Friday, October 20th, 2017

Midland – Make a Little

Make a little bit, make a little bit of Texas for you…


[Video][Website]
[5.67]

Anthony Easton: One of the best things about Midland is that they are deeply artificial, with a literal soap opera past, arrivistes in Austin, who play Texan country as good or better than the people who were born there. Part of the excellence, is a refusal to believe recent conventional wisdom about the split between Nashville and Austin–that Nashville is showier, or cares more about slick production, or even stage craft. All those kids in Austin who think they want to be the sons of “Willie, Waylon or the boys” forget how excessive the stage craft was, or how charismatic they were as performers, or even how slick the production could turn.  This is game playing, but it knows the rules, a winking, well studied, historically minded, pastiche of a genre’s history that adores pastiche, well constructed performance, and a genuine sentiment riding an ironic wit. I love the idea that playing the game well can be as good for country music, and the open recognition that is an active game. Plus, the outfits kill. 
[7]

Alfred Soto: Several years ago, Brad Paisley commemorated Alabama in song. Midland wants to be Alabama.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: The “are they authentic?” debate passed me by, and is beside the point, because whatever you can say, the big grins on their faces and their expertly-crafted songs (with the best help money can buy, of course) are real enough for me. The verses are loaded with hooks and harmonies and the chorus is an empty feelgood expanse of meaninglessness that just happens to feel really really good. Whatever the machinations, it’s a simple pop song to be happy to. Like you’re going to begrudge me a factory-produced bottle of wine or a block of chocolate while you’re at it?
[7]

Ramzi Awn: Straight out of a country music television series, “Make a Little” lives up to its promise of being the perfect cameo, except the chorus falls far short of its fun-loving verses. In the end, Midland might as well have recorded a song for an iPhone camera commercial.
[4]

Ryo Miyauchi: Midland never runs out of cheesy catchphrases to go around actually saying whatever they want to say. My favorite out of them all is “dixieland delight,” which sums up the music as well as their happy-go-lucky attitude: it’s so squeaky clean and cheerful, the band sounds a little out of touch from the now.
[6]

Thomas Inskeep: No, it’s not as good as “Drinkin’ Problem,” but it’s still got a highly pleasurable ’80s/’90s country vibe, a little Ricky Skaggs mixed with some Little Texas, and maybe even a bit of John Michael Montgomery at his most ornery. And it sounds damned good on the radio.
[6]

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Yaeji – Drink I’m Sippin’ On

We are soooo chillllll right nooow…


[Video][Website]
[5.89]

Crystal Leww: Yaeji is one of dance music’s fast rising stars, making songs that sound more suitable for the Uber ride comedown than the actual club. “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” is all about atmospherics — fleeting, floating, grooving — a little like the 3am trek home from the club in Brooklyn. I did one of those recently from a Yaeji show, and this is pretty much how it felt like.
[7]

Eleanor Graham: Takes the easy route to hypnotic with faded-neon synth pads and a treacle-paced trap beat, the pre-chorus slipping into Kendrick-style robotised tipsiness. This should be laidback but it isn’t, something about it is uneasy like a flickering strip light. When she sings “I feel so fine”, it sounds like a question.
[5]

Maxwell Cavaseno: One day, we will all get the proactively ideal Nav-level of effortlessness that we want to subject to ourselves to in order to convey our best versions of sleepy-eyed background ambiance that can occasionally reflect song structure. Today, we have Yaeji, who’s happy to be the half-imagined song of your dreams if you’re looking for her.
[2]

Ryo Miyauchi: Yaeji channeled navel-gazing New York hip-house to come into her own, and here, the drums kick a more chest-puffing rhythm, her monotone voice more sure where to hit. She recites lyrics like she’s whispering reminders to herself, so it feels especially right the lyrics for “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” is a mantra to build up self-confidence. Her swagger is a mask, a make-up of alcohol and mannerisms picked up from the movies, but believing in yourself sometimes takes a little bit of self-delusion.
[7]

Julian Axelrod: Yaeji weaves a hypnotic stream of mantras and affirmations into a woozy, intoxicating Mobius strip. This feels like a photo negative of “Cranes in the Sky” in both sound and temperament. Our heroine drinks to forget her shitty week, and to steel herself for the shitty weeks to come. But even as darkness lurks at the edges of her vision, she’s found the one thing that makes her feel confident, powerful, alive. And right now, for one beautiful moment, nothing else matters.
[7]

