Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Cassie – Don’t Play it Safe

It plays well enough for us…


[Video]
[7.00]

Alex Clifton: Do you remember 2006? Do you remember “Me & U,” Cassie’s ultra-minimalist, hypnotic hit? I’ve been upset for years when best-of-the-2000s lists ignored this gem and have Googled Cassie about once every six months to see what the hell she has done since making that masterpiece. And now she’s back, sounding like a space-age J-Lo. There’s something deeply comforting about the fact that this sounds like a more grown-up version of her old stuff; she’s not gone for the immediate pop-drop wub-wub-wub approach that is in vogue now, but has stuck to a version of what she knows and does best. Playing it safer? Sure, but this is still great: it’s a great showcase of her charisma, and she delivers it well.
[6]

Julian Axelrod: It’s nearly impossible to sound bad over a sleek KAYTRANADA beat, but Cassie sets a new bar here. Her breathy, ethereal confidence is reminiscent of Take Me Apart. But where Kelela subsumes herself in the digital abyss, Cassie skims along the smooth synths’ surface without getting lost in its thrum. It’s an understated pop vocal from an underrated pop star.
[7]

Leah Isobel: Cassie’s voice is as vaporous as ever, and she’s acquired a subtle grit over the years that adds depth to her performances. If only she had a more eventful melody or KAYTRANADA’s production pushed harder against her. As it is, his smoky synths and her misty voice just create empty air.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: Here’s a fairly slight song given extra depth and urgency by Cassie’s vulnerability. The lyric demands no less from her object of desire.
[7]

Maxwell Cavaseno: I do not care for KAYTRANADA’s music to be quite honest. However, this man has managed to make Cassie feel the most back to snuff since she’d left Ryan Leslie scrambling around in the dust, so I have to give it up. “Don’t Play it Safe” is the sort of plasticine R&B sculpting that Ventura had proven to be perfectly suited for and while her career has languished with that formula going in and out of vogue, it is delicious to hear her do the very thing that made her so satisfying so long ago. A shame the song feels so slight though.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Spanning several decades of electronic R&B, “Don’t Play It Safe” on first listen honors truth in advertising until Cassie’s reserve provides the modern affect. No hints of gospel or a diva’s fervor. A performance of impressive immobility.
[9]

Will Adams: A slow-motion dive into a pool that’s been adjusted to the perfect temperature, cool enough to refresh but warm enough to envelop you in it.
[8]

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

A$AP Ferg – Plain Jane

Plain jane score for a plain jane song.


[Video]
[4.00]

Ashley John: My local hip hop radio station has been hitting “Plain Jane” hard (actually, mostly the remix with Nicki), so I’ve found myself listening to it as I inch through rush hour traffic. Each time, like new, it hits me with a punch of adrenaline with the toughness that Ferg is best at. It’s nothing special or novel, just enough to get your head nodding and jaw tight. The feeling evaporates as soon as soon as a commercial for laser hair removal comes on afterward, but it makes the mile markers move faster. 
[5]

Crystal Leww: All the bad ripoffs of “Slob on My Knob” that managed to find their way to rap radio over the last six months are bad. Both Ferg and G-Eazy did it in ways that only made me desperate to listen to the original instead. “Plain Jane” is flat and lazy, a ploy at capitalizing on a generation that is prone to nostalgia without any real substance to back it up.
[2]

Ryo Miyauchi: Who knew in 2012 that early New York backpacker rap revivalists Pro Era would contribute to a straight-up cover of Three 6 Mafia’s “Slob on My Knob” five years down the road? With the Joey Badass debut 1999, the crew aligned itself aesthetically with a specific sphere of rap once repulsed by Memphis or any regional rap from the South for that matter. Though, having Joey and Capital STEEZ rap over Styles of Beyond and ASAP Ferg sing that “Slob” flow is no different in mindset, I suppose. And here, everyone involved again ignores defining their own personality while hoping that aligning themselves with another record can pass as having a personality.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: Nice to hear a mainstream hip-hop record in 2017 that’s not trap, let alone a New Yorker going to the well of Three 6 Mafia for his influence. I don’t love the lyrics, but the beat and Ferg’s flow grab me.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Awkward rhymes (“Grandma had the arthritis in her hands, bad!/She was poppin’ pills like rappers in society”) and stiff delivery afflict every verse in an otherwise solid autobiographical reverie. I suspect it’s been a (minor) pop hit because it ain’t trap.
[5]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Ferg had at one point become the member of A$AP that critics seemed to argue would provide the better rapping in opposition to his pal Rocky, and for more or less that’s pretty much still applied to this point. However, whereas Rocky has attempted (to middling success) to catch up to newer and younger talent whom actually pushed formulas he’d cribbed from other rappers, Ferg’s stylistic trajectory is to go further back into studying of ‘real rap’, an attempt to make himself the kind of artist who’s reasonably commercial but still can get those Real Heap-Hap festival checks. “Plain Jane” is basically Three Six Mafia turned into a generic retread for the sake of it, and should be treated with all the affection and reverence of freezer burned chicken tenders. The production is stiff, Ferg is lifeless, and you end up wishing you could be anywhere else. For all his studiousness, it’s a shame Ferg has never learned how to actually feel fun.
[2]

