[Music] Charli XCX – Sucker (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

Review: Giving frothy, guitar-driven power pop a semi-ironic squeeze without choking the fun out of it is 22 year-old Charlotte Aitchison, AKA Charli XCX. Sucker is her second studio album – unless you count 2008’s barely self-released debut 14, but then why would you? – and the glee with which it swaps the moody electro-fuzz of 2013’s True Romance for a raucous riot grrrl flavour is worth the price of admission alone.

Bursting out of the gate with a barrage of girly whoops, infectious new wave synths and a shriek of “Fuck you, Suckerrr!”, the title track seems to be swiped straight from the soundtrack of a late 90’s Columbia TriStar teen flick. Perhaps such connotations are unavoidable considering it was in the guise of Britney Murphy’s Clueless character that Charli was introduced to the majority of listeners alongside Iggy Azalea in the video for their ubiquitous 2014 hit “Fancy”, but if Sucker aims to convey anything other than giddy, juvenile thrills, it certainly does not show.

Even “London Queen” – which is easily the weakest track here, clocking in at under three minutes and yet still blighted by nauseating repetition – cannot help but raise a smile thanks the unmitigated delight Charli displays at her newfound prosperity: “I never thought I’d be living in the USA / Doing things the American way […] Living the dream like a London Queen”. Fame and fortune are recurring themes, but this particular starlet isn’t one to sing at you from behind the velvet rope; “Gold Coins” and “Hanging Around” invite us to dream big, while “Famous”, with its shimmy-friendly guitar licks, treats fame as merely a state of mind: “One night, we’re gonna come and crash the party / Weren’t invited but we’re feeling so outrageous / Just like we’re famous”. It’s the way Charli tows the line between an awestruck sense of pride in her own achievements and the BFF-quality encouragement her lyrics offer that makes her the listener’s ever-reliable seatbelt on Sucker‘s musical rollercoaster.

The songwriting is extraordinarily hook-focused, but never cynical. “Boom Clap”, the dreamy party favour “Doing It” (featuring Rita Ora, who usually represents the kind of faceless chart fodder Charli rages against, but here gives the track some necessary zip) and the sweet 60’s girl group pastiche “Need Ur Love” offer reprieve from the catchy noise-pop, although these comparatively subtle moments probably won’t satiate those accusing Charli of selling out. She has been frank about her desire to appeal to young girls, and perhaps the thought of even a fraction of them growing up with a snarly ode to female agency like “Body Of My Own” on their iPods is all the credibility a project as unapologetically fun as Sucker could ever ask for.

9.0/10

[Movies] The Babadook (review)

The Babadook

Director & Screenwriter: Jennifer Kent // Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Barbara West, Tim Purcell. 

Review: In a horror-drama crammed with unsettling moments, The Babadook’s most nimbly wielded weapon is the fleeting but resonant savageness with which it depicts a mother struggling to love their child. It’s a concept that director Jennifer Kent arguably employs to emulsify the two genres her feature film debut works within; part kitchen sink character study, part haunted house freak show. The film’s first half is understandably earnest and dialogue-driven as Kent takes care to convey the everyday exasperation of single mother Amelia (played by the extraordinary Essie Davis), who lives an anxious life in the Australian suburbs and while in mourning for her husband seven years after a bid to rush her and their unborn child to the maternity ward resulted in a fatal car crash.

A superstitious eccentric with a skill for crafting Home Alone-style artillery, her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is a sweet but stubbornly errant loner who can rarely go a night without crawling into his mother’s bed. Deprived of sleep – with Kent fast-forwarding through the few hours she does indulge in to exacerbate the interminable nature of her day-to-day – Amelia insists on not only looking after her son’s needs, but also those of her elderly neighbour (Barbara West) and the geriatrics she tends to at a nursing home each day. Both her and Samuel look forward to reading a children’s story at the end of a long day, that is until the sudden appearance of a grisly but beautifully crafted pop-up book entitled Mister Babadook captures the darkest recesses of Samuel’s imagination.

Sketched in charcoal, the book’s eponymous character is a behatted sycophant with sharp, spindly fingers and a manic expression; his murderous behaviour relayed in playground-friendly couplets: “Take heed of what you’ve read… / Once you see what’s underneath / You’re going to wish you were dead”). As Samuel’s palpably felt obsession with the monster grows, Amelia’s professional and personal relationships begin to crumble, and it is the ensuing mental and physical self-isolation that becomes the cue for Kent to flex her flair for evoking moods of near-suffocating dread. There is an admittedly awkward shift from dramatic realism to conventional horror tropes as the impact of illogical reactions take effect, but this is small price to pay for the thought-provoking thrills stashed away in the film’s latter half.