Alfred Soto: Atmospherics it’s got, like fog in a Warner Bros film from 1941. But Yaeji made the outro the most fascinating section: somebody tinkling a piano’s major chords over a hip hop beat. I’ve got a gruesome habit of wanting movies and music to play like I imagine them to.
[5]

Ashley John: Yaeji has a patience I’ve never heard before, and it permeates the song in a hypnotic way. “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” is a tranquilizer that numbs me so that my brain only thumps with its beat. Yaeji stretches out a moment into a strand of silk and let’s us marvel. 
[7]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Yaeji’s self-titled EP piqued my interest, its talk-singing and late night house music bringing to mind Nina Kraviz and Galcher Lustwerk. “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” is cut from a similar cloth but she throws in more overt hip-hop elements, causing her voice to take on a more pronounced role. The result is something more self-conscious and less relaxing. It’s intentional, yes, but I’m forced to evaluate the role of her vocalizing and my impression is that it’s both forced and tedious. Atmospherics aren’t always enough.
[4]

Anjy Ou: A lot of the time, what I get out of a song is very different from what the artist put into it. After reading Yaeji’s annotations of “Drink I’m Sippin’ On” on Genius, that definitely seems to be the case here. But I’m going to say what I think anyway. Because that’s what I’m here for, obviously, but also because I feel like this song creates space for multiple, potentially opposing interpretations – probably because of the double-sided lyrics. Yaeji’s laid-back refrain “그게아니야” (“that’s not it”) doesn’t feel like a harsh correction. It sounds more like a simple statement of fact: what I’m feeling, or what I’m doing or thinking, isn’t what you think it is. But that’s okay, we can still vibe out. Or not, I don’t care. The song feels confident and carefree and I absorb that IDGAF attitude the more I listen to it. And eventually I don’t care as much that I don’t “get” the song. Two ideas may not mirror each other, but they can share a drink, dance around each other and maybe even milly rock a little bit. As long as everyone feels fine, we’re good. Maybe that’s entirely the point.
[9]

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Taylor Swift – …Ready For It?

After the last one, sure!


[Video][Website]
[5.79]
Katherine St Asaph: The old Taylor’s not quite dead — that pre-chorus is pure Nashville melody, from melody to bowdlerization (“you should see the things we do” is about as explicit as someone marveling over a particularly large pumpkin harvest.) Like her former/current/who knows anymore rival, “Ready For It” pumps up Swift’s numbers by sounding like interstitial music for Big Sports — premiered for the NFL, currently being stripped for instrumental parts by NBA promos — but also like blood sports. The track’s a bombed-out, post-apocalyptic version of 1989, the Yeezus to “LWYMTD”‘s 808s. Or possibly approaching NIN: the pretty date machine of “Blank Space” gone rogue, locking onto someone arbitrary (the gossip algorithms still cross-referencing it against increasingly nonentity dudes) because “I see nothing better.” It’s romance only in the literal sense — the jailer/thief scenario is even pulpier than “Bad Romance” managed — and otherwise love reduced to plan and execution. The verses are alternatively tryhard, artificial and vaguely offensive, as if it isn’t Taylor on the mic but Microsoft Tay. But the all-consuming, heat-seeking mania of a certain inadvisable sort of crush is palpable as adrenaline, and stokes the all-consuming, heat-seeking maximalism of Max Martin and team throwing every resource and songwriting trick into ensuring this is a hit. Petty points for Swift saying the word “island” this many times in a track with no trop-house whatsoever, and given that she’s enough of an in-joker to come up with “Nils Sjoberg,” I bet it’s on purpose.
[9]

Ramzi Awn: The most commendable thing about “…Ready For It?” is that it completely erases any memory of the single that preceded it. A confusing, feverish dash for relevance, the song makes Katy Perry’s “Swish Swish” sound even more fun, an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.
[3]

