Friday, April 9th, 2021

Olivia Rodrigo – Deja Vu

Olivia Rodrigo – Deja Vu


[Video][Website]
[7.75]

Dede Akolo: The drum breakdown was what sold me. Its release from the tension of the verse breaks my heart a little. This feels like the jokey-quirky cousin to “Drivers License” and the summer deserves it. I would be jealous of this zoomer if it wasn’t for the fact that I just love pop music. Rodrigo reminds me why I love pop music.
[9]

Alex Clifton: You can’t own an experience, like playing someone your favourite Taylor Swift song for the first time or showing them your secret spot in the library where you get a view of campus from the third floor. I know this. But logic never factors into my feelings, and it feels like a giant betrayal when you share vulnerable slices of yourself with someone only for them to take those and appropriate them for their next relationship. You end up wondering how important you were in the first place. I love how Rodrigo turns this on its head by being vitriolic at her uncreative ex rather than the new person they’re dating. It’s delightfully petty (something I revel in, even as I close in on 30) and cathartic beyond words. The production is occasionally a little cutesy (the background “ha-ha-ha”s, “singing in harmony” kicking in with another voice) but those are minor quibbles. I have fun every time I listen to it, despite being far away from dramatic teen relationships, and continue to enjoy watching Rodrigo blossom as a songwriter.
[9]

Katie Gill: This song lives and dies on all the little details. Strawberry ice cream, sharing jackets, playing a Billy Joel song (that honestly I’m not entirely sure why he’s playing to begin with, “Uptown Girl” isn’t one of his piano songs, Olivia). It’s all very aggressively teenage in the same way that “Drivers License” is. And hey, it doesn’t sound as aggressively store-brand Lorde as “Drivers License” did. But I kind of wish the song was a bit… more. Like I said, it lives and dies on all the details. All three of them. Likewise, I kind of wish it was a bit more angry? It feels like there should be some real anger behind this. But instead, the main emotion is just “loud.”
[5]

Alfred Soto: I cringed when she cooed/coyed her way through the first chorus as much as she uses a memory about “Uptown Girl” as reflexive commentary on her own songwriting. But the Antonoff-indebted production clatters and tumbles, and the backing vocals alternate between taunts and encouragements. Here’s hoping pop radio has no trouble with the distorted guitar bit on the outro.
[7]

Taylor Alatorre: The smartest thing about “Deja Vu” is that its subject matter hands it an automatic defense mechanism. Can you really criticize a song for sounding too much like Lorde or Taylor Swift or the bedroom pop artist of your choice, when it contains the lyric “she thinks it’s special, but it’s all reused”? But this metatextual armor wouldn’t hold up as well if the song weren’t so structurally cohesive and thematically sure of itself. The main villain here is not really the ex, but the teenage veneration of uniqueness and authenticity, an ideal which can seem like the most important thing in the world until you run up against its obvious limits. Rodrigo jabs at this ideal when she points out that both she and the other woman are actresses, a casual aside that uncorks a world of meaning. Maybe those cute but dorky date activities were never the product of a genuine, unmediated attachment; maybe all it was, all it could ever be, was a scripted performance. Thankfully, Rodrigo leaves it up to the listener to dwell on the heavier stuff, while she instead keeps the show rolling with her shoutalong vocals and scuzzy synth lines and sly interjections of attitude. In doing so, she transforms a diary of private insecurities into what all the best break-up songs are: a socially sanctioned display of righteous pettiness.
[9]

Scott Mildenhall: It’s more daring to sound bitter than it is broken, not least as it’s less likely to be embraced, but that’s what makes “Deja Vu” more interesting than “Drivers License”. The smirking self-satisfaction is more feature than bug, and more maladaptive pain than satisfaction in the first place. As the expurgation of the feelings of someone in the throws of believing they are the first to ever be burned in this way, it is — gossip-baiting aside — sharp.
[7]

Samson Savill de Jong: This is just delightfully catty. If the last one was a good encapsulation of teenage melodrama, this is at least as good an encapsulation of teenage bitchiness, and it’s fucking funny. It’s also musically superior to “Drivers Licence”, which was carried by its emotional authenticity but wasn’t a particularly good song to listen to. I think this has got more ideas in its music, sounds more surefooted about what it wants to do, and as a result is a lot punchier. We’ve had denial, this one is anger; presumably Olivia will be making bargaining, depression and acceptance songs before she’s done with this break-up, and then hopefully she’ll find something else to talk about because I imagine this will wear thin.
[7]

Austin Nguyen: “Deja Vu” is supposed to prove Olivia Rodrigo can have teeth when she wants to: On top of ice-cream-jingle piano keys (and the closest thing I’ve heard in pop to “deadinthewater”), she offers forced and lackadaisical laughter, smirks with the head-tilting pretension of Regina George, and wrings sarcasm out of the same portamentos that collapsed out of abandonment on “Drivers License” (see also: the chorus of ooh’s that came back for round two). Of course, that also means another pro forma stab at Sabrina Carpenter (who is probably in the process of writing “Flesh”), but the moment that we should be clinging to is the one that barely cuts through, a glimmer of introspection that grasps at the reason why Olivia is still churning out songs from the same source material: that “I love you” whispered around 2:14. It risks undercutting the rest of the song’s bitterness, and yet, Rodrigo only comes back bolder afterwards — until she’s belting in her own “Bad Blood” moment.
[7]