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Liam Payne & Rita Ora – For You

Hey so Louis isn’t the only 1Der to have a song right now…


[Video]
[4.27]
Scott Mildenhall: Ye gods — a Liam Payne song that doesn’t make its own jokes! Instead, it’s subtly evocative of a bygone era of trance hits. There are definitely hints of “Adagio for Strings”, but what it rips off in glorious style is “Airwave”. He had everything but the girl, she had Everything But The Girl; it’s a match made made in enlivening bombast.
[8]

Alfred Soto: Modern pop relishes a piss elegance, represented by electronically manipulated space; it’s the dream of Bryan Ferry’s late eighties records made streamed flesh. Substitute Louis for Zayn, Halsey for Rita Ora, or The Weeknd for Zayn and Ariana Grande for Halsey, each competing for best delivery of global weltschmerz, legible in Shanghai and Carson City.
[3]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Of all the One Direction members, Liam Payne has been (rather strangely in some respects, rather predictably in others) been the one who’s most visibly struggled to find his solo footing; Zayn’s failed upwards, Louis has been relatively conservative, the other two are doing pretty well. And ironically, who might be a better foil for him than the biggest Struggle Celebrity of UK Pop for a minute herself? A lyrical mess, with some real siren-piercing synths that deserved better, both of these two sound haplessly thrashing in their attempt to try and scrape together a hit based out of egads, another Directioner’s prior success. If only some of that neediness and desperation translated to the record to make it feel more poignant.
[3]

Alex Clifton: This shouldn’t work at all. Liam’s entire solo career so far has been a bore and Rita, bless her, tries her best but somehow gently misses the mark. In terms of a “sexy” song for the Fifty Shades franchise, this is a spectacular failure–those bombastic synths kill the mood. But this is oddly enough maybe the best song I’ve ever heard from either party, and certainly more interesting than the snoozefest that was “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever.” Liam works best when he’s not trying to prove he’s had sex, and Rita sounds buoyed up by the enthusiastic synth backing. It’s unexpected ecstacy. I wish this were for Eurovision and not for Fifty Shades, but I’ll take it.
[6]

Isabel Cole: Can’t believe the L*rries are so fixated on “Freddie is a doll” that they’ve totally missed the obvious 1D baby-related conspiracy staring us all in the face: management’s desperate and foolhardy attempt to convince us that Liam Payne has ever had sex. Wake up, sheeple! #stopmodest
[3]

Austin Brown: A perfectly okay slice of anthemic lust-pop, except Liam Payne, a Build-A-Bear trying to masquerade as a sex doll, is in it. I never thought I’d be so relieved to hear Rita Ora’s blandly tasteful voice in my life.
[4]

Ryo Miyauchi: Praise be to the Fifty Shades franchise for sticking to their own brand of baroque tragedy pop throughout their movie soundtracks. Only three years since the first film, both the fatalism and IMAX loudness already sound like a relic of its time next to the passive EDM-pop ushered by Jack U and Chainsmokers. The last installment is a very pale torchbearer to the series of beautiful disasters. Even the chorus of brass feels outwardly synthetic, like it knows it’s a self-parody to continue this franchise at this point.
[4]

Katherine St Asaph: OK, hear me out: Pretend “Never Be the Same” is the actual movie tie-in (might as well be), that Rita Ora is Carly Rae Jepsen, and Liam Payne is the dude you ignore like Justin Bieber or Adam Young. Then hate yourself, probably, but what’s more context-appropriate than a masochistic exercise?
[7]

Will Adams: Sure, Ali Payami opened the project file for Ariana Grande’s “Touch It,” bumped up the tempo a bit and called it a day. But the dark pop template gives off way more heat than the glurge of “Love Me Like You Do” or “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” ever did, and both Liam and Rita act the part convincingly.
[7]

Ashley John: Well, if you look at this as an adventurous spin on the Fifty Shades audiobook, it isn’t as bad.
[2]

Stephen Eisermann: When songs are this blatantly bad and boring, I often mind myself drifting off and imagining what the writing session for what said song must’ve been like. Here’s how I imagine this one went:
HEAD WRITER: Ok, everyone, for this exercise I am going to say a simple phrase or description of a feeling and we are going to try and write a song around it. How does that sound?
WRITERS 2/3: Ok, for sure.
HEAD WRITER: Great. For this first one, close your eyes and imagine the feeling of staring blankly at a screen, having just finished a movie at the theatre, getting ready to stand up, feeling totally disappointed in a way that reminds you of that terrible night a couple of weeks ago that started at the bar when you went home with this guy, but not because he was cute, more bec–
WRITER 2: [whispering] so much for short descri–
HEAD WRITER: DO NOT INTERRUPT ME I AM THE HEAD WRITER AND YOU ARE NOT. As I was saying, you only went with him because you, well, you have needs too and it’s — it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, it’s just been a while so you can’t be too picky or you’ll be, you know, still hurting [tears start flowing] and and and, it wasn’t great, you know, but I guess it did the job? Right? No…. no it didn’t do the job. You still feel empty. So you walk out of the theatre, but you make sure to refill your large drink because you paid $7 for it and you’ll be damned if you paid that much for a drink and entrance just to feel like… well, like that.
[HEADWRITER WIPES TEARS]
[WRITERS 2 AND 3 ARE QUIET BUT BOTH CRINGING]
HEAD WRITER: So, yes, write a song that feels like that.
[0]

Friday, January 19th, 2018

Louis Tomlinson – Miss You

3rd try is the… charm?


