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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Cashmere Cat – 9

Image result for cashmere cat 9Norwegian producer and DJ Cashmere Cat’s highly anticipated and frequently delayed debut album has finally arrived, in the wake of well-received production credits for some huge artists such as Kanye West and Ariana Grande. The high-profile appearances continue over the course of 9‘s brief runtime, as the guest vocalists attempt to adapt to the constantly shifting world Cashmere Cat outlines. People are drawn to his music due to his very experimental take on pop, sounding like the kind of thing that might be dominating the airwaves in some kind of dystopian future.

This album consistently subverts expectations, as Cashmere Cat lets his creativity run wild. However, this is not always a good thing. For the most part, this is some truly captivating and hypnotic work, but seeing as he has been fraternizing with some artists at PC Music, their trend of being so out-there that they forget the actual song lying underneath can pervade here as well.Image result for cashmere cat

Cashmere Cat’s music is full of small nuances that become an unlikely centerpiece. The tiniest electronic blip of the ringing of a bell can mean so much in the context of a Cashmere Cat song. The sound he has constructed, that could only be representative of himself, is shown in full force on 9. He seems to have a great time toying with expectations. Where you think a huge electronic drop is coming, he falls back into a calming pattern of strings or soft, beautiful synths. Where you think there might be a dominant pop chorus there is electronic distortion and chopped up vocals. He seems to have been heavily inspired by Francis and the Lights’ use of Prismizer here, as Francis himself appears on “Wild Love” and similar effects are applied to many other artists’ vocals.

Cashmere Cat seems to have been restrained to a very small degree by the presence of co-producer and pop mastermind Benny Blanco on every track here. However, the presence of experimental individuals like SOPHIE and Evian Christ is much more understandable. There are a wealth of high profile collaborators here, including massive pop stars like The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez, and rising artists like Kehlani, Camila Cabello and Jhene Aiko, who sounds most like herself on closer and standout track “Plz Don’t Go”.

I really do have to commend Cashmere Cat’s creativity here. There are sounds on this project that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams to not only be part of a song, but work effectively. He definitely has a great ear and is capable of creating some truly beautiful and mesmerizing pieces of music, something that is not often characteristic of his genre. His trademark creeping synths and melodic blips provide a perfect musical background to the many layers he applies to his guests’ vocal work.

“Quit”, his third collaboration with Ariana Grande, might be the best song here, throwing a sonic wall at us as Grande’s vocals reach their pleading peak before dropping back into a subdued electronic chorus that attacks us with contemplative synths and quiet bells rather than a big bass drop. Cashmere Cat seems to work best with R&B artists rather than the pure pop singers he brings on board. Ty Dolla $ign has never sounded more soulful than when he is backed up by the pulsating synth chords and descending symphony of bells on “Infinite Stripes”, the Prismizer harmonies bringing out the dimension in his voice you never knew was there.

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Sometimes, however, Cashmere Cat’s creativity goes so far that these songs are not particularly enjoyable as a song per se, but rather an atmospheric world. “Wild Love”, at its base, is really not much more than The Weeknd crooning the song’s title, ascending and descending the scales over a simple beat and what sounds like more layers than Francis and the Lights has ever used in his career. It’s all way too much, especially with the inexplicable use of a spring sound which is slightly off beat throughout. “Love Incredible” is similarly disjointed, as Camila Cabello’s vocals are chopped up and distorted, and the energy of the song goes through so many abrupt shifts that the actual underlying thread of song structure is lost.

The title track “9 (After Coachella)” is an enigma. The song opens with featured vocalist MØ delivering the catchiest chorus on the entire album, before the reason for PC Music producer SOPHIE’s actual feature credit is revealed with a drop full of clunky metal noises. The first time I heard it, I thought it was one of the most obnoxious and terrible things I’d ever heard on a song, but upon further listens I’ve admittedly been a lot more appreciative of it when I’m in the right mood.

Cashmere Cat is showing us the future of pop music on 9, and for the most part, it looks bright. While the album as a whole supposedly went through many revisions and personnel changes, contributing to its disjointedness, is a very enjoyable journey through the weird and wonderful world of Cashmere Cat.

Favourite Tracks: Quit, Infinite Stripes, Victoria’s Veil, Plz Don’t Go, 9 (After Coachella)

Least Favourite Track: Wild Love

Score: 7/10