David Moore: This reminds me in vibe and melody and maybe a bit in structure of Radiohead’s “No Surprises”: subtle song-length crescendo, repetition of a phrase after ambiguous verse/bridges. (Oh, maybe “Drivers License” was her “Lucky”? *O*R Computer? Is that anything?) The little hops up to falsetto in a stealthy first chorus kickstart a second half that rocks much harder than it needs to — the drums! And I especially like the part where she imagines the old “him” telling the new “her” he loves her “in between the chorus and the verse,” which, appropriately, is where this song lives, never quite deciding on the proper delineation.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: Take 2: the poppin pianos listing behind Olivia’s flowing croon evoking even more Lorde as the hobo synths hover. Then the drums fall out of the sky, wings burning from the flame of the ripping match synths, and Olivia is stabbing it, her contempt and regret oozing from the punctured kicks, wishing and hoping bitter thoughts as ripping synths snatch her away from emo hell into the claws of the Mouse —
[9]

Thomas Inskeep: Rodrigo leans into the Lorde-isms on “Deja Vu,” and let’s be real: how great that Lorde is becoming increasingly influential on a legion of teenage pop stars. The production here (by Dan Nigro) sounds v Antonoff x Finneas, and that’s not a bad thing, either; Nigro and Rodrigo’s songwriting on “Deja Vu” is whip-smart, too. These two know what they’re doing in the studio. I believe her vocal, and the emotion she delivers through it.
[8]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Olivia Rodrigo is too clever and tapped into the pop discourse she inhabits for a line like “Let’s be honest, we kinda do sound the same” to be a mere coincidence, right? Sure, following up the biggest single in the world was always going to be a challenge, but Rodrigo has had the unique misfortune of trying to brand herself as something more than just a Disney Channel version of Lorde or Taylor Swift. To a certain extent, the comparisons are fair game — the way she shouts “I know you get deja vu!” sounds so Swiftian I did a double take — but I’m much more interested in how Rodrigo is building off the foundations laid forth by her predecessors, rather than simply emulating them. What I hear in “Deja Vu” are some genuinely fresh and compelling songwriting perspectives. Yes, Rodrigo is doing the thing where she blows up the hyper-specific details of a relationship into universal proportions (Glee, strawberry ice cream, sharing jackets), but in other ways, she is flipping the trope on its head. There’s an unexpected rejection of romanticism and sentimentality in lines like “She thinks it’s special, but it’s all reused” or “A different girl now, but there’s nothing new.” She’s directly talking about the ways relationships — and the musical tropes that come with them — have been recycled and commodified. Maybe it’s because of the way that Gen Z grew up doom-scrolling through circular TikTok, Twitter and Tinder content, or because Rodrigo rose to fame on a show literally named High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, but I can’t help but feel like “Deja Vu” has some baked-in meta-commentary about societal and generational malaise that has never been explored in this aesthetic package. It’s enrapturing, complex, gorgeous — and for the moment, feels like something entirely of her own.
[8]

Friday, April 9th, 2021

Zuchu – Sukari

Great, but whenever is starch going to get the musical treatment it deserves?


[Video]
[6.70]

Will Adams: As sweet as the title suggests, “Sukari” is a buoyant piece of Bongo Flava in which Zuchu’s lovestruck smile is audible. Extra point for the backing vox doubling down on the joy.
[7]

Ady Thapliyal: Zuchu almost quit music back in 2019 as her career stalled out, but her legendary mother, taarab star Khadija Kopa, gave her a hand and introduced her to Diamond Platnumz, the rapper and label owner who would become Zuchu’s biggest booster. “Sukari” is the happy ending to this tale, where a daughter proves herself to her mother and mentor, and a star is born in her own right. “Sukari” became a viral sensation on TikTok thanks to its licking-sugar-off-your-hand dance move, which strikes the right memetic balance between evocative and easily replicable. As a song, “Sukari” stands out for the elements drawn from her mother’s taarab, like a female backing chorus and Arab-style vocal ornamentation (the trill in the final “su-kaᵃa-ri/sugar sukari” of every chorus). 
[7]

Juana Giaimo: The backing vocals that start in the second verse (EEEH!) are so good that I’d like to add them whenever I’m speaking (KULAA!). “Sukari” is fun, summery and so light that it needs those strong backing vocals. I wish they were in other parts of the song too.
[7]

Iain Mew: “Ehhhhhh!” There is sweetness all around, but it reaches its height when the rising cry of the backing vocals cuts across and sets it off brilliantly.
[7]

Alfred Soto: I can imagine what this charmer’s like live: the backup vocals hamming it up, rolling their eyes, gesturing with hands, Zuchu carried away in mock exasperation.
[7]

Jessica Doyle: She’s definitely cute, and I can see why the combination of double entendre and relatively relaxed beat got popular: it’s a good blast-out-of-your-window-on-a-warm-sunny-day kind of song. But I’m probably not going to blast it myself, as her voice sounds pitch-shifted in a way that grates on my ear. (I like this delivery better, but it’s not right for the song’s atmosphere.)
[5]

Thomas Inskeep: I think Zuchu has a good voice, but based on “Sukari,” it’s hard to tell. Though to her credit, she definitely sounds distinctive, it’s soaked in damned autotune. It’s a shame, because the backing singers sound great, and the song’s got quite an in-the-pocket, tight little Afrobeats groove to it. But that groove gets this almost absurdly summery-sounding song over. 
[7]

William John: If your blood sugar’s low, then here’s the love song for you: a track with such overwhelmingly treacly, saccharine production that any possibility of its central conceit carrying any nuance is eliminated.
[3]

Scott Mildenhall: “Sukari”‘s insouciant shifts between seduction and public health warning are amusing. Zuchu smiles as much when telling you her sugar is sweet as when she tells you it’s deadly. Superficially slight but blatantly powerful, the message is one of everything in moderation — or rather, the command.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: A swirling guitar spins us through onto the shimmering synths and scoop drums, which spin around Zuchu’s sweetly ladled croon frosted in sugary auto tune, while juggling bass and warm, charming background vocalists echo back to her, Zuchu having gently assembled them in this pot full of sugar. 
[10]

Friday, April 9th, 2021

Griff – Black Hole

A Sound of 2021 short-lister doubles her score in her second appearance.


