23 October 2013

prism || katy perry || 2013

Katy Perry has a very loud voice. Why her producers feel the need to make it even louder by using chorusing effects, I do not know, but it made this album very difficult to listen to through in-ear headphones.

Having said that, it absolutely has its high points. Perry is the reigning goddess of PG-pop. Her music is so saccharine that I sometimes feel the need to seek insulin after sitting through one of her album-deep cuts. While this creates the plus for her 12-year-old girl fans that they can safely play the album in the car with their mom and no one will be offended, it creates the trap of writing forgettable, fluffy music - a trap that Perry is not great at avoiding.

After five or six listens to "Roar," I think I actually do enjoy it. I think. It's a song about picking yourself back up after experiencing some sort of setback. In Perry's case, safe to say that we're talking about a relationship, but the lyrics easily apply to other situations and will no doubt provide comfort to the right listener. Something very noteworthy: The song denounces the singer's oppressor without actually insulting him/her, which is actually kind of cool.

"Legendary Lovers" begins with interesting phrasing in first verse, which gave me hope for the direction of the track, but it quickly delves into a repetitive melody that drones on for the rest of the song.

"Birthday" is, I guess, her attempt at a Hot AC radio version of Rihanna's "Birthday Cake," relying on the same set of metaphors without being quite so graphic. Again we hear this straight-up disco sound that's been so popular on pop radio this year (thanks mostly to Daft Punk). It's pretty forgettable, aside from the atrocious lyric about "birthday suit" and "big balloons." GET IT?! LOLOL

"Walking On Air" is one of the album's high points. Excellent production that perfectly recalls early '90s house music, but Perry just doesn't quite have the vocal chops of Martha Wash or even CeCe Peniston to pull it off, so it falls a little short of paralleling that era perfectly. This track is funky, spunky, and one of my favorites on the album.

"This Is How We Do" sounds like a bad viral video, à la "Friday" or "Chinese Food." Perry sings two notes for 95% of the song.

"International Smile" sounds derivative of 2001 Kylie Minogue, but has kind of a fun beat nonetheless, I guess.

Perry gets a little philosophical in "This Moment," but the awkward phrasing makes it hard to take her seriously. "Do you ever think that / We're just chasing our tails? / Like life is one big fast treadmill / And we pop what is prescribed / If it gets us first prize / But you know who I, who I think will win / Are the ones that let love in" Yikes. I predict, though, that if you're in a school sports organization, this song will probably be played over the video that recaps the year at your closing ceremony.

Perry's voice is by far the most pleasant on "Double Rainbow," which is sung and not yelled. It's a forced metaphor, yes, but the synths are neat and it's a cute song.

"Spiritual" has a unique drum track and a comparatively interesting melody, and excellent use of piano in the bridge.

I swear the final piano notes of "It Takes Two" are directly lifted from "The Final Countdown."

No risks whatsoever are taken with the chord progressions in these songs, but I don't think anyone expects differently from Perry. Classic pop melodies are her schtick, and she'll keep churning it out for her adoring fans. As an outsider of her fan base but a lover of pop music, this album absolutely has its bright spots ("Walking On Air," "Double Rainbow," and "Spiritual" for me), but I think pop fans looking for edge should be looking elsewhere.

A final note: "Eat your heart out, like Jeffrey Dahmer" gets my award for Most Cringeworthy Lyric of 2013, but "I faced my demons / I paid my dues / I had to grow up / I wish you could too" ALMOST makes up for it. Almost.


16 October 2013

the movement || betty who || 2013

This delightful EP accomplishes something that many other works in today's scene fail to: It's clearly inspired by mid-'80s synthpop without sounding like a derivative replica of it. The tracks aren't crafted to trick the listener into thinking they're undiscovered '80s tracks (only one song has ever pulled that off). They are undoubtedly modern and in tune to the desires of the ears of 2013, but with a glowy sheen that is radically retro.

Though I love all four tracks, I go right to "High Society" as my favorite. Musically, I'm reminded of Simple Minds, Level 42, even Scritti Politti: A mid-tempo drum-driven track with supporting warm synth lines and flawless vocals. The infectious refrain of "chardonnay / through the day / 'cause we say so" will pierce your brain on the first listen and will remain with you for some time.

"Somebody Loves You" was apparently the breakout hit thanks to a viral video of a wedding proposal, but I actually learned of that after hearing this EP in its entirety. With its radio-friendly length of three and a half minutes and its relatable, saccharine subject matter, it's easy to see why this was chosen as the single.

As a lover of '80s music and modern retro alike, I can say with some conviction that Betty Who nails a sound that very few acts have over the last several years. This EP should appeal to all pop music fans, and probably most indie rockers too.


