[Music] Ben Khan – 1000 EP (review)

ben-khan-1000-track-itAvailable to buy on iTunes

Review: On the artwork for his latest EP, the monochrome shadows that further dramatise the square jaw of electro-R&B prodigy Ben Khan are upstaged by a florescent floral border and hot pink tears. This contrast serves as a statement of sorts; he may have perfected an intriguing if humourless pose with the release of last year’s 1992 EP, but Khan still sees the value in flamboyant embellishments.

Khan’s earlier output could often feel alien and self-contained. The warm, prancing synth of the acclaimed “Youth” was frequently pierced by cocked guns and human wails, and it scanned as the work of a sojourning extra-terrestrial tasked with condensing both the excitement and humbling helplessness of the human experience into a three-minute romp.

Meanwhile, the 1000 EP is fronted by a title track that pitches an unambiguous chorus (“But I don’t need much / Just a touch / ‘Cause you’re just a crush”) over the same jingling drum machine as that of the 2003 Kelis and Andre 3000 collaboration “Millionaire”. Propelled by a rush of bubbly funktronica and references to “cocaine eyes” that will have complicit students smirking in their dorms, “1000” is easily Khan’s most polished and broadly appealing song to date.

The EP’s additional cuts are more faithful to the DIY charm that has so far defined Khan’s sound. On the ponderous “Red”, squiggles of guitar are filtered through the same gauze as the burbling synths that drift patiently towards the track’s unfocused romanticism, with only Khan’s thick and smoky tone managing to scythe through the uniform haze. The basement disco of “Zenith” is imminently more engaging, with rubbery 80’s keyboards and buttered guitar licks quickly establishing a neon-lit groove.

With not a single track on the 1000 EP surpassing the three-minute mark, it remains to be seen how effectively Khan’s graceful and contemplative style could be expanded into a full-length album. But on “Zodiac 2022”, a glorified outro at barely two minutes in length, he at least seems to be asking the right questions: “Where do we go to satisfy my love?”

If there is one thing this release proves, it is that Khan’s love is in music, and no matter where that love continues to take him, the plaudits are sure to follow.

7.5/10

[Music] Shamir – Ratchet (review)

shamir1

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: From the mood board experimentalism of last year’s Northtown EP to the streetwise techno-house of his debut album Ratchet, the sheer consistency of Shamir Bailey’s output has launched the metaphorical ball squarely into the court of the public. Throw the twenty year old North Las Vegas native’s utopian persona and vibrant aesthetic into the equation and it becomes clear that the level of success Shamir achieves this era will be less dependent on the quality of his work than the willingness of the world at large to embrace a post-gender popstar.

Just as Shamir eschews the partitions that define gender and sexuality, Ratchet regularly blurs the line between consistency and repetitiveness. Over the course of ten tracks, Shamir and sensei Nick Sylvester, founder of New York-based label GODMODE, draw a fizzy bath of punchy but putty-like synth, recurring splashes of rattling cow bell and the singer’s own raw and androgynous timbre.

Cartoonish first single “On the Regular” marches steadfastly to the beat of its kick drum, even as an acidic storm of klaxons descends to offset the cuddly nuances of Shamir’s enjoyably cocky verse-spitting. The sauntering bassline of album highlight “In For the Kill” is accompanied by a whistling saxophone to hit a heady sweet spot, while “Make a Scene” spruces up the blasts of abrasive bleeps and nonchalant speak-singing of Northtown cut “If It Wasn’t True” to craft a laudable mission statement: “We’ve given up on all our dreams / So why not go out and make a scene?”

Only a fool would have bet against the presence of such playlist-friendly delicacies on Shamir’s debut LP, but Ratchet also flows disarmingly well as a cohesive aural narrative. Both the slow-cook opener “Vegas” and compassionate electro-ballad “Demon” peel layers off a character prone to confused and occasionally detrimental infatuations, be it with a hometown (“If you’re living in the city, are you already in hell?”), or a caustically codependent romance (“If I’m a demon, baby you’re the beast that made me / Falling from grace / but falling oh-so-gracefully”).

A video for second single “Call It Off” produced for the YouTube Music Awards introduced Shamir to a wider audience as a puppet avatar, a visual artifice typically favoured by pop’s less charismatic ciphers. It comes as a relief, then, that Ratchet’s apparent raison d’être is to communicate the opposite principle. Shamir is not merely the Tumblr-ordained poster boy for pansexuality, but the fully-formed protagonist of his own rainbow-hued movie. Whether or not the general public will join him on in his adventures should be of no concern for now. Shamir represents the future of pop music, and perhaps our responsibility as a society is simply to catch up with him.