[Video][Website]
[5.82]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: The title promises an earth-ending, massive moment with gravitational pull; the song delivers a solid strong hook and structure, but lacks the corresponding production and biting vocal delivery to fully deliver. 
[6]

Camille Nibungco: At first listen, I wasn’t that enchanted by this new Griff single as I was with her previous releases. Black Hole seems to be another rendition of a heartbreak song of the same minimal beat combined to compliment her lower vocal range. It’s a tried and true recipe perfected by the likes of previous gen-Z alt-pop stars before her. Given that she’s still on the rise in the pop industry, I’d still love to see how she ends up evolving musically in the near future.
[5]

Juana Giaimo: “Black Hole” is the kind of flat pop song that takes one influence (here it’s Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know”) and makes it less interesting. She erased all the quirky things that made that song feel unique, and didn’t add any personality. Instead, she gave it a synth-pop twist suitable for playlists, and a chorus (which she repeats twice every time) that became tiring by the second time I listened to the song.
[5]

Iain Mew: The story is lightly sketched with some over-familiar phrases like laughs and bellyaches, which means the synths have to do a lot of heavy lifting. The doomy bass bits are a flash of inspiration, but they’re not enough for the song to build to the kind of density it needs to give an emotional pull to match its aims.
[5]

Jeffrey Brister: Lots of simmering and threatening to blow, but it never truly boils over, pulling back when the chorus should pushing out. And then it’s over before it can really do anything. The relatively spare arrangement sounds really nice, but ultimately it’s just sorta background-y, I guess? It’s a fuller and more engaging version of the bland early-00’s dance-pop I’d hear on the radio occasionally, but it shares that indistinctness that caused the sound to wash over me and forget I was listening until the next song came on.
[5]

John S. Quinn-Puerta: More synthwave pastiche from the UK on the Jukebox, but unlike KSI’s outing earlier this week, Griff absorbs all the light at the center of this track. Keys run through tight MP3 compression lead off, a four-on-the floor 808 amplifying the anxiety around the longing and sadness. The echoing, sinister synth hits in the pre-chorus and chorus seem to play off the black hole metaphor. The song seems to shrink and expand with each choral repetition, dropping instruments like a hat only to add them in stronger on the next measure, keeping you moving. Griff’s lyrics are deceptively simple, but still manage to speak to her feelings of emptiness.
[8]

Ady Thapliyal: A lovely melody, particularly in the verses, that the “Somebody That I Used to Know (Club Mix)” beat doesn’t do any favors for. 
[6]

Alfred Soto: It doesn’t quite pull the listener inexorably to its core — does it have a core? — but the chorus has a confidence to which the rest of tune inspires.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: The chomping synths and smoothly synced drums are swept away by Zack Snyder bass for Griff to ensure that her torn heart continues to beat, despite the last of the drum head as thin as her faith in fixing it all. She begs for their return, a return which could cause her to collapse on itself.
[8]

Thomas Inskeep: The production on “Black Hole,” all too thin (especially on its chorus), lets Griff down. She’s got a good pop/R&B voice, but needs something better than this. The song isn’t so hot, either, trafficking in a bunch of clichés.
[4]

Scott Mildenhall: Thoroughly unambitious, but just the right side of bland. While never committing to anything more sonically dramatic than might scupper ubiquity, there are hints of intrigue in the delivery and commitment to metaphor. Ultimately it rests a lot of weight on the chorus, which it withstands with no great commotion.
[6]

Friday, April 9th, 2021

Tayc – Le Temps

Look! A French singer-songwriter we like, and it’s not even Christine and the Queens.


[Video]
[7.40]

Mark Sinker: The kind of context Tayc favours as a setting is everywhere light and pretty, gentle autotune rippling across nets of voices, mostly his, trembling and leaping, and often only a breath away from synthetic. Into his delicate playlets of desire a sudden stubborn pill here of an absolute: “le goût de ton poison” (“the taste of your poison“). And it’s him singing, but who’s calling who poison, who’s declaring that times and winds have changed and left them free? So many scrims to miss a meaning through — if you’re not French, not from Cameroon, not Marseille-born — and so many ways to be unsure even whose head Tayc is in when he sings an “I”, a man’s or a woman’s, as confessional or amused observation or what exactly? With ‘Ewondo Ou Bami’ two years back, he pulled the legendary Manu Dibango on-videoset to back him up, with presence and with sax. And the great man was 86 — and would sadly die of COVID just months later — so the baton of Cameroon’s music was certainly passed on, except (in the kind of context favoured as a setting) the relevent line was simply and cheerfully a massive girl-impressing fib (“J’ai même fait croire que mon oncle était Dibango“) and that’s all part of the play as well.
[8]

