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.

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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.

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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

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Halsey – hopeless fountain kingdom

Halsey - Hopeless Fountain Kingdom.pngIndie pop artist turned stadium-status superstar Halsey returns to deliver her sophomore studio album, following up 2015’s lacklustre Badlands. Since being featured on one of the biggest songs of all time, The Chainsmokers’ “Closer”, Halsey’s place in the public eye has grown exponentially and this album drops at a very opportune time for her.

Halsey has perhaps deservedly drawn some negative ire for her recent comments on her placement in the musical world, seeing herself as alternative and countercultural. She criticized the public naming her a pop artist and stated her belief that urban artists who do pop features don’t get the same treatment. However, we have to separate the music from these comments a bit. hopeless fountain kingdom is a spectacular and surprising pop album and a major improvement from Badlands, and I can always appreciate a bit of a story tied in. Halsey has certainly learned from her mistakes here and dropped one of the best pop albums of the year.

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Halsey has really assembled the best possible team she could here — the writing and production are both very strong. The album is unified by the darker sound and aspects of her indie past that Halsey kept, but there is enough variation in the pop elements that have begun to creep in that it stays interesting. When those horns came in on “Alone” after the first two tracks gave me some nice harmonies and then a big trap beat, I was sold.

The project is essentially divided into quarters between 4 big pop producers – Lido, a big contributor to Badlands, dance-pop auteur Ricky Reed, emotional balladeer Greg Kurstin and Benny Blanco, who brought his frequent collaborator Cashmere Cat along to explore his more experimental side. Some fellow pop artists on the darker side of things show up in the writing column as well – The Weeknd, Sia, and Phantogram’s Josh Carter.

Halsey knows how to use her haunting, somewhat creepy vocals to her advantage here, mainly through her lyrical content. One of the main problems with Badlands was a feeling of disconnect from the lyrics, proclaiming in its biggest hit that she was “raised on Biggie and Nirvana”. The winding, loose story of star-crossed lovers here is very believable and makes a lot more sense. Halsey even opens the album with a monologue from Romeo and Juliet. This is how to do dark pop effectively.

Linking up with people like The Weeknd was a great decision, coming across on the incredible “Eyes Closed”. Halsey delivers a heartbreaking and instantly catchy chorus over a huge hip-hop inspired beat from the dynamic duo of Blanco and Cashmere Cat. Halsey’s music is very large-scale and cinematic, which is why inclusion of a story strengthens things. Her understated voice is a good contrast to the gargantuan production that frequently surrounds her.

“Bad At Love” is another standout track, as many great aspects link together perfectly: That deceptively cheerful piano instrumental. Halsey’s rapid-fire vocals. The refreshing lyrical themes, which address her failed relationship with a man in the first verse and a woman in the second – all of this builds up to her biggest chorus yet. This of course leads into “Strangers”, the highly publicized collaboration with Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony, also bisexual. Their voices fit together better than I could have ever imagined, and as they harmonize about a lesbian relationship losing connection over a pounding synthpop beat, it paints the most vivid picture yet of the album’s storyline.

Image result for halsey live(Photo Credit: Colleen Callahan: instagram.com/collcallahan)

Although Halsey has certainly learned to play to her strengths here, I can certainly see where some of the criticism is coming from – there is some pretty heavy borrowing of some other popular aspects here. I believe that Halsey has injected enough of her own personality for this to be hers and hers alone for the most part, but when we get a radio single like “Now Or Never”, you begin to get a bit skeptical. The track sounds a little too similar to Rihanna’s “Needed Me”, and even shares a writer in Starrah.

“Sorry” is the only time when Halsey slows things down here – it is also the only time she doesn’t get primary writing credit, going instead to producer Greg Kurstin. It’s painfully obvious that it’s a throwaway from Adele’s 25, the album that he masterminded. In addition, the album is 13 tracks long and doesn’t even run for 40 minutes, as some tracks like “Lie” and “Walls Could Talk” are much too short and never really elaborate on some great ideas.

Halsey will always be a somewhat polarizing artist, but great pop music is great pop music. To improve so much on a sophomore album is quite impressive, and I’m sure she’ll only continue to discover her own sense of artistry as her career continues to progress.

