Years & Years refuse to obscure queerness on ‘Palo Santo’

Palo-Santo-artwork.pngStream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Add to library: ‘All For You’, ‘Palo Santo’, ‘Up In Flames’

Years & Years introduced their second album with two uninteresting singles and a preposterous concept.

So it’s a relief that Palo Santo is a solid collection of tropical electropop, dripping with sweat, tears and charisma from frontman Olly Alexander.

The title refers to a pansexual metropolis that sprung from Alexander’s imagination, a place where androids rule, and humans are plucked from the streets to writhe around on a stage, using their flesh to provoke genuine emotion in an audience of automatons.

The accompanying short film is the kind of thing a person dreams up after eating a block of cheese and watching Blade Runner. It’s a lofty gimmick, but at least it’s one that articulates the record’s inherent queerness rather than obscures it.

What Palo Santo does successfully is depict the life of a socially mobile, twenty-something gay man in 2018. Across atmospheric ballads and glow-in-the-dark dance tracks, hookups (‘Rendezvous’), heartbreak (‘All For You’) and internalised homophobia (‘Preacher’) are each captured in golden melodies.

Like 2014’s Communion, images of Catholic flagellation appear as thinly-veiled metaphors for anal sex. When written to bouncy, playlistable beats – ‘Hallelujah’, ‘Preacher’ – they make for welcome additions to the band’s canon. First single ‘Sanctify’ exhausts the premise with a plodding tempo that had me checking my watch, but as the opener it’s inoffensive. 

Alexander brings an unapologetically queer perspective that deserves to be heard loud-and-clear. Trailblazing? Absolutely not. But his visibility shouldn’t be taken for granted in the current political climate.

Forget the sci-fi window dressing – by bucking heteronormativity, Palo Santo is a futuristic work in its own right.

Let’s Eat Grandma bend future-pop to their will on ‘I’m All Ears’

Lets-Eat-GrandmaStream on Spotify

Score: 10/10

This gifted duo from Norwich were just 17 years old when they released their first album. 2016’s I, Gemini made waves for fearlessly – if not seamlessly – blending prog-grunge with psychedelic synthpop. Expectations for follow-up I’m All Ears are high, but thankfully so is the budget.

Scottish musician SOPHIE is the intersection between underground and mainstream cool – working with everyone from Charli XCX to Madonna (and reportedly charging $10,000–20,000 a track). Despite only co-producing two songs (out of 11), she’s a savvy choice of collaborator.

Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth’s vocals are parodically girlish, and scarily reminiscent of the hyper-feminine aesthetic SOPHIE weaponises in her own music. The pair’s creative bond has been maturing since they met aged four, and girl power permeates throughout.

Pre-release single ‘Hot Pink’ uses angelically angry harmonies to deconstruct the shortcomings of gender norms: ‘I just want anything and everything / Just can’t make it obvious’. SOPHIE dangles sickly-sweet synthwork like a lure, all before a crunching bassline takes the patriarchy in its jaws.

Let’s Eat Grandma’s strong way with melody isn’t fully revealed until mid-album cuts like ‘Snakes & Ladders’, a faithful reimagining of Portishead, and the lovely ‘I Will Be Waiting’.

This is thanks in part to Welsh producer David Wrench, who takes on the bulk of the album and simply gets the band’s elastic sound, deftly stretching and restraining it whenever necessary. Even at its most reserved, as on the chillingly sparse ‘Cool & Collected’ and ‘Ava’, I’m All Ears is unlike anything you’ll hear all year.

Florence humanises the machine on ‘High As Hope’

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 8/10

Has any pop singer in recent memory evolved their sound with more care than Florence Welch?

It’s been almost a decade since Lungs made her a star – a wood-dwelling sorcerer of booming goth-art pop that scored both indie and mainstream kudos. That ethereal character (and brand) is still present on fourth LP High As Hope, but this time, she works her magic in more mundane settings.

The arrangements are airer – piano, tribal drums, sly strings, the occasional brass section – and the songwriting doesn’t quite demand your attention like previous releases, but here there’s a deliberate – and welcome – effort to humanise the machine.

‘South London Forever’ knows it has a lot to catch us up on, and so starts with Florence’s boozy adolescence and E-fuelled partying days (name-checking legendary gay bar The Joiners Arms) before moving on to her millennial woes. What could have been self-indulgent ends up a sweet and confiding mini-epic.

This is a more frayed Florence than we’re used to, but even with the layers pulled back, she’s a fascinating artist. Guided by her titanic voice, ‘Hunger’ is exultant gospel-pop on the surface, but the connections the lyrics make between body positivity (‘At seventeen, I started to starve myself’) and emotional fulfilment are rich in pathos.