John S. Quinn-Puerta: An anthem for moving on, letting go, and leaving the past in the past, driven by the son clave beat. As almost the entire Cuban musical tradition attests, it is hard not to dance when the 3-2 hits. The guitar is in conversation with the vocal melody, with the tossed off “manedo” and “mami ooh” hitting the phrasing almost exactly. However, at some points, it feels like meaning or idiom was sacrificed for rhyme, and the meaning there is comes across somewhat mean-spirited. But the round bass counters the rimshot heartbeat, and the song keeps moving forward, refusing to look back.
[7]

Tim de Reuse: The sentiment “Le temps m’a réparé” is quietly triumphant, isn’t it? The kind of thing you realize in the shower when your mind wanders and you notice things are going actually pretty well, for once, somehow, out of nowhere. To accompany this low-boiling contentment we’ve got an infectiously smooth instrumental with no sharp edges and a hook whose melody trails up and down in singsong arcs without feeling the need to assert itself. I appreciate a good adrenaline-rush, high-energy, fuck-you breakup song as much as the next guy, when circumstances require it, but this one makes me feel a lot better in the long run.
[9]

Nina Lea: I can’t help but feel a sense of buoyancy when I listen to this song. “Le Temps” isn’t, by any means, revolutionary. Yet the lightness with which Tayc sings about wasted time and healing resonates with me deeply right now. Although “Le Temps” is ostensibly sung to an ex who’s since seen the errors of their ways, as we slowly emerge from the darkness of a year where so much was lost, I hear the lines in a different way: “Nothing as it was before, someone has already healed me.”
[6]

Juana Giaimo: I like Tayc’s deep voice and how he’s surrounded by haunting backing vocals — I especially like the high-pitched ones that appear later in the song that sound like a lament. Still, I find it hard to engage with “Le Temps.” I feel that it’s all too compressed, that the beat could change to highlight the chorus, and it needs some kind of pause somewhere in the song. 
[6]

Alfred Soto: With Auto-Tune at its most chirpingly buoyant, “Le Temps” can’t hide its vein of woman-hating (I thought we were done with “poison” as metaphor for the awful things contained in womanhood), though its airy skank tries. 
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: One of those rare “I won the breakup” songs that sounds genuinely free of doubt or the need to flex. The Afropop beat does a lot of the work here, but Tayc’s vocal performance seals the deal. There’s a certain sweetness to his voice that perfectly suits the mood — he doesn’t over-sing a single note, and the way he switches between rapping and singing never feels forced. But this breeziness is also where “Le Temps” leaves room for work; it’s a pop bauble that ends up being a bit too insignificant to live up to its potential.
[7]

Nortey Dowuona: The swirling guitars and soft pluck synths that float over the brushed drums buoy Tayc’s lilting croon, which slides through the sharpening drums churning the loping bass, while Tayc begins to shudder and shake. Squeezed to full freshness, in such a gorgeous way that when the synths and guitar pop into the drink, it becomes even sweeter, the drums dripping down and completing the drink.
[9]

Thomas Inskeep: I don’t believe I’ve heard French-language dancehall before, but when it’s sung as sweetly as Tayc does it, I’d like more, please. “Le Temps” is a vibe.
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: During year when time has felt like a meaningless, cruel fuel for the doldrums, Tayc reminds us that it can be, in fact, a restorative and healing force. “Time has repaired me/Nothing’s like before/Someone’s has already healed me/The winds have changed,” the Marseillais-Cameroonian croons with his dulcet, powerful voice: a perfect message for a world beginning to learn how to safely reopen itself up.
[8]

Wednesday, April 7th, 2021

Charlotte Adigéry – Bear With Me (and i’ll stand bare before you)

Homophones, to two decimal places.


[Video]
[6.56]

Claire Biddles: “Bear With Me” begins with a false promise: a thrilling few seconds of anatomised sound that quickly loses its nerve. Instead of exploring the potential of deconstructed disco, Adigéry falls back on a familiar beat. Her lyrics follow a similar pattern: dreamlike images (“They say there’s dolphins in Venice”, a reference to a 2020 internet hoax) punctuate a navel-gazing monologue about missing relationships, and working on art while the world is on pause. Its cringey references to livestreams (they “weren’t part of the dream”) and people gasping for air (yikes) make it clear that this is Pandemic Pop. We can go round in circles arguing whether it’s wrong to make the pandemic/lockdown/This Moment In Time the subject of art — because it’s distasteful, or will date almost immediately — but ultimately I just don’t think it’s interesting. The relentless parallel boredom and emotionality of the moment cancel each other out, clashing violently in our heads everyday and leaking out as dull grey nothing. And so it is with music. At least for the moment, a pop song can’t hope to emotionally move us by retelling the hell we’ve been living through. “Bear With Me” just exists, something else to add to the empty conversation of the day. Even the (non-parenthesised) title sounds like something you hear on a zoom call you’re only half paying attention to while trying to ward off a midday breakdown. I understand there’s limited material to draw inspiration from, but I wish Adigéry had pushed further in to (lyrical and musical) surreality — surely a form which holds more space for emotional and artistic resonance at the moment.
[5]

Will Adams: Pandemic pop has been a mixed bag. The few singles that have directly addressed it are either terminally cloying or terminally cynical. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have artists like Charli XCX and Taylor Swift (twice), lauded for efforts that were often designated as “quarantine albums”, a somewhat alienating concept that reads as music’s equivalent of “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague” (the subtext being “so what’s your lazy ass doing during lockdown, hmm??”). Charlotte Adigéry’s approach is far more direct, and as a result it works way better. “Bear With Me” confronts the swirling thoughts of an artist who’s had their world and livelihood whisked away head-on: creative burnout (“livestreams weren’t part of the dream”), the anxiety that follows such burnout (“will you forget about me?”) and reluctant optimism (“we are growing closer as the world drifts apart”). As with her excellent 2019 EP Zandoli, Adigéry’s co-production with Bolis Pupul and Soulwax conjures a dramatic club backdrop, with swooping strings and dense percussion building slowly over four and half minutes. “Bear With Me” is likely to age poorly once this is all over. For now, it’s refreshing to hear some honesty about what it’s been like the past thirteen months.
[8]