10/10

[Music] Craving Soup at a Warhol Exhibit: Britney Spears’ “Pretty Girls” VS PC Music

britney-spears-iggy-azalea-pretty-girls-2015-billboard-650-promoPretty Girls” has been born into what may prove to be an ideal climate. This is not merely in reference to Britney Spears’ apparent appeal for a summer hit; although the presence of Iggy Azalea and a sticky, “Fancy”-mimicking beat are perhaps enough to account for whatever vitriol may be levelled by detractors of the single, the first to be lifted from Spear’s upcoming album.

Instead, one may take interest in the fact that Spears’ return coincides with A.G. Cook’s ambitions to proliferate both the sound and philosophy of his London-based label PC Music. This month sees the UK releases of what could be viewed as two integral pillars in Cook’s musical colosseum: PC Music Vol. 1, the label’s first official compilation, and the single “Hey QT”, an electro-europop earworm that works as both a parody and celebration of the often shallow nature of mainstream music.

Cook and his collaborators and protégées are receiving praise for applying a thick gloss of irony to pop music’s inherent immediacy. At the core of “Hey QT” is an infectious Aqua-esque melody, one that could have easily been tamed into a legitimate, chart-ready anthem. But the focus is instead on the individual cogs that keep the engine of an effective tune chugging along. As a result, “Hey QT” boasts few layers; the drizzles of crisp synth evaporate on impact, while the decidedly artificial treatment of QT’s (AKA Quinn Thomas, as portrayed by performance artist Hayden Dunham) vocal is a clear nod to artists of Spears’ questionably talented ilk.

These are hallmarks of PC Music’s output, however, and the QT project is certainly witty in its promotion of the titular star as both a pop music siren and a refreshing energy elixir – two essential ingredients for a transcendent dancefloor experience. But it is also rather galling that Spears’ “Pretty Girls” seems destined to be criticised for being built on the same foundations that “Hey QT” coldly sifts through to rapturous applause.

“Pretty Girls” mocks the male gaze (“Is it true all these men are from Mars? / Is that why they be acting bizarre?”) and salutes female vanity in the vaguest possible terms; lyrically, at least, the track never backs its headliners into a corner of self-objectification, and this novel air of innocence is somewhat striking.

But with such an unnerving distinction between Spears’ digital detachment and Azalea’s comparable lucidity, their collaboration is almost a parody in itself. As the designated driver tasked with bringing Spears’ drunken cyber-chipmunk home safely, Azalea emerges as the track’s MVP by default. Her brief but confident verse even harks back to Spears’ own heyday with a tip of the hat to “… Baby One More Time”. While the reference does serve to commemorate the singer’s seventeen-year long career, it also highlights her regression as an imposing presence on her own work; with every yelp of “We’re just so prett-EH!”, Spears’ once inimitably nasal purr is stretched and smooshed into the mix in order to emulate the brassy Brit snarl of Azalea’s “Fancy” co-conspirator Charli XCX.

While one can appreciate the respective merits of “Hey QT” and “Pretty Girls”, we feel compelled to honour the track most purposefully built to entertain. In addition to possessing a smattering of hooks and beefy production from The Invisible Men, the components of Spears’ new single can be delineated and fitted around PC Music’s pseudo-cynical agenda. Like a soup kitchen adjacent to a Warhol exhibit, “Pretty Girls” feeds both the very human needs to observe and participate. RG

[Music] Ciara – Jackie (review)

ciara-jackie-music

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: In a move that would typically represent an artist’s desire to evoke an aura of maturity, the sixth studio album from R&B stalwart Ciara arrives christened with the name of her mother. But yet, in a move that would typically represent an artist’s appreciation for the plot of Freaky Friday, Jackie plays like the gum-chewing, Jell-O shot-sinking successor to 2013’s Ciara – a short, sweet and surprisingly ‘street’ ten-tracker that held the key to Cici’s hipster-R&B kudos in one hand (“Body Party”) and tasty forays into sparkling dance-pop in the other.

That record held off its Top 40-tempting behemoths (“Overdose”, “Livin’ It Up”) until the final stretch, almost as a reward for the casual fans who joined her on Ciara’s sleek, sensual narrative. Jackie, however, is content to put everything on the table. When Pitbull’s exasperated drawl treads the icy synths of “That’s How I’m Feelin’”, it’s the aural equivalent of waving a white flag from Credibility Castle. The track’s topline is regrettably Ester Dean-by-numbers, and does not even come close to matching the songwriter’s previous triumphs (“Super Bass”, “Rude Boy” et al), which is a shame considering Missy Elliott finally capitalises on the Super Bowl-induced nostalgia now synonymous with her name with a giddy contribution.