Refusing to settle for cheap jump scares in order to rile up its audience, The Babadook is at its best when suggesting the monster’s existence in surprisingly rational ways. Think you’re safe at a police station in the day time? Kent implores you to think again. The exquisitely dull colours of Amelia’s home, bristling sound design (the scrape of the book’s pop-up appendages against paper, the creaky-floorboard growl of the Babadook itself), and a singular but magnificently unexpected burst of gore will have your skin practically ushering the film underneath it.

With the tumultuous relationship between Amelia and Samuel realised in affecting detail, The Babadook is a uniquely cerebral horror and a promising calling-card for Kent. Even if her obvious talents remain just a tad raw, as her film’s ending suggests, there is truly nothing a little nurturing cannot fix.

9.0/10

[Music] Florence + the Machine – What Kind Of Man (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

“So you think that people who suffer together would be more connected than people who are content?”

Review: Challenging the cogency of a relationship based on penance, “What Kind Of Man” does little to advance the gothic chamber-pop sound of Florence + the Machine’s majestic – if at times exhaustingly cohesive – 2011 album Ceremonials, and is all the better for it.

The band’s decision to lead their third studio album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful with a more straightforward gospel-inspired pop-rock number may appear to be a bold move, but the dramatic bombast of their music has always had less to do with the production hallmarks slung by longtime collaborators such as Paul Epworth and Eg White – bewitching multi-tracked harmonies, cacophonous drums, probable abuse of the mixing desk’s “reverb” button – than it does with Florence Welch’s peerless voice. “What Kind Of Man” finds this voice as bellowing and as gutsy as ever, instantly giving the track an air of celestial hysteria that its jagged guitar and Will Gregory’s warm brass arrangements seem eager to avoid.

Like Rihanna’s “We Found Love”, the emotional impact of “What Kind Of Man” is similarly indebted to its video’s prologue, a touching snapshot of a couple ricocheting between carnal adoration and chilly indifference. The reluctance of Welch’s boyfriend to “intervene” with her night terrors reflects the principle of celebrated suffering that the song rages against in its ghostly extended intro: “So I’d reasoned I was drunk enough to deal with it / You were on the other side / Like always, you could never make up your mind”. This preamble soundtracks flashes of all they stand to lose (steamy sex, balcony-set kisses, romantic estrangement) amongst some cultish shenanigans that emphasise the sense of guilt, obligation and self-flagellation that stand as the main pillars of their relationship, culminating in the one-two punch of a car collision and grouchy guitar licks that may have you wishing that such a high-quality visual were for a better song.

“What Kind Of Man” is not a bad single by any means, but in ditching the dense production that embellished some of the band’s very best songs, it seems the intricate melodies of tracks like “No Light, No Light” and “Only If For A Night” (a Ceremonials cut so good that even Rihanna thinks it’s ripe for sampling) were also sacrificed, and as a result there is little to unpack upon subsequent listens. It is almost entirely down to Welch’s visceral delivery to elevate the track, and it is only her thickest rallying cries (such as her out-for-blood shriek of “What kind of man loves like this?”) that manage to leave much of an impression.

7.5/10

[Music] Madonna – Living For Love (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

Review: Having lived my life knowing that the chances of someone walking into an unlocked W.C. to find me startled and in a compromising position on at least one occasion are rather high, I realise that the closest one can come to controlling that situation is by making time for regular grooming. I say this because even if the absolute worst should happen, and you are caught with your trousers down, at least you can some pride in what you have been forced to present to the world. Madonna suffered a similarly gross invasion of privacy last November when an embarrassment of demos from her upcoming album Rebel Heart leaked online. But apart from any potential loss of sales, there was no real call for anger or mortification. The majority of the leaks demonstrated a welcome spike in ambition and musicality since the dark days of 2012’s MDNA, a largely anaemic afterthought to her Super Bowl Halftime show and the admittedly brilliant tour of the same name.

Living For Love” is Rebel Heart’s first single, and a quick comparison between it and Madonna’s previous comeback track “Give Me All Your Luvin’” is enough to sling the first stitch into hearts left broken after the reductiveness of her last release. It may use parts integral to such other 90’s dance throwbacks as Kiesza’s “Hideaway” and Clean Bandit’s “Rather Be”, but with Madonna – along with producer Diplo, her latest co-conspirator – behind the wheel, “Living For Love” is one of the more darkly intoxicating rides that the genre’s recent chart revival has yielded. The track bubbles into life with Diplo’s glassy synths underscoring dramatic house piano and Madonna’s quietly victorious verses. Her post-divorce albums Hard Candy and MDNA attempted to resolve the singer’s much-publicised break-ups from Guy Richie, Jesus, Brahim et al but it is only on “Living For Love” that she seems to have discovered a state of genuine edification. “Picked up my crown, but it back on my head / I can forgive but I can never forget,” she sings, asserting herself personally and as the Queen of Pop all in one move. The chorus is backed by a gospel choir and is suitably enrapturing, although the crunchy breakdown that follows undermines Madonna’s importance with a gospel singer’s adlibs. But then you remember just who the person fronting the track is; this is Madonna, the woman who has done it all, seen it all and presumably felt it all. Here she is, at fifty-six, telling us that no only does she still believe in love, but she still believes in herself. It’s a powerful sentiment.