Alfred Soto: Her 2019 EP — as fresh as spring air — remains one of my favorites in recent years, and “Bear With Me” matches its best material. Dependent on a bass sequencer hook, I was imitating for hours, Charlotte Adigéry positions herself as a person in need of music as much as she needs sexual healing. “Livestreams weren’t part of the dream,” she sings, yet without not sounding beat-up about it. 
[8]

Ady Thapliyal: The sound of Adigéry’s Zandoli EP was sleek and trendy microhouse; “Bear With Me,” on the other hand, leans more into the Soundcloud R&B Adigéry releases under her solo project, WWWater (“Charlotte Adigéry” is technically a duo composed of herself and producer Bolis Pupul). As is typical for the genre, the synths are generic, the production is underdone and the percussion is canned. Adigéry tries to breathe life into the track by the time the second chorus rolls ’round with little touches of string, 808 handclaps, and gated reverb snare hits, but nothing works. Sorry, Adigéry, but I think this one’s dead on arrival.
[2]

Dorian Sinclair: “Bear With Me” is an intricate little puzzlebox of a song; I love the way Adigéry gradually brings in instruments — the percussion and those multitracked sighs hold things together as all the while more layers are built up around them. It’s precisely this meticulous construction that makes the brief bridge two minutes in feel out of place, though. Everything else is iteration on a theme, spiraling upward with increasing complexity. Taking a twenty-second break halfway through fractures the structure in a way that pretty severely damages the overall impact. That said, you almost forget about the interruption by the end of the song, and those final seconds (particularly the closing gasp and abrupt finish) really are excellent.
[7]

Iain Mew: I can imagine a song where the wordplay of the chorus and the more direct “we are growing closer as we watch the world drift apart” combine to make something that fits well. Just not one where they’re both taken as flatly as this. On the other hand, that same flatness and the big open spaces between the fancy clumping bass make room for the screeching swoops of strings to do their thing, and that’s worth a fair bit.
[6]

Ian Mathers: I love the way the strings are introduced; the random-seeming dissonances eventually merging with the more conventionally sweeping ones, all meshing wonderfully with the burbling tones and Adigéry’s very charismatically wry and topical performance. 
[8]

Scott Mildenhall: Extremely on-the-bottlenose — perhaps already dated, given that reference, but its hypnotic blur of waiting, waiting, waiting while others run out of time feels nevertheless fresh. Gradually, automatically accumulating layers, it develops into a hermetic waltzer — the formal encapsulation of everything it sets its stall about.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: The cycling bass over the pedestrian pod people drums created by the Dewaele brothers and Mr. Zeebroek are sturdy enough, but Charlotte considers her options with her partner or her fans in general very unsteady and possibly close to collapse. (And since I have her last EP in my library and didn’t know until I checked, she has every right to worry.) But this song is sticking to my ribs. Let me take an inhale.
[7]

Tuesday, April 6th, 2021

Ariana Grande – POV

POV: You’re reading The Singles Jukebox’s reviews of “POV”.


[Video]
[7.00]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Dear future husband: I want to apologize in advance for how bad I’m going to ugly cry when I make us dance to this song at our wedding. Sorry, not sorry! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 
[9]

Taylor Alatorre: Ariana returns to the sound of 2013’s Yours Truly with more maturity, more strings, and unfortunately some distracting background noise. The concept of finding serenity through your partner is conveyed strongly enough that it doesn’t require a babbling brook to stress the point. Likewise, the breathing noises may have been intended to carry some residual sexiness from the album’s previous 13 tracks, but they sound more like a recording from a respiratory care unit. These are obstacles that the song’s hopeful message, and above all Ariana’s voice, can easily break through, but they shouldn’t have to.
[6]

Alfred Soto: She handles the rhythm changes of that Timbaland-influenced chorus like the pro she is, and the breathiness as natural to her as Michael Jackson’s punctuative hiccups doesn’t sound coy. The yearning feels earned. 
[7]

Samson Savill de Jong: The question I’m kicking back and forth in my head while listening to this is whether I dislike Ariana Grande’s singing voice with this production, or if I just don’t like her voice at all. It would be a bold claim to say that the undisputed queen of pop can’t sing, so I’ll avoid sticking my neck out and content myself with saying that her breathy, occasionally poorly enunciated vocals filled with trills and runs don’t work in this song. It’s a shame, because I find the concept quite enchanting; it’s not a song about needing someone to feel complete (common concept, but one that I always find a bit uncomfortable), but loving someone that sees you better than you see yourself and makes you feel good about yourself. But concept isn’t enough, and I just don’t enjoy listening to this, with vocals that I don’t care for emphasised and the instrumentation not doing enough on it’s own to draw me in anyway.
[4]

Ady Thapliyal: Frankly, I’m not quite sure why critics hold Ariana’s work in high regard, considering her derivative style takes more than it gives to contemporary R&B, but at least her formidable team of producers and songwriters churn guarantee decent results. “POV” is kind of my problem with Ari’s body of work in miniature. It’s lushly and expertly produced, with dozens of little ’90s R&B touches, but beyond spot-the-reference appeal it brings very little of its own to the table. It’s alright, but I’d rather just listen to Kehlani instead.
[5]

