[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

Blind Dating With Sylvia Plath (Application to Love)

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Love me or loathe me,
you do the math:
it’s time for blind-dating
with Sylvia Plath!

Romance lies
behind one of three doors.
Our contestant is Agnes.
She’s just been divorced.

She’s sixty and sexy.
She won’t be repressed,
commodified like cattle…
but it seems I’ve digressed.

Escaping her marriage
and its perilous jaws,
I present you with Agnes.
I demand your applause.

[A glittery Agnes
ascends to the stage.
The make-up does wonders
for masking her age.]

Welcome, my darling,
and do take a seat.
I’ve got three living Ken dolls
for your libido to meet.

[Poor Agnes starts wincing
under the spotlight.
Poised on a stool,
her dress looks quite tight.]

Our sort of people
are men without flaw,
false teeth and glass eyes –
should this not be the law?

[With the uproarious crowd
in a state of unrest,
the first door creaks open
like a treasure chest…

A young man emerges
tanned from head to toe,
wearing pink branded briefs
spelling out the name “Joe”.]

Come out of the closet.
Close enough to touch.
He comes with a six-pack,
and an all-too real crotch.

He’s a prime piece of beef.
I can tell by the cheers.
He has us all salivating –
so what’s with the tears?

[Agnes whispers to Plath.
Her response seems to stun.]
But who cares if this hunk’s
the same age as your son?

Don’t you for a second
think that you’re a perve!
A young shatterproof man
is what you deserve.

You’re choosing this man.
I’m ending the game.
Do you not think your ex
would do exactly the same?

[Music] Madonna – Rebel Heart (review)

Madonna_-_PR_Hando_2250210a

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: Despite exploiting both the public’s desire and distaste for sexual provocation throughout a career spanning more than thirty years, Madonna’s thirteenth studio album Rebel Heart sees the Queen of Pop release a song entitled “S.E.X” for the very first time. One of the most potent examples of Madonna’s flair for media manipulation would involve her using titillation and its inherent shock value as a means of establishing discourses on power, control, and AIDS anxiety on 1992’s Erotica. With song titles such as “Deeper and Deeper”, “Why’s It So Hard” and “Bad Girl” winking at you from its tracklisting, the album may as well have been sold with a pack of pearls for listeners unwilling to explore its thematic depths to clutch. “Deeper and Deeper” almost drowns in own its doe-eyed reverence for love, “Why’s It So Hard” is a plea for world peace, and “Bad Girl” wraps up its exploration of destructive vices in a poultice of self-loathing.

“S.E.X.”, meanwhile, is about sex.

Couple this transparency with the presence of even more references to the singer’s discography than 2012’s MDNA, and there’s a certainly case to made for Rebel Heart finding Madonna in an uncharacteristically unimaginative state of mind. Although the Super Deluxe Edition’s twenty-five tracks may once again present the listener with an array of musical swatches to choose from, at least the record’s evident influences are just a little more time-honoured than those of 2006’s Hard Candy – a relic of Timbaland’s mid-noughties chart ubiquity – and the tuneless EDM of MDNA.

The glassy deep house of lead single “Living For Love” is a triumph, marrying Madonna hallmarks – gospel influences, self-empowering lyrics – to Diplo’s oh-so-current but disciplined production. “Devil Pray” never fully cashes in on the country-dance credentials presented in disillusioned verses in which Madonna appeals to a higher power for salvation, instead luring its chorus away from the barn dance and into a demonic orgy turned rave.

There are moments in which Rebel Heart feels genuinely fresh; Diplo and PC Music’s SOPHIE buff the plastic arrogance of the Nicki Minaj-featuring “Bitch I’m Madonna” with a decidedly cartoonish and auto-tuned sheen, rounding it off with confrontational blasts of what sounds like a dog being unnerved by a frantically pulled zip. “Iconic” could become Madonna’s very own “Eye Of the Tiger”, with a mouthy prologue from Mike Tyson fizzing into cascades of quasi-industrial beats, a victory lap of a chorus (“I can! / Icon! / Two letters apart”) and an appearance from Chance The Rapper. Producer Kanye West is in Yeezus mode on “Illuminati”, propping up Madonna’s intentionally dead-eyed anti-conspiratorial raps (“It’s not Isis or the Phoenix, The Pyramids of Egypt; Don’t make it into something sordid”) with heavy, sluggishly churning synths.

Critics will be quick to note the divide between these edgier cuts and the record’s more heartfelt and traditionally structured offerings. “Ghosttown”, the piano-led “HeartBreakCity”, and the largely acoustic “Joan of Arc” are easily Madonna’s finest ballads in a decade, but there are instances of the dualities implied by the record’s title intersecting. On “Body Shop”, her floaty voice woos a lover over a gossamer-light folk arrangement with a series of car-related puns, but when you hear Madonna sing “jumpstart my heart”, there is something sweet to take from them not all being exclusively sexual. On “Inside Out”, a slightly gigglesome topline of “Let me love from the inside out” doubles as both as a sexual solicitation and an unconditional acceptance of a lover’s flaws.

There’s little resembling an encompassing musical thread to Rebel Heart. Uptempo’s are something of a rarity, with many of the club-orientated tracks pacing themselves to deliver more fleshed out choruses. The self-referencing gets occasionally tiresome on “Holy Water” and “Veni Vidi Vici”; the first a deliriously camp (“Bitch, get off my pole!”) endorsement of female ejaculation with an unnecessary interpolation of “Vogue”, the second a wistful retrospective of Madonna’s life and career with lyrics made up of shout outs to her biggest hits: “I expressed myself, came like a virgin down the aisle / Exposed my naked ass, and I did it with a smile.”

So that brings us back to “S.E.X”. After so many years in the game, Madonna has probably earned the right to serve up such dimly derivative material if she should so wish. But Rebel Heart also embraces all of her strengths as an artist, from theatrical balladry (“Messiah”) to cocksure dancefloor fillers (“Unapologetic Bitch”) to exercises in sensual R&B (the bhangra-infused “Best Night”). At 56, Madonna is carving out a cultural space for older women in the music industry and beyond to further explore their sexuality and creativity. The fruits of her efforts will obviously take a few years to quantify and appreciate, but the adventurous streak running throughout much of her latest record shows why Madonna will always be a rebel at heart.

8.5 / 10