The video is assumedly an unofficial apology for the flashes of apathy she had demonstrated when funnelling her energies into gyms and a career in directing instead of producing a decent record. “Give Me…” had an irreverent faux-one-take promo with an remarkably expansive set and a vague Super Bowl theme that was brilliant almost in spite of Madonna, whose trademark air of superiority seemed unwarranted considering she could barely feign interest in the song she was lipping along to. The video for “Living For Love”, meanwhile, is comparatively claustrophobic; so visually rich is its red-filtered, choreography-heavy set-up in which Madonna the Matador takes on an army of muscled bulls-cum-dancers-cum-prey. It’s a refreshingly lean concept, with no clumsy product placement – perhaps a director’s cut will see her whip out her brand new Lumia to remind Lourdes to the plug out her hair straightener, we just don’t know – and a reliance on M’s charisma that ultimately proves rewarding as she gives a truly engaging performance, at one point quite literally taking those bulls for a ride. 

9.5/10

[Television] Katy Perry’s Superbowl Halftime Show

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Like grief, the build-up to the National Football League’s crowning point yields a series of emotional stages to wade through. As a relative NFL neophyte, each year I am cyclically forced to come to terms with the fact that America’s ever-increasingly popular television event has very little to do with bowling – the one sport we can actually understand – and it is annually left to the promise of a glittery Halftime extravaganza to extinguish the disappointment that always seems to follow.

Instead of adhering to tradition by sourcing a dodgy stream of the musical centrepiece after being tipped off about a popstar’s imminent appearance through Twitter, on Sunday we treated ourselves to the full four-hour Super Bowl experience. Maybe it was down to the fact that our coverage came courtesy of Britain’s Channel 4, but the presentation felt devoid of the garish Americana we had been anticipating. The inherently stop-start nature of American Football – ten-minute bursts of ball-chasing sandwiched between pointlessly speculative studio-based commentary – doesn’t exactly lend itself to a thrilling viewing experience, so I had accepted that some tedium was a given, but the overall atmosphere within Phoenix Stadium seemed oddly non-existent.

That was of course before Katy Perry took to the stage. With its notorious aversion to live instrumentation and vocals, the Halftime show may seem tailor made for a star as gloriously unpretentious as Perry, allowing the thirty year-old hit-maker to play to her strengths, which coincidently do not include live singing and strenuous choreography. But what most people do not realise is that Perry has shown herself to be a very competent performer in more intimate settings on more than one occasion, so the best a fan could hope for as the singer’s big moment loomed closer was for her to not to be swallowed up in the spectacle that would inevitably ensue. Her entrance via a silver polygonally sculpted lion amidst a sea of luminous balloons to the tune of “Roar” set the tone of wacky opulence, with Jeremy Scott’s chintzy girl-on-fire dress well matched to the opening number’s call-to-arms vigour.

Perry followed it up with “Dark Horse”, that other megahit from her 2013 album PRISM, strutting atop a giant screen displaying a see-sawing chessboard with some humanoid chess-piece friends. Lenny Kravitz’s dropped in for an unexpectedly electrifying cameo on “I Kissed A Girl”, his thick guitar thrashes adding some welcome meat to the track’s bones. Next up was “Teenage Dream” – the least gimmicky and subsequently best single to be lifted from its behemoth of a parent album – which Perry took to a self-consciously weird, Yo Gabba Gabba!-esque beach set-up to deliver. The soon-to-be-timeless pop-rock anthem deserved its own staging as opposed to being reduced to a glorified preamble to “California Gurls”, but it was hard to not to raise a smile at the sight of Perry, complete with beach umbrella breasts, interact with plush sharks and beach paraphernalia when miming along to her dumbest single. The attention to detail throughout the production was impressive, right down to the microphones that were styled to match each individual outfit.

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It is perhaps just as well that Perry had no intention of launching a new single off the back of the performance, as when Missy Elliot emerged looking like Janet Jackson circa Rhythm Nation 1814 to perform a stupefyingly brilliant “Get Your Freak On” / “Work It” / “Lose Control” medley, it suddenly became all-too easy to forget just whose show this was supposed to be. Past performers have been burned in unexpected ways by their guests before, but if Perry was jealous of Missy’s attention-grabbing turn, it certainly didn’t show as she bopped and hooted along like only a true fan could. Some may call their reluctance to segue into the Missy remix of “Last Friday Night” a missed opportunity, but that collaboration was just one of the rapper’s many creative low points since her halcyon days ended with 2006’s singles compilation Respect M.E. and was wise to leave undisturbed.