12 October 2013

pure heroine || lorde || 2013

I remember when Alanis Morissette's brilliant album Jagged Little Pill was released, and my dad complained when her songs came on the radio because she was singing about material that he felt was too lofty for her 21-year-old mind to fully grasp. The ire of relationships, frustration with the apathy of one's friends and relatives -- though my dad thought these topics were out of Morissette's league, I was much too young to understand his frustration, and I assumed that one day I'd share his sentiment. In retrospect, I think one's early 20s are a perfect time to write about such things, and that my dad was full of it for downplaying her (but I love him anyway).

I mention Alanis because I've heard similar complaints about Lorde. At just 16, she's already topped the Hot 100 with a song that I've heard described as "preachy," "a lecture," and "condescending." I, however, find it to be none of those.

Put yourself in the place of a kid who grows up with parents who aren't rich. They don't even have to be poor, just not wealthy. Now imagine absorbing the media of a foreign country where opulence is idolized. The feelings of confusion and contentment are delivered in no obscure terms in the album's lead single, "Royals." The language isn't the least bit lofty, yet the message is communicated without the slightest hint of adolescent awkwardness. This is why many are rightfully seeing Lorde as mature for her age.

"Tennis Court" is a perfect follow-up to "Royals." Whereas in the first song we heard about all the things that Lorde and her friends don't do, we find out how they do indeed spend their time in "Tennis Court." The lyrics of the verse beginning "pretty soon I'll be getting on my first plane" tell us that she knows her life is about to change, that new adventures await, but that she is not without reservations.

"Ribs" and "Team" are both magnificent portraits of youth. Formulating inside jokes with your friends and then beating them into the ground until you're all laughing so hard that it feels like your insides are bleeding -- who hasn't done this? "Ribs" also reminds us that before we're even adults that it's easy to long for younger days. "Team" is the ultimate frenemies anthem. It's about that feeling that you can be in a room full of people and still somehow feel alone. How close are you to the people who you call your friends?

After several listens, I'm still not quite sure what to make of "White Teeth Teens," but I sense that she's using that term in the same way I used the word "preppie" in middle school: The rich kids who clique up and don't associate with anyone else. The Amy-Winehouse style instrumentation on this track is also worth noting. I only see Lorde's music getting more interesting as her career advances. Her tales of life as a 16-year-old kiwi have already captured the world's attention, so let's hope that success doesn't change this girl's wonderful spirit.


11 October 2013

bangerz || miley cyrus || 2013

Through the last several months of both mass and social media hype, I've remained largely ambivalent to Miley Cyrus. I see her as a young woman who is denigrated by a society that is not welcoming to empowered women who take charge of their own sexuality.

After her response to Sinead O'Connor's open letter, I also see her as immature and insensitive to mental health issues. Compared to everything I've seen written and heard spoken about her since her VMA performance (and, really, well before then), that's a considerably clear window through which to view her and this album.

 Drawing from what I knew about Cyrus' roots and her current interests, I expected influences of hedonist hip-hop, slack-jawed southern rock, and cringeworthy country, and my expectations were certainly met, though not in the individual ratios that I had assumed. "We Can't Stop" was a clear choice for the first single because it's by far the most radio friendly song on the album; the rest feels like something to listen to at a small but cramped house party or during a bathroom pot-smoking session.

 "Adore You" was a very pleasant way to start the album. It's a soft, personal slow jam about the feelings of insecurity and excitement when one realizes that a relationship is becoming serious. It feels wrong to point out the triteness of the lyrics considering her audience, so I'll just use this sentence as an excuse to subtly do so. Also worth noting: For some reason, this track really reminds me of Bardeux's 1988 single "When We Kiss."

"SMS (Bangerz)," which features Britney Spears, is surprisingly tame considering its clientele, but a very enjoyable track nonetheless. I expect to hear this in clubs in no time, but probably just the vocal track mixed over a more interesting beat.

 "4x4" is easily the lowest point of the album. Full disclosure: I couldn't make it all the way through the song. It reminded me of some shady honky tonks that I've been to with friends, and those excursions lasted no longer than my time with this song. Blech.

 "My Darlin'" is made interesting only by the involvement of Future, whose sampling of Ben E. King's classic "Stand By Me" makes the song (especially the outro) glow. This will be the track to spin while night driving.

 I found the next several tracks quite forgettable, until I got to "FU," which crashes out of the gate with a powerful note from Cyrus, and the emotion stays strong as Cyrus berates an ex over instrumentation that is equal parts club and Broadway musical.

 The only other worthwhile track on the album for me was "On My Own," which is noticeably more upbeat than the other tracks. Its arrangement recalls late '70s Nile-Rodgers style disco, a sound that seems to be popular on Top 40 radio this year.

 If southern or "dirty" hip-hop is your thing, you will surely enjoy this album more than I did. Not to say that I thought it was terrible; far from it -- the production is solid through and through, and Cyrus no doubt made an album that accomplished exactly what she wanted, and I'm sure she's thrilled with the final product. This album is decidedly more interesting than 2010's Can't Be Tamed, so it'll be interesting to see where this energetic woman moves next with her career.