Alex Clifton: The rapping is an atrocity. The production is a slicker version of Sleigh Bells with half the heart. Taylor’s enunciation is bizarre: “no one has to know” is such an awkward line delivery, second only to the nasally “he can be my jailor” and “let the games begin.” Her vocals are a piss-poor imitation of Rihanna; at first listen, it’s hard to find a shred of the Taylor I’ve known and loved. It’s a travesty. And yet. It’s 100% a Taylor production, overdramatic, narcissistic, full of easter egg references to old songs like “Haunted” and “Wildest Dreams”. It’s obsessive dark love writ large: “I keep him forever / like a vendetta” marries romance and vengeance perfectly. And the sheer force of that chorus makes me want to scream “IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIIIIIGHT” in public. I love the idea of sexy, dirty Taylor, less concerned with perfection and more with ghosts and robbers and gritty feeling, but the haphazard execution of the verses is so frustrating. Par for the course with all Max Martin creations, though, that chorus is a melodic masterpiece. I’ve got this on repeat and I’m upset about it.
[6]

Eleanor Graham: Who would have guessed that the legacy of Taylor Swift’s fifth album “reputation” would be to have production so DIABOLICAL that it makes “Welcome To New York” sound like “Heroes”? No one on pop’s A, B or C list should come within 100 feet of something that sounds like this. I’ve seen comparisons to Yeezus, which is fair because they are comparable in terms of sheer nerve, but on tracks like “New Slaves” or “I’m In It”, Kanye’s sleaze is a feasible sparring partner for electro-roar. Taylor’s Pennsylvania-goth-Bratz-doll-masochism-adjacent-revenge-core is not. You’d think that would be obvious! To, you know, anyone! I don’t even know what’s happening anymore. The 2 points are mainly for the way she says “go”, which does something to me; no, I don’t want to talk about it.
[2]

Stephen Eisermann: Taylor’s thrown caution to the wind and no longer gives any fucks. The provocative chorus and the weird, rapid-fire, off-putting rap/sing hybrid verses are the most prominent examples of her willingness to toss out all consistencies previously found in her music. None of this feels like Taylor and that’s fun, but I’m not sure everything works. The verses especially, though lyrically fun, are delivered so oddly that the parts that should be “cool,” instead make me cringe – the “Burton” line, specifically. I mean, I’m not sure what I was expecting based on the first single, but it certainly wasn’t this, for better or worse.
[6]

Ryo Miyauchi: Taylor writes her tried-and-true narrative of love as tragedy into self-parody. The bare-bones beat and the anti-chorus structure of “…Ready For It?” laughs at the many hits of 1989. Her self-satisfaction is maddening, truly: the snicker to “the Burton to my Taylor” is designed to drive everyone nuts. But I should remind: the real target is not exactly you but, as always, her exes, who she destroys without lifting her voice: “every love I’ve known in comparison is a failure” doesn’t so much rip apart the journal pages where they’re enshrined than it sets her entire bookshelf into flames like some great purge.
[6]

Claire Biddles: Speculating who the ‘real’ Taylor Swift is is reductive and boring, but my favourite Taylor Swift is the wide-eyed, extra, romantic, saying-too-much-too-soon Taylor Swift that we get a glimpse of in the bridge, swallowed up before she even gets started by that sub-Kanye womp-womp in place of a chorus. There’s a mutated version of her in the verses (“We’ll move to an island/and he can be my jailer” — I’m imagining she’s just met the guy for full effect) but the self-conscious, sub-Lana Del Rey delivery dampens it. Perhaps I’m just being selfish, wanting for the Taylor who most relates to (and thus excuses) my embarrassing romantic tendencies, but Cool Girl Taylor’s attempts at aloofness are unconvincing.
[5]

Alfred Soto: A bad single, an uninteresting bad single. Mouthing “are you ready for it?” over synth bass farts comes off like preparing listeners for the punch line: Taylor Swift rapping with as little regard for cadence as Lou Reed in 1986. At least “The Original Wrapper” had the performer’s rage as its subject, affected or not; Swift is writing bad bumper music.
[3]

Will Adams: It’s standard practice now for Taylor Swift to drop an incendiary lead single that gets the discourse a-churnin’, only to reel in the masses for the more palatable, less batshit follow-up (and she’s not the only one to do this). But for “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Blank Space,” there was still a distortion of who we thought Taylor Swift was (dubstep; dissection of public image). The distortion in “…Ready For It?” is… distortion. But it’s hard to care about whether Swift is stoking more controversy when the song is so bracing. There’s nowhere to run as blocks of drums stack atop the opening pounds and warped roars, all culminating in, finally, an actual chorus. Where “Look What You Made Me Do” was a firebomb kindled by thinkpieces, the fire in “…Ready For It?” comes from the song itself.
[8]