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If the thought of Katy Perry drawing her Super Bowl Halftime concert to a close by ‘belting’ out “Firework” while riding around in mid-air on a – you guessed it! – firework emoji come to life seems a bit too predictable, then perhaps you’re forgetting that the catalyst for her mammoth success so far has been an enthusiastic adherence to formula. Perry has seen what happened to Lady Gaga – whose self-alienation from the public pretty much ran parallel to Katy’s own ascendance to pop’s upper echelons – and has since shown herself to be one of the few popstars who rarely fails to give the people what they want. What those behind the Super Bowl Halftime Show want is predictability, and as an event that must cater to such a humbling array of demographics, it is one of the few events where what the public wants and needs align perfectly. Perry’s somewhat bland reliability may have made her a frontrunner for the competitive slot, but it was the professionalism she demonstrated on Sunday night that proved her to be a worthy choice. RG

[Music] Ciara – I Bet (review)

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Review: The sleek and modern R&B of Ciara’s 2013 self-titled album helped re-establish the singer as more than just the photogenic face of crunk&B’s once inescapable chart success, positioning her instead as an enduring talent – she debuted her “Goodies” all the way back in 2004 – with impeccable taste. It was the Future-assisted, hipster-approved baby-making jam “Body Party” that really set the project’s wheels into motion, and although this taster from Ciara’s sixth studio album Jackie comes courtesy of producer Harmony Samuels (Ariana Grande, Ne-Yo), it’s difficult to say Future’s presence is missed considering the track seems to address the breakdown of their relationship head-on.

The emotional impact of that maelstrom of alleged infidelity – no doubt complicated by their professional engagements and, of course, the fact that they had a son last May, also named Future – bears its teeth in “I Bet”, a nigglingly catchy mid-tempo replete with warm acoustic guitar, looped skittering drum machines and Ciara’s velvety, quivering, and at times motor-mouthed soprano. “You know it hurts your pride / But you thought the grass was greener on the other side,” she sings, prioritising a tone of curt matter-of-factness over any glib attempts at sass.

As addictive as “I Bet” may be, the track’s power is primarily fuelled by its torrid backstory, and had Ciara fronted an earlier album with it (which she may as well have with 2009’s Fantasy Ride’s syrupy “Never Ever”), we would most likely have written it off as dishearteningly pedestrian. But by keeping the vision she so brilliantly executed on Ciara in mind, “I Bet” cannot help but leave us excited for the comparably sensual and eclectic record that could be in store.

8.0/10

[Music] Rihanna, Kanye West & Paul McCartney – “Only One” VS “Four Five Seconds”

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While it’s obvious that an icon such as Paul McCartney will never be irrelevant, one would think a musician of his calibre would rather be forced to participate in the Identity Parade round of Never Mind the Buzzcocks just to pay that month’s heating bill than to have their name attached to a track as hollow and unimaginative as “Four Five Seconds”. In addition to McCartney’s acoustic strumming, the lead single from Rihanna’s as-yet untitled eighth album, which is available to listen to here, features a limp blast of organ and vocals from Kanye West, but sports none of the poignancy of “Only One”, West and McCartney’s previous – and ostensibly similar – collaboration.

Rihanna is a talented vocalist who has wrangled empathy from listeners in the past (“Russian Roulette”, “Cold Case Love”, “Stay”), but “Four Five Seconds” shoots for a salty, world-weary kind of exasperation, and struggles to draw pathos from Rihanna’s persona in the same way “Only One” could from West’s. The lucrative exposure that his marriage to Kim Kardashian has provided means his transition from startlingly talented whack-job to sensitive family man is public property, and this notion cannot help but feed into and influence a listener’s experience of the track.

It also helps that “Only One” – in which West acts as a conduit for his late mother’s wisdom – is beautifully written. “You’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes” is a sublime lyric by its own merits, but those of “Four Five Seconds” (“I think I’ve had enough / I might get a little drunk / I say what’s on my mind,” Rihanna sings, conveying sentiments that have dotted her discography previously, just in a less catchy way) further reinforce its emotional resonance.

Although both tracks use minimal instrumentation, “Only One” acknowledges the signature sound of each headliner by pairing McCartney’s soft keyboards with an auto-tuned voice reminiscent of West’s 808s & Heartbreak days, which makes his switch to such a pared-down aesthetic a little bit easier to swallow. As one of the pop world’s greatest chameleons, Rihanna’s venture into country-lite isn’t entirely unrewarding – after some unpleasant hoarseness, there’s a nice enough belt at around the two minute mark – but after a two-year wait for new material, both her and her fans deserved a bigger and better comeback.

Perhaps she could consider getting by without a little help from her friends. RG