Welch’s range can be jaw-dropping, and the set’s many ballads give her ample room to explore it. But despite all the nips and tucks to her sound, it’s that banshee wail that tells you you’re listening to a Florence and the Machine song. And when those lungs get to work, she’s an instantly recognisable force in British music.

 

 

Daphne & Celeste’s comeback album is an unpredictable triumph

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Hey Daphne, whatever happened to Yazz?

It’s a shoulder-tapping question on an album that begs a few of them. What divine force brought the gruesome twosome behind early-noughties school playground anthems ‘U.G.L.Y’ and ‘Ooh Stick You’ near a recording booth again? And why did wonky-pop maestro Max Tundra choose to write and produce his first full-length in ten years for them?

The point is, in a parallel universe, Tundra’s pop obsession runs so deep, he could have just as easily gifted …Save the World to 80s singer Yazz (she of ‘The Only Way is Up‘ fame) , or Taylor Dayne, or Shocking Blue, two more flash-in-the-pan icons name-checked in the same song. And they’d be lucky to have it. The album is a touching tribute to the juvenile sugar rush only class A drugs and supposedly throwaway music can provide, all while managing to sound fresh and unpredictable.

But make no mistake: this record belongs as much to Daphne & Celeste as it does to the man twiddling the knobs. Thrown into the pop machine as teenagers, fronting singles overflowing with insults – which they would fearlessly perform to a violently drunk crowd at Reading 2000 – the pair’s story is unique, and the best tracks tend to play off their serendipitous friendship.

Tundra makes heavy use of vocoders to heighten, rather then tame, their cartoonish personalities. On ‘BB’, they take ‘basic buskers’ to task for clogging the charts with heteronormative drivel. An Ed Sheeran-skewering guitar-and-vocal refrain gives the song a solid melodic foundation, but in a meta twist, the girls make no effort to hide their disdain for it: ‘This is the first thing you figure out when you get a guitar’.

…Save the World is aimed squarely at those with a sweet tooth for irony-laden pop. Daphne & Celeste & Max spend so much time winking, they may well have been legally blind recording these songs, and ‘Sunny Day’ and closer ‘Kandy Korn’ arguably push the 90s-Nickelodeon-show-on-crack vibe an inch too far. That said, if you can’t hear an inexplicable beauty in the acid-trance gem ‘Alarms’, then maybe you don’t deserve to be saved.

8.5 / 10

Great ‘Expectations’: Hayley Kiyoko’s out-and-proud debut

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Remember that Britney x Madonna song ‘Me Against the Music’? It’s always been a bit shit, but I do like Brit’s quasi-rap before the chorus. Across her debut album Expectations, Hayley Kiyoko’s pop instincts rarely falter, yet a stab at the Princess of Pop’s breakneck delivery on ‘Curious’ could be her ballsiest move so far…

Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica? /
Forget to bring a jacket / Wrap up in him / Cause you wanted to?

(In pop music terms, this is a soliloquy. Hayley fires it out in five seconds flat.)

Jacking the beat from Fifth Harmony’s ‘Work From Home’, the single clicks and thumps in all the right places, even as the lyrics coyly confront a girlfriend over her heterosexual affair. The ‘If you let him touch ya…’ hook is niftily copied-and-pasted-and-pasted, allowing Hayley to vent her frustration, while maintaining her composure.

The 26-year-old singer and actress represents a post-Tumblr wave of young queer voices in pop. The fearlessness with which she’s presenting her sexuality is pioneering in itself. The album’s artwork finds her candidly revering the female form, and in her music, the corresponding pronouns come thick and fast.

Sleepover’ will be painfully familiar to any gay who’s crushed on a straight friend. Over a tender groove, Hayley’s fresh-as-morning-dew voice cries out for intimacy, and yes, for great expectations not met. ‘He’ll Never Love You’ is an intervention for a girlfriend in denial of her true identity, elevated by an impatient vocal.

The synth-pop production is largely dreamy and fluorescent, acting as bubble wrapping for Hayley’s vulnerable songwriting. This duality is no more apparent than on a daring pair of mini-epics that dominate the middle section.

Both are emotionally complex and serpentine in structure, but the album’s heart pumps hardest on ‘Mercy/Gatekeeper’. Segueing from pulsating dance to a rockier verse straight from Sky Ferreira’s hard drive, Hayley traces the root(s) of her depression: ‘I can tell you don’t get it / ‘Cause you tell me everything will be okay’. A portentous monologue about autonomy follows, and the epiphany is rewarded with a swirl of sumptuous synths and Haim-esque harmonies, for a cathartic finish.