Pedro João Santos: The Mariah comparisons were exhausted during the Yours Truly days, even with the oft-facsimile vocal style — an extended annoyance for both; probably even more so for MC, seeing one of her acolytes take off with the hip hop sensibility she wasn’t allowed for years. She might be more content now that her influence on Grande supersedes the generic notion of melisma, and reaches out to the music per se. “POV” bundles the runs with the mood, the microbiome of a Mimi song, as it straddles the unbearable lightness of Charmbracelet (the same frugal synths, if less of a physical pulse) and the airbrushed panache of Emancipation (those choruses and bridge, dahhhling). However, no matter how almighty Mariah’s pen, this sort of confessional for imperfect love is all Ariana’s: not giving a fuck in public, committed to working out coexistence in private.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: The soapy synths and clicking percussion under the pulsing bass and thumping drums coalesce around an Ariana, who is beginning to think about how she maybe needs to put just as much love into herself as her partner does. It’s going to be difficult, but it’s worth it.
[7]

Al Varela: There’s something to the soft elegance of this song that has captivated me from day one. It’s so surreal in its string arrangements and dream-like backing vocals that it delivers a sound that’s familiar, yet new. It’s almost nostalgic to hear the way the chorus slowly builds its octaves, only to tip-toe back down to Earth at the very end. “I’d love to see me through your point of view” is one of the most subtly beautiful moments in pop music of the past few years, and this soft ballad about learning to love oneself as much as your partner does is one of the most comforting love songs I’ve heard in recent memory. 
[10]

Tuesday, April 6th, 2021

KSI ft. YUNGBLUD & Polo G – Patience

Wearing thin for some of us…


[Video]
[4.33]

Samson Savill de Jong: If KSI’s name wasn’t on this song, I’d have no idea he was involved in it at all. For someone who came up through YouTube, which is all about having a personality, he’s got absolutely no presence in his music at all. Polo G’s verse is in and out faster than a particularly hot curry (though he at least is distinctive) so the song is mostly carried by YUNGBLUD, which is to exaggerate their contribution. KSI is clearly invested in his music career, but nobody sounds invested in this song.
[3]

Will Adams: Christ, Jacob was right. YUNGBLUD is terribly ill-suited to Levine-style “pity me” crooning, but at least he’s put in some effort. KSI and Polo G do little, relying on the song’s concept, a ham-handed reach for “Circles”‘ crossover success and The Weeknd’s overall success. Is this really what the synthwave revival is going to sound like? Somewhere, The Midnight weep.
[3]

Nortey Dowuona: KSI is great on video. He’s great at finding these solid disco bops for the great Polo G to croon over. The chomping drums and sandy bass — weighed down by the flat Family Gets Trapped In Old ’80s MTV Video sound and skated on by YUNGBLUD — are pretty great too, but… where’s KSI?
[6]

John S. Quinn-Puerta: KSI’s vocals are the weakest part of this passable synthwave pastiche, with the features outshining him by far, not least because of the filter and delay flattening his voice compared to the dynamics of the synths and the constantly in the pocket bass. KSI’s ad-libs feel out of place in YUNGBLUD’s chorus, the high point of the track, seemingly designed for packed house sing-alongs. 
[6]

Tobi Tella: The kind of song that feels life-changing drunk in a loud room, and leaves you scratching your head when you look up the artists the next day. Is it shameless cheesy montage music? Sure, but sometimes emo warbling over a meaningless pop chorus is all you need!
[6]

Alfred Soto: I like the confident thud of its rhythm track; it’s the vocals and vocal melody, as usual, that deflate its considerable buoyance. The Drake/Weeknd influence continues unabated on pop recorded by male acts: self-pity without end, whine without relief.
[5]

Ian Mathers: They should have just given the whole thing to Polo G (the only one here with the energy to do anything that stands up to the soporific, generic production). And please can we keep human Chucky-doll-styled-like-a-Bratz-doll (except without the charm or personality) YUNGBLUD away from hooks? He manifestly cannot handle them.
[3]

Taylor Alatorre: This is lowest common denominator music — not in the sense that it’s unforgivably bad, but in the sense that a song with this cast of artists should be much weirder. It seems the entire collaboration was written around YUNGBLUD’s “DeLonge covers The Weeknd on Triple J” chorus, resulting in verses with no real independent existence, no quirks or lyrical novelties to grab onto. Polo G might’ve bumped this up by offering a different perspective on youthful alienation, but instead he’s given 20 seconds to worship at the altar of a flat and unchanging Mood.
[4]

Iain Mew: They declare against bad energy, but after the initial synthetic puff of the chorus there is no development of any kind of energy. Mood, as they say.
[3]

Tuesday, April 6th, 2021

Lana Del Rey – White Dress

This year’s Men in Music Business Conference will be an online event…


[Video][Website]
[6.80]

Andrew Karpan: The most impressive vocal performance of Lana’s career; hearing it open the new record was like hearing “Nikes” on Blonde: displaced and then filled with an earnest sense of possibility. Where Frank Ocean accomplished this through a sustained pitch shift, on “White Dress” Del Rey speaks in a series of equally sustained gasps, her voice hanging on for dear life on each one. Set to a slushy piano line from Jack Antonoff, it traces a geography skimmed from Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom, from whose very ruins Del Rey had so mysteriously risen almost a decade ago. Only superficially nostalgic, the hardness of her voice and the chorus’s swelling grandeur reject a kitsch reading of this retelling, suggesting instead that she’s revealing the past to have been a succession of objects, from which she can pick up and discard as she pleases. 
[9]

