Very few acts could be said to be lucky not to have scored a single hit from their debut album, but AlunaGeorge may be one of them.
Laying claim to only half of the success of their stellar Disclosure collaboration “White Noise” and a smattering of Top 50 singles from 2013’s Body Music, the return of Aluna Francis and George Reid finds the duo unburdened by an association with a certain sound, or even a particular year of British music.
This relative anonymity allows the warm, tropical textures of new single “I’m In Control” to wash over Francis’ voice without drowning out the refreshing spark AlunaGeorge originally brought to cuts such as “You Know You Like It”. The track couldn’t be more on-trend, planting its flag firmly in the same swampy paradise as Diplo’s 2015-defining hit “Lean On”.
Francis’ voice is still girly and detached, but on “I’m In Control” she tests the limits of her cool enigmatism, singing as if she doesn’t give a hoot whether you listen or not. It’s a tug-of-war that Francis ultimately wins, with lyrics such as “You’ve gotta go deeper than deep / to get me off” practically pulling your ears towards the speaker.
When the beat inevitably drops, it’s insistent and addictive, if a little familiar. What should spare AlunaGeorge from accusations of trend-chasing is just how well both Francis’ chorus and the contributions of MOBO-winning reggae artist Popcaan mesh with the instrumental as the track ramps up, creating a single that feels both heavily calculated and inspired.
Review: Countless singers have profited from subjecting their raw talents and pedestrian image to a trial by fire, often at the hands of discerning music execs. The synergism of a politely edgy aesthetic, expert media training and just a whiff of the charisma that once lit up their busking corner is often what propels artists to the upper echelons of pop.
Yet an artist’s embryonic incarnations can also prove fascinating to their fan base, and at times leave them pining churlishly for a purer distillation of their musical messiah. That nobody longs for Florence and the Machine to revert to the garage-rock of “Kiss with a Fist” goes to show how ingenious Florence Welch’s shift from Lily Allen peer to medieval wench-chic was.
Her reinvention spurred 2009’s Lungs to soundtrack a summer of daisy chain-making for many a middle-class teenager. It is to Welch’s credit however, that her festival-friendly attire was the perfect accompaniment to the pompous, string-strewn production and fantastical lyrical imagery of her music.
This sound was arguably perfected on 2012’s Ceremonials, but those left exhausted by that record’s Gothic bombast may find reprieve with the more traditional rock of their latest effort, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.
Just don’t come expecting the puckishness of “Kiss with a Fist”. “What Kind of Man” flexes a few angry muscles with its edgy guitar strokes and indignant howls (“You let me dangle / at cruel angles” and so on and so forth), but the track’s one-line chorus and Will Gregory’s stiff brass section never emulsify, blunting the track’s ferocity when it should be charging into battle.
But this is a rare and minor fumble. Elsewhere, Gregory’s contributions add a swashbuckling flavour to otherwise sober assessments of modern relationships, particularly on the rallying stomp of “Queen of Peace”.
Aside from her voice, Welch’s trump card has always been her otherworldly expressions of familiar emotions. For the first time however, her lyrics shine a light on once foreboding shadows. Rather than a stab at spiritual titillation, the title track’s opening reference to a crucifix stands as nothing more than an allusion to the bland Los Angeles vista facing Welch as she jumped into an unhealthy romance with an indecisive man.
This man is the target of Welch’s scorn for much of the album, but only on “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” does she concede that there is a reward for those who persevere in love: “Like an atmosphere around me / I’m happy you’re beside me”. This sense of optimism is mirrored by Gregory, his swelling brass casting golden rays across the track’s curdling emotions.
Welch’s voice takes once again centre stage, with the guttural echo that made her a household name sounding stronger than ever on the album’s uptempo moments. She carries the skeletal arrangements of “Various Storms & Saints” and “Long & Lost” on her shoulders, occasionally dipping into beautifully hushed registers that ripple like a chill through the speakers .