Iain Mew: Like “Wildest Dreams” with the wild dreams added in.
[8]

Joshua Copperman: A couple of years ago, I actually co-wrote a song where we used that phantom/ransom rhyme. Until that song actually comes out, here’s Taylor being the ransom phantom instead of someone else haunting her. I wish that the opening line was “Loki was a killer/first time that I saw him,” because that would be hilarious for her to bypass the “tilted stage” subtweets altogether and talk about how Hiddleston’s now pining over her. These lyrics are also as good as anything she’s even written, so a “Loki” joke would work better than whatever she was on about last time. What bugs me, though, is the empty space in the chorus. Taylor’s best melodies are stream-of-consciousness, but “in the middle of the night/in my dreams……………….. you should see the things we do” feels like something got cut out last-minute. I do love the idea though, the way it flips the narrative of Wildest Dreams in a really interesting way – now, she’s seeing him in her wildest dreams. That’s the kind of self-referencing and subversion I’d rather see Taylor do.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: So many of the ingredients of Good Taylor Pop Songs are in this one — dreamy and melodic chorus, don’t care attitude, groan-inducing but quotable lyrics — but the production feels really dated (to around the time of Red, in fact), stalling the track when it tries to accelerate.
[6]

Sonia Yang: On one hand, this is generic pop I would have brushed off had it been any other artist. On the other, it’s refreshing to see Swift step out of the zone of what I’ve come to expect from her in particular. I love the ominous synths and how the entire track has a spy thriller vibe. The best part is that breathy prechorus, you can really feel the “island breeze” as Swift delivers that line. The chorus, unfortunately, is a wisp of a thing that doesn’t have any impact. The melody neither compels nor is purposefully anticlimactic. The lyrics, while not quite Love Story levels of awkward, are not great; the Taylor-Burton reference is campy at best and cringe at worst.
[5]

Jonathan Bradley: Taylor Swift has rolled out singles from Reputation like trailers for the next release from a blockbuster film franchise: not only songs, “Look What You Made Me Do” and now “…Ready For It” (next: “Gorgeous“?) have acted as teasers for a new product launch. Unveiled during a college football broadcast, “…Ready For It” sounds like sports, like a pre-game huddle, like a highlights reel from last season building excitement to see how the new line-up will perform. “Welcome to New York” did the same for 1989 and was fine, but “…Ready For It” is better because it crams more into its pop overload: a rap that traces the “Empire State of Mind” flow, K-pop synth blasts, a gleefully audacious pun on Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and a chorus about “dreams” and doing things in the night that throws it all in for the romanticism Swift has always been so resolved to earnestly commit herself. If Reputation should turn out to be her New Jersey album, and if all the stage-setting should ultimately overshadow the show itself, I hope we’ll one day rediscover how good the songs themselves were.
[8]

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

DJ Snake ft. Lauv – A Different Way

Not so different, we say…


[Video][Website]
[5.00]

Kat Stevens: Oh dear. A few years ago I went through a phase of reading terrible freebie Austen rip-offs from the iBooks store. These were all in the Georgette Heyer style, where the bolshy heroines don’t let the restrictions of Regency etiquette impinge on their independent lifestyles. Riding a horse through the streets of Bath without a chaperone and so on, you know, edgy stuff. The most memorable of these (so memorable I have forgotten the title) went one step further. It featured a young heiress who actually hooked up with her fiancé in secret, the night before their wedding (!). Readers, I will admit it was a little more graphic than I was expecting, given the book’s relative tameness up to that point. If it had been a paper version in a charity shop, the spine would blatantly have been bent back in the right place to make it fall open on that page. Anyway, the sordid chapter ended with the dude flipping our deflowered heroine over and saying “now let me pleasure you in a different way,” and now you know why I burst out laughing when I got to the chorus of this song. 
[4]

Ryo Miyauchi: A lesser DJ Snake single still generates some curiosity with the producer in the middle of workshopping his next great vocal hook. The filtered, rapid-fire spit of “A Different Way” gets nowhere close to the tenderness teased out from the chops of “Talk” or even “Middle.” But it does see him tap into the more goofy senses of “Turn Down for What” without the track resembling the headache of that 2012 raucous.
[6]