Vikram Joseph: Lana pushes her voice to a range that we’ve rarely heard her in before, kind of sounding like she’s recording while trying not to wake her housemates up. It only adds to the intimacy of this elegant, enigmatic song, in which piano, guitar and brushed hi-hats coalesce into a golden-hour reverie that mirrors the current of nostalgia that pushes at the seams of “White Dress.” The pile-up of hoarse, breathy syllables when she sings “down at the Men in Music Business Conference” line makes for one of the most striking musical moments of the year, an unexpected kind of beauty from a songwriter who’s still more than capable of finding ways to subvert her archetype.
[9]

Will Adams: Chemtrails Over the Country Club is the closest Lana’s come to her shelved “debut” album Lana Del Ray aka Lizzy Grant, both in sonic palette and fixation on Americana. There, Lana wrestled with (and often fumbled) her signifiers — trailer parks, pawn shops and Lolita imagery — in search of a feeling. On “White Dress”, it coalesces into something far more straightforward: bittersweet recollections of youth through a specifically American lens. It works better because the nostalgia feels personal. Instead of ripped-from-teen-movie boarding school shenanigans, she’s focused on the details that matter: the music she listened to, the way she felt. Spilling out syllables in a breathy falsetto over a fragile, gorgeous arrangement, Lana recalls her simpler, pre-fame life. It’s a well-known trope, but one especially relevant for someone who still grapples with being a public figure over a decade into her career. “White Dress” isn’t about regret; it’s about mourning a life past. It’s that vulnerability — not the ill-advised Instagram screeds and bristling at criticism — that allows her to connect with her audience. 
[8]

Julian Axelrod: A mere decade into her career, Lana’s closest parallel is Clint Eastwood in his eighth: A master chronicler of the American myth settles into a satisfied groove, tweaking their Old Hollywood persona with jarring cultural signifiers and a mountain of political baggage directly out of frame. “Downatthemeninmusicbusinessconference” is Lana’s “Get … off … my … lawn!”, a mantra-turned-meme that feels ickier (but no less indelible) the longer you sit with it.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: The high-register sections are great: very Sarah McLachlan during the artier parts of Fumbling Toward Ecstasy. Unfortunately they have words, and too often the words are things like “Men in Music Business Conference,” and even though the idea/the joke is that they’re too quotidian for the ethereal arrangement, that still means they don’t sound properly ethereal. And unfortunately too much of the track isn’t spent in that register but in the usual Lana voice, saying the usual Lana stuff (“Lana Del Rey compares herself to Sun Ra” would have been a third-tier The Hard Times headline in 2015). Still, the proportion of striking to sullen is better than usual, and the sparse arrangement at least has a purpose this time: it evokes a bare stage for the artist to sometimes do something with.
[6]

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa: A bit of wistful nostalgia, a bit more of Laurel Canyon, and quite a lot of Tori Amos. High-register Lana and hazy piano melodies are a combination I didn’t know I’d like this much. 
[7]

John S. Quinn-Puerta: I’m really on board for the standard Lana Del Rey airy falsetto, and the Jack Antonoff piano suits it well. The subtle entrance of the other instruments would be so effective if the flow of the song hadn’t been interrupted by those six pivotal words. It kills the restraint exhibited in the production; I don’t need a measure of Sondheim stage patter in the middle of an otherwise nostalgic piano ballad.
[5]

Alfred Soto: Scraping the roof with her top register does not render this Julee Cruise approximation more listenable.
[5]

Ady Thapliyal: Lana Del Rey is brave for ditching her signature deep drawl for a thin, hoarse whisper that sounds like Evanescence’s Amy Lee doing an impression of Janis Joplin. That’s the best that can be said about this song, which feels wispy and underdrawn, with free-association name drops (Kings of Leon, the White Stripes, “jazz”) and vague gestures toward a narrative structure. 
[4]

Taylor Alatorre: In what year was the United States at its civilizational peak, according to Lana Del Rey? 1955, 1963, 1969? You could spend days combing through her discography to arrive at some approximation of an answer, or you could listen to “White Dress” and realize that the answer is actually… 2005. Lana’s spent so long selling herself as an avatar of America that when she sings about feeling like a god while listening to Kings of Leon, the idea of mid-2000s supremacy suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Of course, it’s not the music that makes her want to go back there, but the feelings of power, control, and limitless freedom that are the advertised birthright of the American 19-year-old. “Look how I do this, look how I got this,” she sings, and it’s a more powerful hit of nostalgia, the old-fashioned medical kind, than any artist name-drop. The subtext about women in the music industry is there, and thanks to Lana’s most striking vocal turn on the album, it’s barely even subtext. But any hints of protest are snuffed out by the song’s defiantly narcotic pace and mirage-like instrumental, which, together with those desperate vocal stabs, are more evocative of a lucid dreamer fighting a losing battle against the scourge of wakefulness.
[8]

Monday, April 5th, 2021

Demi Lovato – Dancing With the Devil

Easter means rebirth, means recovery, means cross-promotion!