[Video]
[5.45]

Maxwell Cavaseno: While foolish critics fondled the prattishness of current day Liam Gallagher and Primal Scream pastiche as some kind of return to form just because he had a good year on Twitter, leave it to the prophet of the zen-sunni anarchist of laddishment defined as “The Tommo Way”, one Maestro Louis Tomlinson, to actually bother with coming up with a song that channels the Oasian spirit. The rock bits are all corrosive grafts to the point of Frankenstein artificiality, but whereas prime Oasis sounded like the pieces of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane’s torched remains superimposed over Paul Weller statuettes at times, “Miss You” is the false memories of those Good Time Gents xeroxed and 3D-printed out, Trevor Horn style, into blasts of anxiety disguised as escapist hoots. Louis feels attached to violent bungee cords outside of his control from the demands of the present, desire to “move on” into the future and the regrets of the past, and for all the easy charm of the sneery “Shit” reflex, you get the sense he would really like to keep up those swells of abandon for more than a few moments.
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: A post-breakup celebration complete with concomitant feelings of bitterness and regret. Louis Tomlinson channels 2000s pop rock and Oasis to forge a song well-suited for a bygone era’s Teen Movie and obligatory soundtrack tie-in. The strings are hokey but self-aware: a cartoon rain cloud that follows Louis as he attempts to drink away conflicted feelings. The whole situation may be trope after trope, but it can feel less lonely and disheartening when you align your experiences with familiar, well-trod territory.
[7]

Scott Mildenhall: It’s great to have to Freefaller/The Noise Next Door/Son of Dork back, it really is, but what on earth is going with Louis Tomlinson’s accent? Perhaps he just has to do what he can to get his voice through a song unscathed, but here it flits between classic, Robbiesque mid-atlanticism (“all of these thoughts“, “tune”), an approximation of “standard” southern (“dancing” is halfway to Bextor), and a weirdly exaggerated version of his own northern speech (witness the same vowel in “worry”, “love” and “coming” in the bridge, which does not sound quite like how he says it when talking). In the final case, it’s almost as if they wrote in that particular vocalic thread in an attempt to accentuate his tediously misguided #toplad persona. Better yet, it might all be a purposeful display of linguistic performance made to explode the myth of singular authenticity. So let’s just pretend that it is.
[4]

Alex Clifton: Louis Tomlinson is such an enigma; I could never quite figure out his place in 1D, and I’m not sure anyone else did, either. Zayn was the hot one, Niall the songwriter, Harry the wild card, and Liam was… well, whatever Liam is. But Louis? Who knows, other than the first one to become a dad. Fittingly, this is the most generic 1D solo debut. Even “Strip That Down,” a real corker, could’ve only come from someone as self-important and un-self-aware as Liam. Louis ticks all the post-boy band boxes here–he swears! he drinks!–and doesn’t actually sound bad, but I still can’t tell you anything about Louis-the-person. In other words, it’s exactly what I expected from him.
[4]

Isabel Cole: In the absence of any ability to even pretend to be a little bit objective about my fave Direction/fellow Capricorn sun Gemini rising with Mars in Sg/iPhone background and lockscreen since 2013/biological son whom I, personally, raised to semi-manhood with my blood sweat and tears, how about full transparency instead? Three points off the bat for the sheer base pleasure of hearing Louis Tomlinson sing with false brightness “everything is fucking great” with that accent, happier to be swearing on his song than anyone in pop since Avril snarled her exhaustion with all the ssshit that you do; one point for the #mood of spending the entirety of an ostensibly fun night out glued to your phone, two points for the #big mood of “just one more pint or five / does it even matter anyway”; one for the knowledge that he is finally making the loud dumb guitar-punching fake pop punk of his beautiful idiot heart; two for finding myself genuinely affected by the bridge – I remember that, too, when I was his age, marveling over how suddenly the rules can change, how you have to unlearn the entire way your life has oriented itself around the person you can’t even be with alone now; docked two points for not living up to the promise of “No Control”; bonus point for “lads.”
[8]

Joshua Copperman: “Miss You” is a bizarre listen from the top — a dry guitar VST shares space with real-life violins, martial drum loops, gang vocals, and a glossy, compressed acoustic strum. Also, auto-tuned ad-libs. That’s all before the lyrics, which sound like “Not Over You” was combined with the sappiest parts of Divide, then sprinkled with curse words, and then sent through Botnik. I’m assuming Julian Bunetta didn’t know how to work with Louis after crafting successes for Niall, so Bunetta just decided to do everything at once. Therefore, we get an album’s worth of misguided ideas in one song, but by some miracle, it’s just WTF enough to work. To paraphrase another Directioner, it’s absolutely ridiculous, but I’m into it.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: How is Louis from One Direction making better Pink songs than Pink?
[7]