Crystal Leww: DJ Snake is my favorite emotional EDM producer, never really getting credit for being a part of EDM’s softening. “Talk” was one of my favorite songs of 2016, a deeply underrated gem hidden between massive DJ Snake singles that managed to slide under every critic’s radar. “A Different Way” doesn’t quite hit that high, but it’s probably slightly better than the Bieber song because it avoids the stickiness of the Bieber narrative. Ed Sheeran continues his streak of penning pretty decent pop songs when sung (not weirdly rapped) by other people. This is simple, affecting, and an absolute surprise of a banger.
[7]

Maxwell Cavaseno: It’s a protective and fond song that looks to provide a means to guide someone to a peaceful and more comforting way of life in the wake of such strife, a message we could all relate to now and again. Sadly, it’s being communicated by Snake taking his last album’s formula and providing really diminishing returns on it.
[3]

Stephen Eisermann: After reading the Apple Music notes about this track being cowritten by Ed Sheehan, everything made sense. “No wonder he sounds like Ed,” I mumbled to myself. Just like 95% of Sia cowrites, artists who record Ed Sheehan songs tend to try to emulate his voice and it’s the most bizarre thing. This generic Caribbean infused track is barely unique as it is (that drop is hot but not much else), why then bring it down by attempting to sound like someone else? 
[4]

Will Rivitz: In a history class I’m taking right now, we’ve been talking about “dynamic audio compression”: basically, a tactic to make a song sound louder with the same volume level by bringing its loudest frequencies down to the level of its quietest and then pushing everything up. It’s effective for certain aims – making a commercial cut through more aggressively than a main program, for example, or ensuring that customers in a retail outlet can hear the background Muzak perfectly — but it tends to diminish the impact and draw of a song; the tune’s peaks and troughs flattened, it sounds flatter and packs less of a punch. “A Different Way” is structurally about equivalent to dynamic audio compression: every section is present at about the same volume, no changes in energy level between verse, chorus, and the instrumental-like patois following it. It sounds nice, sure, and I guess it’s all clear and well-produced, but there’s nothing more to it.
[5]

Rebecca A. Gowns: Most of this song doesn’t sound too different from what’s already trending on the dance charts, from the heavy-resonance vocals to the tinny beat (one that, of course, disappears into weightlessness for the chorus then saunters back in for the drop). The drop is the difference, the one part that makes you sit up a little. Muffled words barely surface underneath the layer of minimal instrumentation, like passing by an aquarium tank and hearing someone calling out to you from behind the glass. What is that man doing there, and what is he trying to communicate? A mundane mystery — most likely he’s cleaning the tank and wants you to move along to the next exhibit — but at least it’s something slightly different, a sound that can bounce around your head until the next strange sound comes along.
[6]

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Toni Braxton – Deadwood

The former Queen of R&B is the new Queen of Comfort.


[Video][Website]
[6.29]

Alfred Soto: I can’t hear “Deadwood” as anything but a worthwhile addition to 2014’s shattering concept album collaboration with Babyface. A playlet, with sampled phone ring and the precise way in which Toni Braxton limns the depths of grief; she even stoops to using “down and out.” Because Braxton’s thick, plush voice is the aural equivalent of a muff on a winter morning, the cliché is a comfort.
[8]

Anthony Easton: Expansive, living, and without any ironic cowboys, the quiet production suits Braxton’s rich and precise phrasing — made even more so by her enviable restraint. 
[9]

Claire Biddles: You don’t need me to tell you that Toni Braxton is an impeccable vocalist, and her performance on “Deadwood” is typically flawless, but the AOR style and the melody are uninteresting, passing by like a dozen other interchangeable songs on smooth radio.
[4]

Ryo Miyauchi: That first scene of Toni Braxton phoning a former flame made me think of “Deadwood” as the R&B icon’s take on a country song. There are no twangs, instead a weeping string, but one lonely acoustic riff accompanies her while she sighs over one that got away. This could’ve used a tad more punches like the “hell no” ad lib to break the pitch-perfect air, though the stately composure speaks more to Braxton’s admirable professionalism than a lack of character.
[6]

Stephen Eisermann: Cabaret has never sounded so good; but, just like even the best cabaret, I forget about it the second it ends.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: I thought from the opening acoustic guitar that this was going to be Toni in 90s female singer songwriter mode, all stripped back and was completely down for that. The reality turned out to be rather less revolutionary, wrapping Braxton’s lush vocals around an equally fleshy track. It’s good too, but it’s all rather polite, it’s only briefly after the second chorus that she kicks into high gear, on the line “I won’t break down!” and the last minute does absolutely nothing.
[6]

