. “Love On The Weekend” takes more of a folk route, and the album closes out with a sentimental ballad.

Intro “Moving On And Getting Over” is fantastic – an upbeat and incredibly catchy song filled to the brim with pure musicianship. The ever-changing guitar scales and melodies that run throughout the entire track are its true centerpiece, as Mayer’s voice is layered in octaves singing a breezy and pleasant melody that accompanies the carefree, freeform guitar well. The guitar work across the entire EP is an extremely strong suit – even “Changing” is picked up by a guitar solo that comes out of left field and energizes the percussion section along with it, displaying a sound that we really don’t hear in many places in this genre anymore and is deeply missed. The harmonies featured on most tracks are nice, built especially for his soothing voice which offers a calming presence. It makes elements of a very simple, stripped back song like “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” work very well.

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The lyrics on the project are cheesy and formulaic in typical Mayer fashion. He has always thought he is way deeper than he ever actually ends up being, and is decidedly a much more talented musician than a lyricist. If you were as annoyed as I was at the inescapability of a song like “Waiting On The World To Change”, maybe skip “Changing”. While the project opens very strong, there’s not much about the other three tracks that manage to stand out very much. They are all passable songs with underlying pop sensibilities. While “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me” possesses a sweet and simple melody that is actually quite well written, Mayer is just the type of guy to think a song like that should be accompanied by prominent whistling. “Love On The Weekend” was the single released beforehand, and its adherence to a basic folk guitar strumming structure and attempt at a brief and catchy piano line for the hook, plus the lyrics that were probably written in an hour, makes it sound like it came off of an assembly line.

Mayer’s release strategy is an interesting one indeed, and the rest of the year will show if it is a smart career move to release an overabundance of music slowly over a long period of time. Depending how the next few installments in the series go, the interest in 12 Mayer EPs will adjust accordingly. Hopefully he embraces his blues roots and guitar-playing ability rather than his pop songwriting.

Best Track: Moving On And Getting Over

Worst Track: Changing

Score: 6/10

Aphex Twin – Cheetah EP

Mysterious electronic music producer Aphex Twin, now on his third release since returning after an extended hiatus with Grammy Award-winning album Syro, changes up his style, and possibly for the better. At this point he has a quite a reputation attached to him which honestly caused me to be slightly apprehensive approaching this project: a reputation of being one of the most creative EDM producers and all around musical artists of all time and thus creating excessively strange and inaccessible, and yet genius music. He definitely maintains this air of creativity which shows no bounds on this short project – you certainly don’t hear anything like this anywhere else – but drops the inaccessibility, opting instead for an approach which falls more in line with modern techno rather than his previous works of rhythmically diverse experimental ambience.

A heavier focus is placed on recognizable melodies running throughout the tracks now, causing them to be much more listenable. As always, Aphex Twin’s primary instrument is the synthesizer and continues to name his tracks after the machine he is using to create them, and with the added dimension of these melodies, the tracks give off an almost chiptune-like feel. These are lengthy songs that one can easily get lost in, and not mind their length at all because they are that good. One of the greatest aspects of the project is the drums, Aphex Twin utilizes a variety of interesting sounds and it all comes across very clean and precise.

It is interesting that an artist with such an air of mystery and penchant for complexity in his music would go down such a route – it acts as somewhat of a trap for the listener, attempting to initially fool them in to thinking we are being provided with basic electronic dance material which could be heard in a similar fashion if the radio was turned on, but as they keep listening it evolves into something much more. The many layers begin to reveal themselves and bounce off of each other, building up to the level of frenetic rhythms and experimental sounds we have come to know – although most of the project is indeed still in basic 4/4 time!

With the exception of the first track “CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]”, these songs are very high energy. Each track is united in a way by a central melody or a few melodies as the song is divided into different parts, which the remainder of the components begin to build around. Elements are added and taken away very quickly; it is a perfectly flowing and changing stream of musical consciousness. I have always enjoyed a song that employs a slow build, and that is basically what this entire project encompasses. The tracks slowly evolve into something fantastic which is new and interesting. The best example comes on “CHEETAHT7b”, which starts very slow and continues growing until the skittering drums which appear close to the end of the track are added, at which point it is a layered monster of a song.