“Give Me Love” is an astoundingly generic appropriation of the Robin S. classic “Show Me Love” – although a disheartening portion of listeners are destined to recognise any similarities as analogous to Jason DeRulo’s “Don’t Wanna Go Home”. “Stuck On You”, meanwhile, with its pounding drums and speakerphone-assisted hooks (“Ain’t nothing like rolling with a Georgia peach”), is an admirable exercise in ratchet charm.

Ciara’s modest but plush soprano is given a good workout on the maternal ballad “I Got You”, and “I Bet”, an acoustic guitar-backed mid-tempo that addresses the singer’s fallout with ex-husband and collaborator Future in occasionally heartbreaking detail. But it’s the 80’s-inspired warmth of “Dance Like We’re Making Love” and “Kiss & Tell” that serve as Jackie’s most symbiotic marriages of voice and production: “Dance Like…” finds the singer breaking the word “love” down into seven syllables on a breathy staccato chorus, while the disco-lite embrace of “Kiss & Tell” captures butterflies-in-tummy anxiety over a shimmery but subtle groove. Cici goes hard on the title track, a maniacal expression of braggadocio that flits from trap to drum-and-bass nuances to arrogant twangs of electric guitar, accompanied by lyrics that are undoubtedly coming to an Instagram feed near you: “If you’d been through what I been through / Man, you’d be popping this shit, too!”

The largely jubilant nature of Jackie will most likely serve as an enjoyable change of pace for longtime fans, but it is disappointing that Ciara’s most pop-orientated record possesses such a restricted view of what pop music can be. The militant girl-power of bonus track “One Woman Army” suggests the potential for a slightly more imaginative approach to her art. Whether Ciara’s output continues to mature in reverse – or if her grandmother may want to consider a name change to spare her from future embarrassment – remains to be seen.

7/10

 

[Music] Markus Feehily – Love Is A Drug (review)

marky mark

Available to buy on iTunes 

For those feeling cheated by British singer Sam Smith’s reluctance to exhume the soulful magnetism that once allowed Disclosure’s “Latch” to reach its zenith of house-garage nirvana from whatever crypt the success of his frumpy debut In The Lonely Hour consigned it to, Markus Feehily may have found the perfect remedy with “Love Is A Drug”.

For his first solo release, the former Westlife stalwart eschews the flavourless pap that remains de rigueur for ex-boyband members – be they Irish balladeers or neutered one-time hit-makers – for a brooding slice of breakbeat-pop. With Feehily’s smooth tenor gliding through swathes of swollen strings from the track’s opening moments, Massive Attack’s trip-hop classic “Unfinished Sympathy” appears to be the obvious exemplar for the track.

The drawing of parallels between love and drugs may be one of the most burnt out lyrical tropes in pop music, but Feehily’s delivery sets an almost overwhelmingly raw and personal tone. Meanwhile, a recurring motif of “looking up at the stars” helps ground the song’s lyrical and aural histrionics – a foreboding choir emerges during the final lap to plump up an already anthemic chorus – in a recognisably dissonant romantic situation.

9.5/10

[Excursions] Funk’d @ The Aberystwyth Boat Club (review)

puss puss© Eddie Whitehead Photography 

What: A music event with performances from Roughian, Sgilti Ysgafn Droed, Endeser and Cloaka // When: March 13th, next event slated for May 26th // Where: Aberystwyth Boat Club 

Review: In an age in which Spotify are obligated to offer users the option to hide their guilty pleasures from public view and a BBC Radio One presenter can expect a standing ovation for admitting to liking a Taylor Swift song, one wonders if music listeners have ever been so self-conscious. A song such as Mark Ronson’s impeccably-produced pastiche “Uptown Funk” arguably reaches the masses by deftly dousing inherently cool funk tropes – spangly horn sections, raspy James Brown posturing courtesy of Bruno Mars – in 2014 hedonism. The track’s reluctance to attempt anything truly innovative was apparently of great comfort to consumers on a worldwide scale, and as inescapable hits go, there was still much to enjoy about Ronson’s irony-tinged emulation of a brand of music that is more perceptibly credible by mere virtue of its age.