Favourite Tracks: Eyes Closed, Bad At Love, Strangers, Alone, 100 Letters

Least Favourite Track: Lie

Score: 8/10

The Chainsmokers – Memories … Do Not Open

Image result for memories do not openEDM production duo The Chainsmokers, biggest success story of 2016, release their debut album by request of their fans. Previously against the idea of selling albums, perhaps smartly given the success of their singles, Memories…Do Not Open represents the first collection of songs for the duo, containing only the more recent hits “Paris” and “Something Just Like This”.

If you thought that some of their more recent singles sounded eerily similar to their past hits, you wouldn’t be wrong. The Chainsmokers are following their formula as closely as possible in the wake of one of the most successful songs of all time in “Closer”. And since this formula involves uninspired and melancholy dance breaks, lyrics about failing relationships that sound like they come from the mouth of the average attendee at a frat party, and whiny vocals from the more attractive Chainsmoker, Memories…Do Not Open is not for me. Yet, they have somehow tapped into the pulse of the millennial generation perfectly. Since you already know what this album sounds like, a review is almost unnecessary.

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The album opens with some wistful piano keys as Andrew Taggart blandly sings “You know, I’m sorry, I won’t make it to your party. Got caught up in my own selfishness”. It’s really a tiny microcosm of the entire album. Ever since “Closer” blew up, The Chainsmokers opted to have one song, and it’s working out pretty well for them. At this point, as others have pointed out, they are the Nickelback of EDM. They have taken the worst cliches of a genre, become its biggest artist, and, if history repeats itself, will slowly kill its popularity and mainstream viability.

Each song on this project features the same musical structure, the vocals being handled by either Taggart, a relatively unknown female vocalist, or on the last track, an AutoTuned beyond recognition Florida Georgia Line, who I suppose are the Chainsmokers of their genre in terms of their pandering, bro-country lyrics. The Chainsmokers are on autopilot, more painfully obviously making music for the fame rather than the art than any of their peers.

When the Chainsmokers actually attempt to briefly innovate on this album, it surprises so much that you actually get lost in their saccharine pop world for a second and remember why they are so successful. These guys are really, really good at pop music. “It Won’t Kill Ya” takes a break from the lightweight future-bass sound and contrasts some grittier, almost dubstep sounds with a soaring chorus from French The Voice finalist Louane.

Current single “Paris” is more complex than it lets on, with interlocking piano and guitar hooks that provide a nice backdrop to Taggart and frequent collaborator Emily Warren’s surprisingly pleasant duet. The actual creativity it exhibits reminds me of “Roses”, their best song by miles. And while the song ultimately devolves into the usual Chainsmoker tricks, hearing Jhene Aiko’s breezy vocals on “Wake Up Alone” always puts a smile on my face.

The Chainsmokers try excessively hard to have some sort of edge with their lyrics, as Taggart takes primary writing credit on each song (with a lot of help!), but ultimately just look absolutely ridiculous. The veneer is so easy to see through, and with every unnecessary F-bomb or nostalgic look back at what might have been you wonder how everyone continues to fall for their shtick. The Chainsmokers attempt to transform the utterly vanilla into something incredibly profound, and the novelty of this should only have worked once before everyone realized the talk of drinking, regret and struggling to find your place in the world was the furthest thing from cutting-edge.

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The worst part of all of this is part of the same reason that I dislike artists such as Drake or Macklemore at times: The Chainsmokers really want us to feel sorry for them, singing about struggles of success. On “Honest” Taggart whinges “There’s this girl, she wants me to take her home/She don’t really love me though, I’m just on the radio”, wiping the tears from his eyes with a hundred dollar bill.

Disliking the Chainsmokers has become somewhat of a meme at this point, but having to hear those “doo-doo-doot doo-doo-doo”s from Chris Martin, or another interview where they brag about how successful they are with increasingly problematic and offensive terminology makes me very worried about the direction of popular music in the future. These guys are really breaking some of the Beatles’ chart records. Help us all.

It’s true, we all enjoy pop music and it’s very hard not to nod your head to almost all of these songs. I really do have to commend The Chainsmokers for finding a Max Martin-esque approach to ensuring everything they touch is a hit. But at some point you have to step back and realize there are much better, harder-working, more deserving pop artists to turn your attention to for the same thrills. Everyone knows that they probably shouldn’t eat at McDonalds, but they do it anyway. Resist the temptation, and stop feeding their ego.

Favourite Tracks: It Won’t Kill Ya, Paris, Wake Up Alone

Least Favourite Track: Don’t Say

Score: 3/10