Austin Brown: Oh, so he’s decided to be the pop-punk one? That’s…a choice. Somehow this makes me appreciate the fluidity of post-reunion Fall Out Boy’s EDM integrations far more though–the genre gestures scattered throughout (strings, auto-tuned adlibs, background choral vocals, etc) feel more like badly disguised bids to expand Louis’s market share, and who needs any of this when Hey Violet is around?
[4]

Anthony Easton: Bratty vocals, but not in ways that I haven’t heard a million times before, made even more obvious by the terribly reductive guitar playing. 
[2]

Alfred Soto: While his 1D mates have gotten undue credit for using power chords and arena-ready drum patterns, Louis Tomlinson aims for spice: he adds violins and some rubbish about dancing on tables. As if.  
[3]

Ashley John: Louis is earnest in the only scrubby, scuffed up, anthemic way he knows how to be. “Miss You” steals just the right amount of pop punk sandpaper grit to toughen up an otherwise precise pop song into something else. He’s genuine and apocalyptic in the same lines, barely delineating a Tuesday night from the vast, hopeless forever. This song sounds like the stride he’s been waiting to hit. 
[6]

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Remy Ma ft. Lil Kim – Wake Me Up

Today we teach former queens how to set an alarm on their phones.


[Video][Website]
[4.14]

Maxwell Cavaseno: The weird case of Remy Ma in the last year or so has been kind of a rare and bizarre anomaly. On the one hand, she was coming off a miraculous comeback run following the success of “All The Way Up” with mentor Fat Joe, a rarity for a woman rapper a decade past her ‘could’ve been’ commercial prime who’d been incarcerated for a good chunk of that period. Yet on the other hand, she was a staunch true schooler attempting to feud with the aggressively self-imposed current queen of rap, Nicki Minaj, and that their attempts at career dogfighting got overshadowed by the supremacy of “Bodak Yellow” resulted in both attempting to court favor with an artist they both could rap circles around in their sleep if they focused, demonstrated the shaky reality of their antics. Even in attempting to harness her efforts into commercial passability with the assistance of Lil’ Kim (someone who’s WAY WAY WAAAAY past HER primes in any sense), Remy just does not have the confidence to commit to the record the way so many New Yorkers over the age of 30 who remember ‘the good times’ sound shook. The amount of people who are going to care about “Wake Me Up” and its metadrama is dwindling by the minute, because life is too short and who gives a shit about who’s fucking Nas (for heaven’s sake I can’t convince anyone under the age of 25 Nas is better than NAV these days!).
[2]

Thomas Inskeep: I love love love hearing Remy aping the classic Kim “Queen Bitch” flow, both rhythmically (since the song is built around the original) and tonally, with her voice. And bringing Kim onto the record to deliver the chorus (in a different tone) is a nice twist. I mean, I’m in my late 40s, so the sound of ’90s hip-hop is like ice cream to me, and this sounds good. It’s not groundbreaking or anything, but it’s definitely a head-nodder.
[7]

Alfred Soto: A sad record — lord knows I wanted Remy Ma to do more than awkwardly rap over a rather generous selection of Lil Kim’s own “Queen Bitch.” Give her a real comeback, please. 
[4]

Katie Gill: A weird beat, a weird flow from Remy where she seems perpetually behind and a confusing lack of Lil Kim. If you’re going to stick Lil Kim on the chorus, at least give her one that sounds slightly interesting and won’t put you to sleep.
[4]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Not particularly convincing as a lead single if only because the homage — all the way down to Biggie/Lil’ Kim’s flow — reads more as unimaginative than a signifier of talent or clout. Even worse, the “Queen Bitch” herself sounds more like a “Mediocre Jester.”
[3]

Edward Okulicz: Expecting all guns blazing, and an epic Kim verse, there really wasn’t either. Ma’s verses are themselves OK, packing in boasts with impressive density once she gets going, but Kim’s hook feels like she’s being wheeled into the studio to perform the barest minimum she can do to get a feature credit. Coming back by reminding everyone of someone else’s peaks is a funny thing to be trying.
[4]

Ryo Miyauchi: It’s probably still a tad too early to refer to this piano-player beat that’s essentially a G-Unit B-side circa Beg for Mercy as throwback New York, but it’s at least a breath of fresh air in a funereal post-ASAP landscape. Remy Ma, meanwhile, takes a minute to lock into what should be her comfort zone. Maybe some more Lil Kim would’ve helped get her up to speed.
[5]

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Walker Hayes – You Broke Up with Me

That’s now how I remember it, Walker.


[Video][Website]
[4.25]

Anthony Easton: I was never more surprised at how smart, and how funny the Walker Hayes record was. The single, which now seems ancient, bounces with a false cheer, heartbreak buffered by ebullience and a kind of hip swerve pleasure. It’s all false fronting, but excellent fronting, all that wordplay shucking and jiving towards the unreconcilable. 
[9]

Maxwell Cavaseno: It’s basically a sonic Matthew Mcconaughey impersonation within the verses and hook, which can either be charming or embarrassing depending on how you look. Walker Hayes specifically appears to be the kind of guy who embodies that sort of ‘don’t threaten me with a good time’ nature that’s a passive forceful without falling into passive aggression per se. His party never feels super in-your-face blaring but it’s still pretty hard to disrupt if you need a second. For all his good vibes, there’s definitely an insincere aura of double-talk in Walker Hayes’ sniggers which makes the ‘quaint’ charms of the record feel just as much of a stale put-on.
[3]