Welch has always been a purveyor of multi-layered song structures, with songs such as “No Light, No Light” rolling out b-sections that a lesser artist would sever and stretch into top lines for separate songs. That tradition is upheld on “Third Eye”, a hands-in-the-air and (dare we say?) festival-friendly tribute to Fleetwood Mac, with a dash of gospel rhetoric for good measure.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful does more than move Florence and the Machine away from the stylistic corner they had previously backed themselves into. Shorn of the dramatic production of Lungs and Ceremonials, tracks such as “Third Eye” and “Delilah” still deliver the same brand of sweeping ecstasy as well as any other song in the band’s catalogue, proving that sometimes it doesn’t matter what you wear or what your original intentions were – there are some people who simply belong on a festival stage.
As chart-ready bangers go, “Turn the Music Louder (Rumble)” is virtually foolproof.
KDA’s “Rumble” instrumental earned kudos from the likes of Annie Mac and Pete Tong when a re-edit from Shadow Child started doing the rounds back in April, while a guesting Tinie Tempah has already proven to be an enduring chart presence since scoring his sixth UK number one with “Not Letting Go” this summer.
Yet the track’s real pull is a riveting turn from London-born vocalist Katy B. The coalition that Katy’s cool but expressive voice forms with KDA’s ricocheting beats highlights just how badly 2014’s Little Red failed to capitalise on the singer’s innate understanding of dance music.
The success of electro-ballad “Crying For No Reason” allowed Katy to exhibit some versatility, but in a year where every other number one took cues from sounds Katy arguably helped usher into the charts with her 2011 debut On A Mission, it was frustrating to see her shine from the sidelines of pop.
KDA’s “Rumble” is a simple but heady cocktail of arcade synths and pummeling percussion, but without the pointed angles of something like Oliver Helden’s “Gecko” – another club-tested instrumental given the ‘vocal treatment’ to become last year’s chart-topping “Overdrive”– a rewrite would have had to be lyrically bold in order to truly impress.
Alas, Tinie Tempah’s raps are mere splashes from an alcohol-addled stream of consciousness. This isn’t normally a problem when dealing with a dance track, but the song’s superior second half presents a missed opportunity.
Morphing into what is essentially a solo track, the song allows Katy to reel off a bunch of clichéd observations about her ride-or-die infatuation (“I wish I could forget / the day that we first met / But now it’s blowing up / I just can’t get enough”). That Tinie never thought to play the Lothario to Katy’s blushing damsel throughout his verses is a disappointment, as this would added a sense of cohesion to the listener’s experience.
An unimaginative but infallible chart hit, “Turn the Music Louder (Rumble)” is most notable for returning Katy B to the stickier side of the dance floor. Here’s hoping her tears don’t wash her away from it yet again.
Review: It was a sad thing to watch Janet Jackson’s fingers slip so rapidly from the pulse of contemporary pop music. Where exactly those fingers landed isn’t much of a mystery; in their own way, each one of her noughties albums strove to introduce her to a new generation as an empty-headed purveyor of perversity.
As a hallmark of her music, the potency of Jackson’s unbridled sexuality inarguably peaked on 1997’s The Velvet Rope, in which waltzes with pansexuality and S&M fantasies kicked away the dirt to reveal a crushing loneliness that was later sated through New Age musings about watering our spiritual gardens.
Jackson found new ways to keep moist on a series of glibly optimistic follow-up records, starting with 2001’s All For You and ending with 2008’s Discipline. Yet as a continuation of The Velvet Rope’s narrative, her lyrical focus on coitus could theoretically have been an effort to hush those that see sexual liberation as a mere veil for a tortured soul.
The problem was that the emotional anguish that once ran in tandem with Jackson’s sexual explorations had no real thematic successor, resulting in a decade of shockingly shallow music from a once innovative artist.
Fans left numb by a decade of dead-eyed studies in sexuality had every reason to be skeptical of “No Sleeep” – the first single from Unbreakable, Jackson’s eleventh studio album. The song is a brazen throwback to slippery nineties sex jams, complete with a breathy vocal from Jackson and a guest verse from rapper J. Cole.