Expectations is a mellow and atmospheric listen, but the laborious path to self-acceptance bears juicy fruit. The Kehlani-featuring ‘What I Need’ is sexy and of-the-moment, and deserves to be a minor hit. The funk-reliant ‘Palm Dreams’, meanwhile, soundtracks an impossibly cool party, a sequinned declaration that queer life really does get better.

9 / 10

The Breeders make a courageous return on ‘All Nerve’

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For 25 years, it looked like The Breeders seminal Last Splash album was doomed to live up to its name. Addiction and sibling wars ripped the band’s most successful lineup apart in the mid-90s. And true enough, neither Kim Deal nor her cohorts would ever make such a splash in the mainstream again.

Perhaps to compensate for the loss of momentum, their profoundly confident return All Nerve is obsessed with collisions.

The title track – a torch song so fiery you could light a cigarette off it – depicts love as a hurtling vehicle. Loved ones are run down in the chase. Ships crash through ports. A mother forcibly restrains her daughter. Last Splash, it seems, was just the beginning.

These violent images are reflective of a band reliving their chemistry, albeit to a reckless degree, rather than any past strife.

Kim and her long-serving twin sister / guitarist Kelley’s most recent effort – 2008’s Mountain Battles – was a hushed, often eerie masterpiece. By contrast, their reunion with bassist Josephine Wiggs and drummer Jim McPherson often draws on the fuzzy guitars and sexy wit of 90s hits like ‘Cannonball’ and ‘Divine Hammer’.

‘Nervous Mary’ and ‘Wait in the Car’ have anxious protagonists, but their hysteria is expressed through hysterical observations. An unconvincingly chipper ‘Good morning!’ opens the latter, before we get a peek into a mind in meltdown (FYI, there’s meowing). McPherson’s drums drop in and out, exposing the track’s delectably rugged riff.

Kim sings with unusual clarity these days, an asset producer / alt-rock deity Steve Albini exploits in the mix. Her prominence has a humanising effect on 70s krautrock classic ‘Archangel’s Thunderbird’, with the off/on Pixie’s good-natured snarl italicising the biblical farce embedded in Amon Düül II’s ominous original.

However, the most revelatory vocal has to be Josephine Wiggs’ lead on ‘MetaGoth’. In the thick of ghoulish guitars and a propulsive bassline, her English accent is downright exotic, pulling a foreboding promise that ‘No one’s here to stay’ to even chillier depths.

Yet even at its most sombre, All Nerve lives up to the fearlessness implied by its title. ‘Spacewoman’ speaks to an astronaut who has cut herself adrift, and spins listlessly above Earth. A symbol for our narrator’s loneliness, she’s eventually to coaxed down to revel in the sight of a beach ball bouncing around a stadium.

It’s a simple scene that’s almost surreal in its sense of community spirit: ‘Everyone’s having fun / hitting home runs / With the sun in their eyes’. 

Swept up in the moment, Kim tries for hopeful notes at the very top of her range, and blessed with a synergistic band, it would be a shame if she didn’t embrace new creative extremes.

10/10

I’m two-thousand-and-late-teen, but…

Halfway through 2017, I sacrificed music blogging to focus on my day job. My dismissal and subsequent destitution were never actually on the cards, but my anxiety had built a persuasive case to the contrary, and I felt pressured to hone my professional skills.

Writing about music, conveying love for a lyric or sonic embellishment, is among my favourite things to do. It hurts to think I could lose a good six months of it to anxiety, and let the year by undissected, so here’s a peace offering to my former, less-confident self – a two-thousand-and-late-teen roundup of the year’s best pop!

Oh, and here’s the Spotify playlist. Enjoy!

21. Taylor Swift – …Ready For It?

By keeping mum on a heap of political issues – Trump being the apex – Swift clung to her red and blue state appeal. After the bile-spitting ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ got a thumbs-up from Breitbart, along came this capital-P pop song – which jacks Sleigh Bells’ noise pop to riveting effect. A strong if cynical example of having it both ways.

20. Miley Cyrus – Younger Now

Like the LP it was burdened with launching, ‘Younger Now’ was, by all accounts, a critical and commercial failure. Despite being underwritten, the song’s message – accept your past, embrace your present – is the essence of self-love. Perhaps it arrived too soon, but flop or not, Cyrus has an enviable career retrospective in her canon.

19. The Killers – The Man

‘The Man’ is four minutes of dick-swinging – and I’m not even talking about the dance moves best suited to its sleek, Talking Heads-indebted funk. Careening from deadpan to diva-ish deliveries, Brandon Flowers disappears into the role of an arrogant lout.