Alfred Soto: Now Sam Hunt has kicked around long enough to inspire followers. The bass and drums have a decent Fleetwood/Mac kick and thud in the chorus, and Walker Hayes tries for amiability, but these days it’s hard to pass yourself off as a lovable rogue when you’re whistling and beat boxing. 
[4]

Tim de Reuse: A song about getting revenge after a nasty break-up by ending up happier than the instigating party? Great idea. There’s even some cutesy wordplay in here that actually sticks. There are also plenty of turns of phrase that are just difficult to listen to (contender for the worst: “get my forget-you on”) laid over instrumentation straight from one of those Apple commercials set in an eerie all-smiles dystopia. There’s a reading of this song where he’s exercising his right to be bitter after being wronged, but there’s an equal amount of evidence supporting the interpretation that he’s just an insufferable douchebag.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: I kinda like his swagger and his overall vibe, which is kinda Sam Hunt if Hunt didn’t seem like such a dick. This song’s just okay, but check out his album boom., which features better material.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: An ungodly synthesis of frat-bro country and chipper Lumineers/Peter Bjorn and John syncbait that honestly, I’m shocked didn’t arrive sooner.
[0]

Edward Okulicz: Putting a song that’s actually incredibly mean on its lyrical surface behind the carefree, breezy whistles in some kind of confidence trick. But the fella doth protest too much when he lets that chorus run one taunt too long — yep, he’s a married father of eight and the song’s about the music biz. Gets a decent score because I’m secretly a smug bastard who empathises with other smug bastards.
[6]

Will Adams: Did NESTEA need a new jingle that quickly?
[2]

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Charli XCX ft. Carly Rae Jepsen – Backseat

Charli, Carly Rae and PC Music? Nah, that’s not really in our wheelhouse.


[Video][Website]
[6.57]

Ryo Miyauchi: The humming synths and the ghost harmonies of “all alone” resemble the static heard when the radio dial is adjusted perfectly to pick up a feed from two FM channels. Both broadcasts play independent from another, each scene unique to the singer who sings them: Charli’s escape from hell via partying turns self-destructive while Carly Rae Jepsen’s LA hallucination finds two cold souls together in bed. And just when the two stories see eye to eye, this metallic black hole of a noise swallows them whole.
[6]

Austin Brown: It’s a never-ending source of fascination for me to watch artists like Charli and Carly navigate the pop industry, invested in the artistic potential of transcendent escapism but resistant (to varying degrees) to its dominant tropes and business practices. Lines on “Backseat” like Charli’s “I want it all, even if it’s fake” and Carly’s “I got a thirst for distraction I can’t take back” are declarative to this effect, as is the mushmouth muttered repetition of “all alone” in the chorus. In opening the Pop 2 mixtape, it serves as a mission statement of sorts for Charli. “Backseat” isn’t nearly as confrontational as Vroom Vroom, which eschewed melody entirely at points and suffered as a result, but it’s not full-on bubblegum either, warping Charli’s voice and discovering decay and regret in its more grating corners. One point off for letting Carly show her up in the lyrics department, but it’s not like she had a choice in that matter.
[7]

Anthony Easton: That this starts and ends with melodic noise, and that the subtle metal grinding throughout the rest of the track keeps asking the questions: how do we make pop, nad what does the form of pop mean now, outside of the populist? It’s a lonely, almost toxic song, and that it is written and performed by two great pop performers who (with the exception of one or two singles) do not sell well, makes it a fascinating example of formalist expansion, a kind of pop for pop’s sake, which would all seem so academic, if it wasn’t so fantastic to listen to. 
[9]

Alfred Soto: They belong together: figures who inhabit pop, approximate stars, scoring the occasional hit. The haze through which this song emerges has the texture of L.A., its smog and the way pop stars, approximate and otherwise, create cogs in the machinery. Because they hesitate about going for the jugular, “Backseat” takes a back seat to even itself. This is why Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX remain approximate pop stars. 
[6]

Eleanor Graham: In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran describes “How Soon Is Now” as the sound of The Smiths “speeding past us, light-decked and vast, like the Millennium Falcon.” “Backseat” is the daughter and heir of that big, spacey nothing-in-particular. Against the synthy void, light bounces off the industrial clanks and screeches, like a city collapsing in slow motion. The opening lines speak to the cinematic kind of glamour that acknowledges its own hollowness but revels in itself anyway, for a lack of anything else. The parties with strangers won’t help you figure it out, but you can look out the window in the backseat and imagine that the neon lights are falling on your face in exactly the way you want them to, imagine yourself as violet-coloured and monumental and extra-planetary as the chorus.
[7]