But it is a notable lack of irony and inhibition that marks out Aberystwyth’s Funk’d as a distinctly joyous music event. The musical jamboree – which has been organised by local musician Gwion Llyr for almost two years – emblazoned the Aberystwyth Boat Club with an eclectic eruption of disco, IDM, techno, and house. The choice cuts of both resident and touring DJs represented a multitude of decades, with the titular genre only sprinkled occasionally throughout.

This is a night in which recently canonised dancefloor staples – from the giddy, neon-drenched EDM of the Avicii and Sebastien Drums collaboration “My Feelings For You” to the irresistible deep bass pulsations of Jauz’s “Feel The Volume” – shamelessly rub shoulders with juicy remixes of earthy classics such as Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” and Ray Charles’ “Hit The Road”. The effect is an intoxicating sense of spontaneity and airborne excitement, and these are excerpts from just one set; that of Aberystwyth’s own electronic music duo Roughian, comprised of Llyr and Steffan Woodruff. Sgilti Ysgafn Droed, Endeser and Cloaka, the evening’s much-buzzed-about headliner, all turned in stellar showings.

Although unassuming in both size and reputation, students and local residents alike should find the Boat Club to be a welcome deviation from the town’s leading nighttime venues, Why Not and Pier Pressure. It has the slightly rickety maritime charm of the latter, coupled with the former’s USP. Yes, you heard right: one may drink on the dancefloor. The venue’s bar-club duality is easy to navigate thanks to a spacious smoking deck, and while it may be comparatively isolated in terms of its location – there is an admittedly galling lack of nearby cash machines, so do bring cash! – it also provides patrons with respite from the often claustrophobic nature of the town’s nightlife.

With Funk’d continuing to grow and experiment – the Boat Club is set to be taken over again on May 26th – the music lovers of Aberystwyth have been afforded the rare chance to immerse themselves in an endlessly ambitious event in its embryonic stages.

[Music] MNEK – Small Talk EP (review)

mnek

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: There is a common thrust to the most lucrative tier of singer-producer MNEK’s output. From the guest turn on Gorgon City’s “Ready For Your Love” early last year that marked his chart debut, to his soulful groans on Madonna’s recent single “Living For Love”, to his latest release “The Rhythm” – which enters the UK Top 40 this week at #38, becoming his most successful solo cut to date – the notion that stints as a reliable prop for diluted, radio-friendly house tracks conjured up in a record label boardroom are MNEK’s (née Uzo Emenike) bread-and-butter is a difficult one to resist.

Each of the aforementioned tracks are immensely enjoyable on their own terms, and had the Small Talk EP arrived bereft of its most eccentric, laterally-thinking moments, MNEK’s flair for sprightly melodies and pinning down potentially saccharine turns of phrase with puppy-eyed sincerity would still ensure his addition to the British music scene to be a more than welcome one.

But for those accustomed to hearing Uzo’s rich baritone over splashes of cotton-padded synth and a 4/4 beat, the nü-electroclash crush of opening track “Every Little Word” will scan as a startlingly left-field curio. Somewhere amidst a clunky fever dream of pounding drum machines, wobbly synth and gooey basslines lies an unshakably cute love song, and although not the most graceful example of MNEK’s pop prowess, the track contains a far more tangible sense of personality than “The Rhythm”. As serviceable as that finger-clicking single is, an over-reliance on the deep bass burble of its garage-flavoured breakdown in lieu of an actual chorus backs its headliner into the undesirable role of a slightly anonymous guest vocalist.

It should therefore come as no surprise that this EP’s sharpest moments begin to crystallise when his own idiosyncrasies converge with cut-glass songwriting. The criminally underrated 2014 single “Wrote a Song About You” is a disarmingly sweet highlight, retaining its emotionally-charged thump even when the tempo shifts up a gear and Uzo goes full-on diva for the final chorus. “In Your Clouds” brews its luxurious electro-R&B groove into a fluffy gust of pitched-up chants (“Take me to that place / Aaa-aah…”) and a whistling wind instrument, while “More Than A Miracle” sidesteps the generically clean dance leanings implied by its preamble in favour of a fractured bubblegum chorus melody relayed over a grime-echoing beat.

One certainly can’t fault the efficiency of this six-tracker. As the final notes of the sole ballad “Suddenly” are scaled to cap off this breathless overview of MNEK’s potential, the listener has a healthy knowledge of what exactly makes him special as an artist, and, perhaps just as importantly, how he could possibly blend into the mainstream should the duty call.

9.5/10