Rebecca A. Gowns: A mellow comeback single that almost sounds like an uncovered B-side from the 2000s, and not necessarily one out of Toni Braxton’s playbook. As written, this could belong to almost any R&B singer, a pleasant little tune that gently states “I’m back” without standing on the rooftops proclaiming it. Toni gives it a good effort, though; her voice is unmistakeable and wonderful to lounge around in, like a king bed with fresh satin sheets. There’s something to be said for returning in style and comfort.
[7]

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Marcus & Martinus – Make You Believe in Love

15 years young and on their third album. Feeling old yet?


[Video][Website]
[4.71]

Claire Biddles: Norway’s less weird version of Jedward singing collaged platitudes about blocking haters out/killing the game/etc between bouncy choruses? Sign me up for this objectively bad taste mid-table Eurovision bop!
[7]

Alfred Soto: Years & Years write this kind of blank clopping Europop too, and they wear an ampersand better too. 
[3]

Iain Mew: Funnily enough, I never thought that the problem with Shawn Mendes was that there weren’t two of him singing in stereo.
[3]

Ian Mathers: This is so aggressively Not For Me that it makes me feel like I need a kindly younger person to take me gently by the hand to a quiet, dimly-lit room where I can sit down and try and remember Grandpa Simpson’s “it’ll happen to youuuuuuu” monologue. Which is not the same thing as it being bad, and god knows why this inoffensive slice of kidpop is giving me the mortality heebie jeebies when dozens of more outlandish/inexplicable-to-me songs didn’t, but that’s where I’m at and I can’t even say I’m upset about it.
[5]

Scott Mildenhall: Undeterred by their inability to form an amenable Jedward-like portmanteau, “the biggest pop act in the Nordic region” swing into a chorus that is so RedOne it could practically be Mohombi. Their question is rhetorical and their posing of it is ebullient, which must make it a fun wave to be swept on. Even from a distance, it’s one to admire; a glance at the charts currently offers little that’s even a tenth as positive.
[7]

Edward Okulicz: The way the voices  curl into sneers on the verses feels incongruous with the song or the terrifyingly small children singing it. That’s “attitude,” of the kind that gets educated out of good pop stars when they get older. The RedOne-to-a-formula jaunt of the chorus is a much better fit. Truly, nobody who was never a member of Ace of Base could say “make you a believer” with less ill-intent than this.
[5]

Will Adams: “Do you believe in love?” the pair ask over and over, the Spongebob & Patrick to my Eugene Krabs. At the end of their relentless perk and sugar-addled raving, I don’t explode but rather respond, tersely: no one believes in love anymore.
[3]

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Kimbra – Everybody Knows

The New Zealand singer-songwriter hangs in there…


[Video][Website]
[6.14]

Kat Stevens: It’s been a good two months since the 2017 World Athletics Championships, during which BBC Sport were using Jean Michel Jarre’s “Equinox V” as bed music while displaying the schedule graphic. In any right-thinking universe this would have triggered a worldwide Euro-electronica/arpeggiation revival, but in our sad excuse for a reality it seems only Kimbra got the memo. In the meantime I can console myself by rewatching the incredible Equinox V video, which is the vision of the future millennials want (JMJ inspecting skyscrapers then trying not to corpse while twiddling the knobs of a giant synthesiser in a field).
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: Limp drums, echoing, glassy synths, mild bass, removed marimba — wait! nope, just slightly better, pedestrian drums. Kimbra sings coolly in the middle of towering glass synths, and her echoes run through filters. Cool, I guess.
[5]

Alex Clifton: I’ve wanted to like Kimbra for so long, but I’ve never been able to figure out why her fanbase is so dedicated. Two and a half minutes into this song, I suddenly got it: layers upon layers of sound create a gorgeous, trippy soundscape, where Kimbra’s voice swims in and out like a dream. The problem is that it took more than halfway through the song to get there in the first place. I’m still more underwhelmed than I want to be, but I see where the magic comes from.
[5]