[Video]
[5.73]

Katie Gill: Demi Lovato, I love ya girl, but oh my God, PLEASE get a diary. I’ve got the same problem with this as I did with “Anyone“: how do you critique a mediocre song that’s someone obviously working through some very personal issues? So much of this song is a direct callback to Lovato’s addiction, her struggles, her very public relapse and overdose… that she also talks about in her upcoming Youtube documentary series, also titled Dancing With the Devil and hey, by the way, does baring your soul to help drum up promotion strike anyone else as deeply cynical or is it just me? The song itself tries to be sultry but ends up being overblown and loud, ending with Lovato’s trademark blowing out her vocal chords because somehow, she/her team has internalizes that loud = powerful and powerful = real. Good therapy, bad art.
[4]

Nortey Dowuona: The lilting croon of Demi is dangerous to all of us as it pierces our hears and leaves us with the need to see hole in the heart surgery. But Demi simply slings out the smoothly played piano in a wet, thick form and patiently sculpts the devil out of it and the churning, sandy guitars and lumpen bass, the flat, crashing drums spinning below her. Suddenly Lil Nas X springs up, his ribs full of strings. He gently bows his strings while Demi pleas with us for forgiveness. The chipper pianos, the swinging echoes, the rumbling bass and crashing paper drums surrounding her buoy her up to Lil Nas X. Nas, smiling gently, sends her above, floating all the way back to us.
[8]

Michael Hong: Every Demi Lovato album has a handful of tracks that like “Dancing With the Devil” seem present simply to show you that she can sing. And while Demi may think she understands moderation, that final chorus predictably goes overboard, another instance of Demi going louder instead of trusting her background, even if this one feels a little tiresome in its smoky darkness.
[3]

Taylor Alatorre: The lyrics tell of trauma, but the sound is that of triumph. That she’s able to recount the frank details of her addiction is a victory in itself, and after all Lovato has been through in recent years, she certainly deserves a victory lap. Her instinct to go big and bold somewhat undermines the song’s attempt to serve as a picture of anguish, and as a result it comes off as more didactic than despairing. Then again, there’s no requirement that every confessional be a tear-stained one.
[5]

Juana Giaimo: My favorite part of the Demi Lovato’s documentary is when she talks about the pressure of being a mental health role model. Indeed, after her first recovery, society saw her as the strong woman who was now completely clean, leaving a happy healthy life and encouraging others to be like herself. I’m glad that she changed direction. “Dancing with the Devil” is far from optimistic, instead she is recognizing her weaknesses. In the first verse, she sounds seducing as if she was trying to convince someone of the choices that she already knows aren’t good for her. As the song continues, her voice gets louder and louder, something that I generally don’t like, but that I do here because instead of showing her strength, it shows her fight and vulnerability.
[7]

Tim de Reuse: It’s tonally all there, as far as comeback songs go, and the line “Almost made it to heaven/It was closer than you know” is a nice little stab in the chest. Underneath this expertly crafted surface, though, there are precious few features to separate it from any other song about struggling with addiction. Part of this is the lack of specificity; there’s no real insight into her state of mind other than the status of “not okay,” but that needn’t have been a deal-breaker. The bigger problem is that there’s just no room for truly vulnerable moments in a performance so immaculately dramatic.
[6]

Alex Clifton: Post-trauma songs are cuttingly personal; however, because the artist is working through their own demons, the song becomes more of a personal therapy session released to the public. “Dancing With the Devil” manages to take something dark and transforms it into something listenable. The story of Demi’s overdose and near-death experience horrified me as a a casual fan; I can’t imagine how difficult it must’ve been to actually go through it, but Demi’s done a fine job translating a lot of that pain and chaos into her music. It feels like a descent into hell, and a gripping one too: those horns grip and pull me through the entire song, and I can’t let go. It’s a harrowing journey to take but a story I want to hear told. “Powerful” doesn’t feel like an adequate enough word, but the message and melody combine into a song that will stick with me for the rest of the year.
[9]

Alfred Soto: I’m not a fan of the late Amy Winehouse, but she would’ve applied irony and jumper cables to this ballad. Even if Demi Lovato were suited for the material, the maladroit chorus and middle eight would defeat singers with bigger ranges. The devil is in going off the rails.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: This isn’t the strongest song musically, but combine the very intense lyrics (about Lovato’s struggles with addiction) with a bravura vocal performance and — yowza. My critical brain understands that “Dancing with the Devil” isn’t great; my emotional brain responds to it strongly, however.
[7]

Andrew Karpan: A vast improvement over the similarly themed “Sober,” there are truly moments when Demi’s Simone-by way-of-Winehouse delivery here truly transcends the AA-ese of the message. Namely, this occurs in the record’s main verse, which aches in a ripped up way that feels more than any of her recent bouts of piano-soaked or aspiration-pop’d sincerity. 
[6]

Al Varela: I think one of the worst things to experience as a critic is to feel unimpressed by a work of art that means something truly deep and personal to the artist. Because in essence, how you feel about it doesn’t matter. The artist made that art for themselves, and if it helps them cope through one of the lowest moments of their life, who the hell are we to judge it? But at the same time, I can recognize the meaning and specialty that a song like this might have to the artist, and maybe even fans who sympathize or, God forbid, have gone through something similar, and still acknowledge it doesn’t work for me at all. It’s mainly in the disconnect between the production and Demi’s vocals, both of which seem at war with each other, not following the right melodies or progressions to make her intense howling at all satisfying or cathartic. I’ve felt this way for a while, but Demi’s voice just isn’t suited for this kind of contemporary ballad style. This is more than proof of that, as while I can feel the emotion coming out of Demi, it doesn’t resonate. I’m watching this at too far of a distance to fully appreciate it. That kinda bums me out. Still, I wish Demi the best, and I’m glad to hear she’s in a healthier place now. You do you, boo.
[4]

Sunday, April 4th, 2021

Bonus Tracks for Week Ending April 4, 2021