Leah Isobel: Given the overlap in Charli and Carly’s audiences and their similar places in the modern pop pantheon, it makes demographic sense that they’d collaborate eventually, though sonically their music isn’t all that similar; Charli is all neon-bright pop hook, while Carly is more of a singer-songwriter type. “Backseat” does an admirable job of blending their separate worlds into one as Charli integrates fully into her femmebot act and Carly tugs on the high notes with so much, um, emotion that she runs away with the song, at least until the final third explodes the whole thing in a haze of electronic shrapnel. The secret overlap that makes this all work is that both singers have an intimate knowledge of pop-as-machine, if from different angles. They sing to each other from across an impossible divide, the cyber girl and the real girl, able to comfort each other but not to heal. Pop 2 has bigger and better pop songs, but none sketch out the album’s psychodrama quite as thoroughly as this one.
[7]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Charli XCX’s fans insist that her brand of pop does more than the pop she constantly proves she’s incapable of writing consistently — not because she hasn’t tried, but because frankly people who aren’t captivated by the thought of Charli XCX don’t care. The same could apply to Carly Rae Jepsen, the apparent genius of the straight ahead anthem who can’t manage to convince so-called ‘stupid normies’ she’s even made a song since “Call Me Maybe.” “Backseat” sounds as uncomfortably unabashed as people who cannot separate their philias from their feelings, as the duo rapturously claw at the neon and chrome slidings like half-magpie half-harpies sounding less like a song and more like jarringly reductive fetish art for so many who’ve singed their corneas by refreshing their Tumblrs a few too many times, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is the fitting result for the hyperconnectivity of the ‘alt-pop’ stars who can’t succeed at bridging past the voracious net addicts who enshrine them as stars before they actually soar; their relationship becomes a specific kind of fan-service as tether, and in their desperate symbiosis do their damnedest to ensure that this isn’t just fantasy, but that it really matters.
[1]

Will Rivitz: A word to the wise: if a song is to arrive at a triumphant moment of climax most of the way through, it needs to merit that high. That is precisely what “Backseat” does, smokily snaking through neon rubble until it soars into the sky with its gorgeous trapdoor bass while the voices of Charli and Carly diffuse into the ether. It’s the most gorgeous pop song in a very long while, and it grows and glows so perfectly that every moment feels earned.
[9]

Sonia Yang: This is a perfect marriage of my perception of each of their thematic tropes; Jepsen’s dreamy pining undercut by Charli’s wryness. Even the music seems to echo this: smooth 80s-inspired production characteristic of the former’s songs marred just the right amount by darker, more dissonant synths from the latter’s work, almost in conjunction with when each vocalist makes her entrance. The true beauty is how distinct their voices sound even under layers of autotune; Jepsen floats and flutters while Charli errs sharp and sardonic. “Backseat” sparkles but isn’t saccharine, it’s melancholy but not weighty. And like a fever dream, it ends almost as quickly as it began.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: Charli ft. Carly, singing about love and, better yet, the solipsistic swooning of getting lost in songs in cars at night alone — music-geek fanfic of such a high degree I’m shocked it wasn’t previously an Archive Of Our Own category. A. G. Cook still can’t quite shake the bratty/saccharine dichotomy through which PC Music tends to cast its singers, but “Backseat” is about as well-executed as it gets. It helps that Charli and Carly push their respective roles into the uncanny — the former’s voice has seldom been so robotically narcotized, the latter approaches Nicola Hitchcock levels of vocal shiver. Extra point for playing their respective accents on “half” off each other; I kinda hope it wasn’t planned.
[9]

Stephen Eisermann: This is the most compelling I’ve ever found Carly and it’s on a track she’s only featured on! The production does wonders for her normally nasally tone and the ethereal production and blend of these two lovely voices is entrancing. The lyrics touch on lost love and a wanting for more, nothing too out of ordinary for either artist, but here it feels especially poignant — probably due to the production. Plus, the addition of the synths and sparkles towards the end of the song are perfect — if one could ever turn Carly and Charli’s voices into sound effects, it would be that starry/sparkly sound. It’s all so… magical.
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: PC Music-minded catharsis wherein processed vocals and attention-seeking production turn the humanness of the song into something uncanny, revealing something even more human about our desire to escape a reality that overwhelms us. “Backseat” reaches that blissful headspace in its final chaotic stretch, but it renders the rest of the song a slog in comparison. Even so, Carly’s vocals are too clean and (ineffectively) awkward for the track, distracting too much from achieving the same goals that define easyFun and A.G. Cook’s other tracks. “I want it all, even if it’s fake” sings Charli. I do too, but I’m not convinced they believe it. They’re in the back seat… shouldn’t they be taking the wheel?
[4]

Will Adams: I’ve made peace with the fact that Charli seemingly has no interest in making an actual album in favor of mixtapes that pour on the feature credits for maximum OMG (hi Carly). But I still can’t get past my recent revelation that her current aesthetic is really not far from that of her early mixtapes, only sullied by the PC Music touch: Auto-Tune purée, flat synths and hokey car screeches.
[5]

Joshua Copperman: Charli’s music leaking (down to her unfinished demos) has become something of an in-joke on Reddit and other sites. If someone told me this was one of the demos, I would believe them. There are some stirring melodies and some nice ear candy moments, but it sounds like AG Cook and co. put so much time into the vocals that they forgot to flesh out the backing track. As a result, not much elevates this above Charli’s previous kiss-offs (or Carly’s kiss offs.) The biggest letdown is the breakdown at 3:15; there was nothing to actually strip back in the first place, and the synth arpeggio feels like it was obtained from a P.C. Music Synth Presets folder. “Backseat” is still good enough, but frustrating in how close it is to being great.
[6]