Although not particularly ‘dark’, the lyrics aspire to more than come-hither titillation, adding nuance to an account of long-distance love by detailing the sky-high expectations of those involved (“Forty-eight hours of love / It’s gonna be a weekend marathon”) which up the stakes to near-unattainable levels.
(There’s also a fabulous moment during J. Cole’s rap when he notes that the sun’s coming up and a bemused Janet murmurs “Already?”. You just know she’s lying there with a single breast popping out of her sweater, having barely tired of foreplay.)
The track’s complexities are just one of many treats in store for long-suffering fans. Kicking off ‘Side One’ of the record with a nostalgic swirl of pitched-up vocal samples, hip-hop percussion and underplayed horns that’s warmer than the sum of its parts, the title track is a spangled celebration of their continued support: “The world can’t break down the connection / ‘Cause our love is divine / and it’s unbreakable”.
Unbreakable doesn’t attempt to recreate the industrial beats of Jackson’s biggest hits, but the club-friendly “Dammn Baby” – with its grubby bassline fighting off Jackson’s digitally-swollen voice for supremacy – does a solid job of updating her sound for a 2015 audience. Meanwhile, the gentle disco of “Broken Hearts Heal” and the cocktail-lounge throb of “Night” serve to remind listeners of the singer’s open-hearted positivity.
Aside from these tracks, Unbreakable is a mostly mellow effort, although Jackson’s newfound confidence in both her voice and her songwriting partners Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis – here overseeing a Janet Jackson album in its entirety for the first time since All For You – means that not a single one of the set’s seventeen tracks goes by without leaving an impression.
Under almost any other circumstance, wedging an atypically sparse piano ballad like “After You Fall” between obvious highlights such as the airy arena-pop of “Shoulda Known Better” and “Broken Hearts Heal” would just seem irresponsible. Yet the song’s arrangement is so beautiful in its simplicity, and Jackson’s voice is so effortlessly confiding in between crestfallen sighs, that it never feels like a rude interruption.
Jackson reinstates her dreams of a Rhythm Nation on “Shoulda Known Better” with a slight sense of embarrassment: “I don’t want my face to be / that poster child for being naive.” It’s a brave admittance, and her disappointment with the state of the world might explain the vacant sex drone that the noughties inherited.
By the record’s end, it’s clear that Janet Jackson it still in love the possibility of a united world, but her assertion that “critics just wanna talk” suggests a fear of the media’s cynicism. The funny thing is that with Unbreakable, for the time in years, she’s finally given them a reason to listen.
Review: While Adele drifts in hypersleep around the outskirts of our pop galaxy, the British public’s enthusiasm for Jess Glynne’s similarly husky tones suggests that a disco-driven return for the platinum-selling singer could be particularly lucrative.
At least that’s what Glynne seems to be banking on throughout her debut album I Cry When I Laugh. The quinoa-flavoured dance-pop of “Hold My Hand”, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” and the Clean Bandit collaboration “Real Love” whizz by with a cheeriness that can be almost nauseating, but it’s difficult to fault their structures. Whether it’s a double-barreled chorus, rumbling choir or pirouetting piano stabs, each artifice is deployed with the utmost precision.
In an age when controversy seems to be the primary way of ushering fresh talent into the public consciousness, Glynne’s ascent has been a relatively quiet one. Yet the absence of a titanic personality is actually the album’s trump card. It’s refreshing to approach a record with no external drama to spoil or undermine a sense of relentless optimism that’s perceptible from the song titles alone.
The roller rink disco of “You Can Find Me” makes for a delightful standout. One could never describe Glynne’s delivery as fierce or even particularly charismatic, but she’s rarely less than engaging, and inside the track’s bubble of subtle synth, funky bass lines and soulful backing vocals, she casts a warm and enchanting presence. The clanking percussion and austere violin strokes of deluxe track “Home”, meanwhile, adds a much-needed variation in sound.
Glynne avoids an excess of guest stars; a wise move for an artist that’s credited as a feature artist on three out five of her number one singles. Still, the addition of a slushy Emeli Sandé duet entitled “Saddest Vanilla” shows she may be comically unaware of her own inoffensive persona.