If I have any criticism for this project, it is this. For music that presents itself as so intricate and creative, the same loop can tend to go on for an excessive amount of time or recur too often. The biggest culprit of this is “CIRKLON 1”, which contains a loop of a melody which disappears and resurfaces twice more over the course of the 7-minute track, when something different would have proven more interesting. But as I mentioned before, this is Aphex Twin’s world of sound to get lost in and nitpicking in such a way does a disservice to the sonic experiences he continues to provide over the course of his lengthy career.

Favourite Tracks: CIRKLON3 [Колхозная mix], 2X202-ST5

Least Favourite Track: CHEETAHT2 [Ld spectrum]

Score: 8/10

Snow tha Product – Half Way There… Pt. 1 EP

Snow tha Product, bilingual female rapper affiliated with rap veteran Tech N9ne’s independent label Strange Music, capitalizes on her steadily rising popularity with the release of a short and to the point 8-track EP. Previously identifiable by her rapid-fire flow, she dials back the energy on this project to fall more in line with the surging wave of Weeknd-esque alt-R&B music coursing through the frameworks of popular music at the moment. Unfortunately, for an artist who possesses so many interesting points of individuality, this imitation does not do her a great justice – though it may open up a new lane of success for her in the future. A very rare occurrence in the past, Snow sings on about half of these tracks, many of which end up being better than her lacklustre and toned down raps.

This project ultimately falters because it showcases to the listener the great potential that Snow has, shown in her previous work on feature verses such as Tech N9ne’s “So Dope (They Wanna)”, and yet ultimately delivers a project which underwhelms, settling for mediocrity instead of going the extra mile which is displayed for a few fleeting moments. 2 of the 8 tracks on this EP are brief, introspective interludes mainly regarding Snow’s place in the chaos of the music industry, each standing at under a minute. If these were made into full songs, they would easily overshoot every other song here. They stand as a microcosm for the full project in this way, moments of excitement that are over just as they were getting started.

The EP opens with “No Cut”, in which Snow’s flow, sounding much lazier than it has in the past, is layered over a bland and recycled trap beat, and interlaced with multiple interviews of label heads and other powers in the industry lamenting that they overlooked Snow’s talents for too long. The fact that she included these on the opening track would be much more interesting if the music were better – I can identify a few of these interviews as being from a few years ago due to the events referenced, a time when their words made a lot more sense due to the better product she was creating. The fact that Snow included a song – “Nuestra Cancion” – which is entirely in Spanish comes across the same way. I wanted to enjoy the song because its existence is interesting, but it pales in comparison to her other work as well as the standout tracks here.

Opening single “Nights”, on the other hand, is the kind of song that vaults someone to superstardom. Forgoing her menacing rhymes for a surprisingly pleasant singing voice complemented by featured artist W. Darling’s soaring chorus, the R&B tinged pop jam sounds like what might happen if a significantly more talented Nicki Minaj and a significantly more talented DJ Mustard got together. “Not Tonight”, the closing track, brings the energetic bars that I have come to know from Snow in the past, although assisted heavily by an EDM-influenced synth line taking up most of the space in the chorus. These two standout tracks rise clearly above the rest and demonstrate the potential that Snow truly has.

 Snow with”So Dope” collaborators Tech N9ne, Wrekonize and Twisted Insane

The biggest problem here, as with many rising artists, may be the personnel. The production here is generally quite weak and formulaic, and the featured artists, with the exception of W. Darling, detract more than anything else. As she gains followers in the coming years – as she is quite sure to – I hope she is surrounded by an improved collective of creative people who will assist her in achieving the balance many artists seek: display of the talent that many know she has on a commercially viable backdrop. This latter aspect was ultimately focused on too much here.

Favorite Tracks: Nights, Not Tonight

Least Favorite Track: No Cut

Score: 4/10