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Younha – Parade

No, we don’t have an algorithm yet for Most Adjective Consensus…


[Video]
[6.33]

Austin Brown: A pleasant slice of bouncy R&B, aided by funk licks and Timbaland-lite polyrhythms, and pushed ever so slightly over the edge from passive pleasure to active enjoyment by Younha’s feather-light lullaby voice.
[6]

Leah Isobel: “Parade” is so light and soft it feels like it might evaporate if I think about it too hard. Younha’s voice is warm and sweet, twirling around the high notes; the bouncy bassline keeps her within the pull of gravity, but only just. “It’s okay to think that you’re the star,” she sings, “sometimes.” The feeling that the world revolves around her is fleeting, but to that feeling she attributes a gentleness and a relief that linger.
[7]

Alfred Soto: A lovely chorus melody — plaintive, wistful — anchors this hologram of a performance.
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The GroovyRoom tag tips us off that Younha is trying to stay up to date with current musical trends in Korea, but the result is something as forgettable as her past singles. Younha’s vocals are as ineffectual as vapor, and the cute synth melody overshadows it completely. It doesn’t help that another veteran K-pop star joined forces with contemporary songwriters/producers last month and made something far more successful.
[2]

Michelle Myers: This cheerful pop tune might be utterly forgettable were it not for Younha’s strong yet delicate soprano soaring across the pre-chorus.
[7]

Ryo Miyauchi: The fireworks pop rather quietly in Younha’s “Parade,” but she’s singing about a more private magic. She admires a love that doesn’t completely re-define her universe but simply adds to it more glow, rhythm and imagination. GroovyRoom’s signature sound gives her modestly changed world a fitting base: down to earth in its ambition, yet still cosmic in its dreaminess.
[7]

Alex Clifton: “Parade” feels like a moment out of time. It’s not untethered–Younha’s voice grounds the piece nicely and the backing track is busy but uncluttered–but somehow feels otherworldly. It’s been a while since a song made me feel shot out to the stars.
[8]

Iain Mew: A song that goes out of its way to be undemanding, it’s sweet and soft and offers a constant stream of gentle pleasure. I think I would need to be in a fragile mood for that to seem worth taking over a lot of other choices, but it’s something.
[6]

Ramzi Awn: Unlikely synths are always a plus, and Younha’s ethereal flow is refreshing. “Parade” boasts just the right balance of texture and melody, and the single’s light touch is more than just a pretty facade–it’s intuitive. I’ve been missing a good parade.
[7]

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Raye & Mr. Eazi – Decline

More from the Department of Unintendedly Prescient Titles…


[Video]
[5.70]

Leah Isobel: “The Line” was one of the best singles of 2017, a manic headrush of a song that demanded your attention. “Decline” is… not that. Though the Ashanti interpolation in the chorus is catchy as hell, it’s also so calculated that it borders on insulting. Raye’s icy vocal presence and the track’s brevity keep it from collapsing in on itself, but said brevity also means that Mr Eazi’s contribution goes by so fast that he barely leaves an impression. The seesawing melody in the postchorus lets us catch a glimpse of what Raye can do when she’s not tethered to nostalgia, but it’s frustrating that it’s all we get for now.
[5]

Will Adams: “Decline” shows off its references left and right, leading with Ashanti and following up with Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé. And while the namechecks aren’t totally unearned, the one that caught my ear was at the end when Raye mentions “Shhh,” a song that also plumbs early ’00s R&B nostalgia but with a more inventive sound.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Interpolates “Always on Time,” namedrops “Irreplaceable” and arguably “Bug A Boo,” and comes thisclose to the cadence to “Say My Name”: a nostalgia trip, then. Why do I like this and not Bebe Rexha’s version, despite the source songs being of equal quality? Maybe it’s the production. Or maybe I’m in a better mood than I thought.
[6]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Just the slightest bit too busy to satisfy the post-Afrobeat style it’s supposed to duplicate, and in relying on the Ashanti hook, Raye just kind of phoned in IG-caption-level lyrics for every other part. Mr. Eazi’s feature is solid albeit cut short in favor of the main artist who feels more positioned than a proponent of this single, an unfortunate development given her interesting takes on pop prior to this.
[3]

Iain Mew: When so many opportunities for new singers involve playing second place, at best, to EDM drops, I can understand the appeal of any alternative. “Decline” boxes in RAYE just as surely though, straining against the limits of dutifully turning over someone else’s hook.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Raye swings over the tinkling synths, bubbly drums and bouncy bass, while Eazi runs pell-mell over the roots, holding his Maxim and iPhone and sliding around with a petulant apology.
[8]

Alfred Soto: Raye’s demotic insouciance reminds me of good Katy B — she might be irritated that her lover doesn’t let her finish, she might not, she’s out for a good time. The chime hook tells me I don’t share her idea of a good time.
[6]

Austin Brown: “Decline” grooves on and on, but the curious trap-dancehall arrangement feels underserved by Raye’s performance, which lacks distinction either in delivery or lyrics. It’s also an unfortunately slight showcase for a savvy, syncretic artist like Mr. Eazi, although if Universal is willing to throw promo cash at minor collabs like this, I guess that should make me heartened about the perceived commercial viability of the Nigerian market.
[5]