Will Adams: In the years since the middling The Golden Echo, Kimbra’s been dabbling in OWSLA collabs. It’s a good fit: the soul simulacra she’d been doing had begun to turn stale, and the weirdness OWSLA’s sound has been trending toward suits her voice well. “Everybody Knows” continues this new turn. It’s the traditional slow-building template, Kimbra’s voice a murmur at first, but the ensuing release is less cathartic and more agitated, static flooding the track as the heat of anger floods Kimbra’s vision. At the end, she returns to where she started, having completed the process.
[7]

Alfred Soto: I thought the New Zealander had essayed a Leonard Cohen cover, which would not have been charmless. The way in which Kimbra syncopates her melancholy to the synth rhythm gives “Everybody Knows” its mild tension.
[5]

Rebecca A. Gowns: A song about the entertainment industry, fame (or semi-fame) and all the trappings. We’ve heard it hundreds of times before, but the timing feels especially prescient. The song isn’t original in its message, nor really in its sound, but it’s got a hypnotizing allure, and Kimbra sings with a wounded-but-guarded urgency.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: If you’re keeping track at home alongside my inner editor, this is the third Jukebox track I’ve likened to Mandalay’s “All My Sins.” Here, the likeness is clear: a glassy, polished intro barely holding back a buzzy, arpeggiated squall, where every time you think you’ve gotten the trick more layers break forth. It’s an apt metaphor for the misdeeds of the unnamed, finally shamed creep in the lyric — a lyric that reads particularly bitter this month. (Several people have independently come up with “pustules” to describe these folks: after the first burst of misdeeds, more and more crap comes out.) Could do without the cod-soul vocal affectation, but otherwise, this is the sort of alt-pop I wish got traction.
[8]

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Sparks – Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)

Next, on album #256363636: posthumous supergroup EPS?


[Video][Website]
[5.43]

Josh Langhoff: She had better chord changes, too.
[3]

Crystal Leww: I hate it when music theatre nerds get it in their heads that everyone wants to hear their rock opera. 
[4]

Alfred Soto: I have no problem with musical theater in rock, especially when the piano line on Sparks’ effort has house inflections. And they’re right: Edith Piaf did say it — sing it — better. I don’t care for Piaf’s affectations, though, which limits my response to this well-tuned recreation of the experience of adoring an idol.
[5]

Katherine St Asaph: About one-fourth through this, I started hearing this as a cabaret cover of “Cry For You” with occasional soundboard percussion and canned guitars. Not bad! But distracting enough for me to lose the lyrics. Oh well. Edith Piaf probably said it better.
[6]

Ian Mathers: Sparks are probably the cleverest songwriters to so consistently write about the insufficiency of language (give or take a Stephin Merritt), and like everything else they write about, they manage to do it in a way that feels both mocking and sincere. If there’s a better, catchier song about semi-regretting not living fast enough to die young, I haven’t heard it.
[7]

Edward Okulicz: The target of Sparks’ recent line in mocking theatre is hard to pinpoint — who are they mocking, if not themselves? It’s about 30 seconds too long, but I like how full-bodied this sounds, with an unexpectedly gravelly guitar building nicely on top of the piano and Russell Mael’s always theatric vocals. The effect is that of a diva ballad cut off at the knees, which is surely the point.
[7]

Alex Clifton: Sparks have said they were seeking to avoid a retread of their previous work on Hippopotamus, but this sounds pretty close to the material they produced with Franz Ferdinand as FFS minus Alex Kapranos’s vocals. That’s not necessarily bad, as we have Sparks in their best and most delightful mode, grandiose and melancholic while retaining a sense of humour. They’re mostly aware of their own absurdity. “Edith Piaf” sounds fine, with sweeping pianos, but Russell Mael warbles about not being able to live fast and die young, which is a weird juxtaposition for someone who has packed a lot of life into his 69 years. Once Piaf is evoked, her spectre overshadows the song; I half expected an entire verse in French. But as it stands, it’s a decent return to form.
[6]

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Rachel Platten – Broken Glass

In which Joshua is mathematically optimistic…


[Video][Website]
[3.57]

Joshua Copperman: Rachel Platten is the most [6] artist ever — her songs don’t necessarily break any ground, but they are always done with much more effort than necessary. Even “Fight Song” has some really interesting things going on beyond the chorus (Mike Senior of Sound On Sound gave a technical breakdown a couple of years ago). We already know what a Stargate song sounds like when no one involved cares, but the chorus is suspiciously good for Inspirational Vaguely Feminist Song #27, as is Stargate’s production here. While the drop is inevitable, Platten’s equally obligatory drop ad-libs don’t even sound like they’re trying to be cool. It feels like she thinks she’s phoning it in, but doesn’t even realize how catchy that little hook is. 
[6]