More successful is “Take Me Home”, which excels within the narrow parameters set by the modern piano ballad. It also seems destined to become a staple sing-a-long for those hoping to land a shag at the end of a night out – another mammoth achievement for Glynne in a career that’s been startlingly full of them.
Review: A bitchy little devil sits cross-legged on my shoulder, fanning himself while whispering banal observations in my ear: “Hey, look at those Veruca Salt chicks that gave your life meaning as a teenager. They look pretty hot for a pair of moms, no?”
I’ve always been a staunch ambassador for female dignity, but these shivers of sexism suggest that the urge to equate a woman’s worth with how youthful she appears can be irresistible – no matter how much you respect them.
Now it’s not as if singer-guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post ever rocked out with paper bags on their heads as a “fuck you” to those who found them attractive. It just felt like a rather lame thing for my mind to note.
Ghost Notes is the first album to feature the original Veruca Salt quartet since a bust-up between the band’s frontwomen saw Gordon jump ship in 1998. It begins by spreading a smooth, girlish voice across a crunchy bed of 90’s alt-rock riffs: “I wanted to live / so I pretended to die,” Gordon sings with a wink to fervent fans.
There are juicy allusions to Post and Gordon’s fall-out throughout the album, but “The Gospel…” is notable for looking firmly to the future. “It’s gonna get loud / it’s gonna get heavy,” Gordon and Post reiterate in harmony, and it’s often the bristling sugar-rush of these reunified voices that makes Ghost Notes sound so vital.
The moment I heard Gordon’s youthful tone, I thought I had found a loop-hole. “Perhaps you could judge women by how young they sound…” the bitchy devil began to plot.
This was until a barrage of Post-led tracks reacquainted me with her voice, which is coarser, more aged, and eminently more versatile than it was on 2006’s IV, the second of Veruca Salt’s two Gordon-less records. Atop the melancholy grind of power ballad “The Sound of Leaving”, Post’s soft confessionals lurch into serrated yowls with a fluidity that prevents the shift in tempo from sapping the record’s momentum.
So, if Ghost Notes confirms anything, it’s that getting older can be an absolute blast. In addition to the ensuing years putting a fresh spin Post and Gordon’s vocal synchronicity, the band’s songwriting has never been stronger. “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl” and “Eyes On You” are joyous celebrations of the rekindled friendship between Veruca Salt’s leading ladies, but it’s “Black and Blonde” that gives a sharp insight into their reparations.
Once an unflattering tribute to the formerly black-haired Post, this off-cut from Gordon’s solo debut has been rewritten to address the dude-feud that brought the band to a halt.
Gordon dispenses the read-between-the-lines gossip with indifference (“No one ever really has to know / ‘Cause he was just some bloody so-and-so”) before repackaging her and Post’s trauma as a bonding experience; first on an utter slugfest of a chorus (“You beat me black and blonde […] You break me down / and I’ll take you on”), then on a beautifully harmonised middle-eight (“Sleep, little child / I forgive you / and for the pain I caused, I’m sorry, too”).
Brad Wood, producer of the band’s debut American Thighs in 1994, wisely gives these harmonies pride of place among the expected storms of jagged guitar, Jim Shapiro’s whiplash drumming and Steve Lack’s prowling bass, with even the panting stampede of “Laughing in the Sugar Bowl” indebted to the pair’s vocal interplay and zany countdowns – solfeggio syllables erupting into an impatient “LA-LA-LA-LA!”, for instance – more than anything else.
Veruca Salt have never been known for their profound songwriting skills, and while the apologetic highlight “I’m Telling You Now” stacks cliché upon lyrical cliché, the band knows how to blow them away with an infectious confetti-canon finale. As they whoop and cheer beneath a spotlight that once probed every messy detail of their lives, you realise just how special this record is.
Beneath it’s bratty veneer, Ghost Notes is a fourteen-track paean tothe virtue of forgiveness. Not only can it reignite a once glowing friendship; it can pave the way for the best record of your career.
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.