Stephen Eisermann: A tad dated, but this is a bop. The sample is fun, and Raye’s voice and attitude fit perfectly with the I’m too good for you hip-hip of the late ’90s/early 2000s. But it’s Mr. Eazi’s verse that gives the song life and relevancy, so much so that I almost wish Raye was left to sing the hook and Mr. Eazi had a full song to work with.
[6]

Isabel Cole: Comes out of the gate almost too strong with a melody that struts and winds through a narrow handful of notes — with that much promise I kept waiting for it to build to something really spectacular, which it doesn’t. But what’s here (the unexpectedly pretty vocal dropping just the right amount of consonants on its descending lines, the chirping percussion and percussive chirps floating in the background, those hums on the second verse) is worthwhile enough that it doesn’t feel right to complain.
[7]

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Pink – Beautiful Trauma

Words apparently can bring us down…


[Video]
[4.75]

Austin Brown: “Beautiful Trauma,” the second single and title track of Pink’s latest album and one of Jack Antonoff’s few 2017 productions, is a good teaching moment for the pop machine’s current attempts to wriggle out from the Big Pop bubble. Max Martin and Dr. Luke compositions function with famously mathematical precision, absorbing the vibe of R&B but discarding any perceived excess swing, while developing hooks that turn heads from a mile away. Antonoff takes pop cues from the usual sources but also from the bumpy momentum of heartland rock, creating a signature sound that’s a little more rhythmically cascading and predisposed towards personality showcases. Unfortunately for Pink, her personality WAS Big Pop, punchy and Epicurean with a brash voice that often drew attention away from her formal vocal talent. The sublimity of her best songs is exchanged for an arrangement that prioritizes words over catharsis.
[5]

Alfred Soto: Is there a more Pink-esque title than “Beautiful Trauma”? It even describes the decision to open with Mellotron chords, follow them with a snippet of piano balladry, and keep listeners hopped up with contemporary electronic programming. Kelly Clarkson would have sung with greater precision a decade earlier. 
[5]

Joshua Copperman: In which Jack Antonoff uses every trick in his arsenal trying to match Pink’s intensity rather than grounding it. Aside from the actual hook (ah yes, the two genders, Love and Drug), there are too many melodies and lyrics stuffed into every section, not to mention the over-the-top orchestral flourishes and the fade-out that’s unfortunately become one of Antonoff’s worst habits. Pink does her thing where she elevates anything she’s given, never swallowed by Antonoff’s eighth-note pianos and gated drums, but her overbearing vocal production doesn’t help.
[5]

Will Adams: “Overproduction” is still poorly defined in music criticism (I’ve seen the term used to condemn things as minor as “they used Auto-Tune”), but to me this is it: layers upon layers meant to impart grandness but only serving to distract. The sudden pitch-bends in the bass on the chorus, the gurgling in the post-chorus, backing vocals pouring in from all sides, the glockenspiel and fake horns — everything about it is exhausting.
[3]

Maxwell Cavaseno: Last year I casually joked that perhaps the only musical act of the dawn of the millennium whose success becomes harder and harder to explain with the passing of time, after the viciously unpopular Eminem, might actually be Pink. Even seemingly successful songs like “Family Portrait” wallowed in brokenness but, in retrospect, never managed to feel universal, as opposed to uncomfortable. Even here, Pink croons happily about maliciousness undermining relationships and pharmaceutical aids, but in a way that feels dangerously canny. The production on “Beautiful Trauma” is no cornier than a lesser Katy Perry track, and while Pink’s singing has gotten pretty uneven over the years, it’s still the same voice. Why, then, does everything she do now not only sound cliched but downright painful?
[3]

Katherine St Asaph: After the success of Waitress, Sara Bareilles was tapped to quietly contribute an extra song to Missundaztood: The P!nk Musical (replacing all the Can’t Take Me Home and Try This singles, cut from soundtrack and memory and consigned to YouTube clips with the likes of Turpin’s “Johanna” and “An Open Letter to John Adams“). Critics praise her “impressive Alecia Moore pastiche,” though audiences tend to sneak out to beat the bathroom lines.
[5]

Eleanor Graham: I can’t even make a snarky comment about Jack Antonoff. This is the kind of scrappy, raucous, grandiose, visceral, adrenaline-filled pop music that I wish women made more of; pop music that’s ambivalent about prettiness. It’s like Taylor Swift getting drunk and bashing out “Leeds United” on the piano. I wish Taylor Swift was allowed to sing about fucking up a hotel lobby.
[8]

Isabel Cole: Perks up a bit in the pre-chorus, which is just barely loud and aggro enough to activate the part of my brain that still adolescently responds to shit like “now I’m gonna fuck up a hotel lobby” by ineptly crushing a beer can and hurling it forward with an unfocused cheer (basically Pink’s target demographic). Unfortunately, verse and chorus are sedate enough — which is to say dull and treacly with nary an appealing melody to be found — to draw full attention to the completely fucking stupid lyrics. Not dumb lyrics, mind you, which are forgivable to positive, but tired and unconvincing, which are just a waste of time.
[4]