Stephen Eisermann: When Rachel Platten first hit the scene, I thought she was Rachael Ray trying out music. Clearly, I have an issue with names and faces, but it made sense that such a peppy and positive chef/talk show host would release a song like “Fight Song.” But “Fight Song” worked (barely) because of the production and the passion with which Rachel sang. Those two ingredients are sorely lacking in “Broken Glass,” where Rachel gives us a bland vocal, stale lyrics, and a generic island beat.
[2]

Rebecca A. Gowns: It’s supposed to be about victory and release and spite and rooting for our underdog hero, but it just sounds anonymous.
[3]

Will Adams: Rachel Platten’s brand was built on explosive, anthemic choruses. But now that she’s been shoved into the tropical box, her chorus now has to be the build-up for a drop and instrumental break. The fluttering vocal hook is rather nice, but the dissonance between EDM and traditional pop structure has never been more apparent.
[4]

Alfred Soto: She’s gonna dance to a trop house rhythm, more like, belting clichés as if she thought of them herself.
[2]

Katherine St Asaph: I guess a beach — the industry’s Fyre Festival-ad version of such, from which trop-house and dancehall emanate — would have a ton of broken glass. Which is the only thing that makes sense in this mess o’ metaphors: a highway full of red lights and train tracks with people tied to them (I guess what that’s what the red lights are for?), with waves to surf, plus the ceiling raining down bricks as well as odds — look, any one of these might work, at least by pop-song standards, as underlying darkness, but not all at once. Points, I suppose, for how the drop kinda evokes a sadistic voice teacher forcing out a student’s high notes by scattering shards on the floor.
[3]

Anjy Ou: I feel like this song should be better than it is: Platten delivers a great vocal performance, the lyrics have some great imagery (“so what, still got knives in my back”), and the falsetto at the end of the chorus is a nice way to represent the joy that comes from living through things. But it goes right through me. Maybe because in an attempt to hit on that catchy, folk song/island vibe that’s popular right now, the song emphasizes the broken glass and not the dancing.
[5]

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Max ft. Gnash – Lights Down Low

We’d rather you just turn them off.


[Video][Website]
[2.83]

Alfred Soto: Like dandruff and sexual harassment at the work place, sensitive dudes with acoustic guitars singing to angels (wearing halos!) will be always among us. 
[1]

Nortey Dowuona: Flat, empty guitar, flat, 2D drums, terrible singing… stop. Just stop.
[0]

Tim de Reuse: Makes a successful, striking transition from intimate and cute to overwhelmed and explosive, without sounding like an overcompressed mess — well done! It’s unfortunate, though, that it’s trying so hard to be capital-C Cinematic, riding on movie-trailer drums, cavernous reverb, and vague romantic quips. The message on display is endearing, but in both musical style and lyrical content its presentation is aggressively un-specific and seems laser-targeted towards cultural neutrality. There’s something to be said for a universally applicable love song, I guess, but that shouldn’t preclude personality; this is just as sweet and boring as a packet of table sugar for dessert.
[5]

Ryo Miyauchi: Max seems to have had second thoughts about him removing the barbs from Bieber’s “Love Yourself” to get one of the most vanilla songs about turning down the lights. He should’ve just committed to the inoffensiveness of it all. Tasteless as it is, acoustic-guitar pleasantness hurt nobody. But he had to overshoot it in an effort to spice things up: Gnash’s crummy rap verse is written and delivered like a person who has never gave the format a shot, and it leaves everyone cringing.
[4]

Will Adams: The unappealing nexus of sensitive lad guitar noodles and the disingenuous loverboy schtick of early Bruno Mars. The latter actually improves the song if only for the sweeping crescendo toward the end, but even that can’t salvage the Sheeran/Arthur-esque plod and useless Gnash verse that precede it.
[4]

Edward Okulicz: The problem is that Ed Sheeran’s made it all sound like it’s so easy, but it’s really not. The whomp of the beat when it comes in the first time is, admittedly, devastatingly effective, but Max’s emotion sounds like it’s been pinched out of him. I guess he’s halfway to proficiency, but Gnash’s verse is nothing short of atrocious. Nothing about any of this makes me want to think about, let alone have, sex.
[3]