18. Thundercat – Friend Zone

In the midst of confronting a flakey love interest, ‘I’d rather play Mortal Kombat anyway’ is one of Thundercat’s many dorky kiss-offs. He’s a big nerd at heart, and producers Flying Lotus play even more to the singer’s sensitive side, accentuating creamy high notes with bubbly synths and a wonky bassline.

17. Pixx – Romance

Pitched down for the hook to ‘Romance’, Pixx’s woozy lower register is something alien and sinister. Bird-like harmonies and keyboards tinged with fuzz add to the unease, while searing lyrics – ‘You don’t care as long as you leave in a pair’ – render this a spectacularly bitter break-up track.

16. Lorde – Supercut

Aside from one strikingly raw vocal, ‘Supercut’ is a dizzying, piano-led dance track. Booting up your mental iMovie and compiling clips of a relationship to build your ideal narrative shouldn’t make for the most immediately compelling pop song. And yet, Lorde’s neuroses speak to a generation cultivating carefree existences on social media.

15. The Orielles – I Only Bought It For the Bottle

This Halifax-born trio – ranging between 17 and 21 years of age – peddle indie rock that’s too observant to be considered dreamy. Sure, the guitars are hazy, and the vocals are as cool as VapoRub, but the wry lyrics lampoon a society obsessed with aesthetics.

14. CamelPhat & Elderbrook – Cola

European house hasn’t been the genre du jour for some time now, but hazy allusions to cocaine binges are always in style. This Grammy-nominated track pairs pure paranoia with a four-on-the-floor beat – the lyrics are cruelly voyeuristic, while the synths writhe and jerk as if attempting to escape a straitjacket.

13. Run the Jewels – Stay Gold

Run the Jewels’ anti-establishment bent is (partially) dialled back for ‘Stay Gold’ – a downright affectionate sketch of the ‘brain-with-an-ass’ girls in the duo’s lives. The electro-hip-hop beats are still chrome-plated, but Killer Mike and El-P’s gratitude gleams even brighter.

12. Charli XCX – Roll With Me

You might not think you need 90’s bubblegum-house in the vein of Aqua in your life, but you’re wrong. “Roll With Me” is more than the sum of its ostentatious parts. When the sparkly thump gets too much, Scottish-born producer SOPHIE – an affiliate of London’s trendy PC Music label – breaks up things with bludgeoning drums and warped vocals.

11. Travis Scott – Goosebumps (featuring Kendrick Lamar)

Murky trap and a pop chorus generate an addictive friction on ‘Goosebumps’. In a less exciting musical climate, one can imagine a certain Mr. Bieber taking the hook, but Travis Scott makes light work of it. Whether he’s singing seductively, or rapping maniacally, Scott’s voice strokes the eardrums like sandpaper.

10. King Krule – Dum Surfer

Infusing Blur-like Brit pop with grungy guitars and menacing jazz, ‘Dum Surfer’ is an inebriated – yet surprisingly detailed – account of a night on the town… then on the road.

9. CupcakKe – CPR

CupcakKe’s wordplay is X-rated and witty, lending an audacious charge to scorching hip-hop, as well as poppier fare. On the ‘Macarena’-aping ‘CPR’, the rapper has her sights set on dance floor domination, turning a promise to save your dick giving it CPR’ into a hook you can sweat your inhibitions out to.

8. Lil Uzi Vert – XO Tour Llif3

TM88’s twinkling yet zombified production is more conducive to an panic attack than a party. Thematically, it’s a hard sell, too. In addition to one of the bleakest hooks in recent memory – ‘All my friends are dead’ – Lil Uzi Vert reckons with infidelity and substance abuse, shrugging them off in his elastic slur.

7. Brockhampton – BOOGIE

This hip hop collective excels as a boyband and self-sufficient creative agency. There’s fifteen members to handle everything from the music to the art direction – and ‘BOOGIE’ sounds crowded in the best way. A melting pot of bite-size verses, hardcore horns, and what sounds like a looped kazoo, it’s a rave-up from start to finish.

6. Katy Perry – Bon Appétit

Neither credible enough for critics, or trendy enough for music buyers, this was 2017’s most misunderstood single. When it dropped, I said the production was so fresh, it was antiseptic. I stand by that – those 90’s house synths poke and prod at the pleasure centre, and aren’t worlds away from what the critically-fêted PC Music lot are doing.

5. Cardi B – Bodak Yellow

Prior to becoming the first female rapper since Lauryn Hill to score a #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Cardi B was a successful TV and social media personality without a single chart entry. Not that you’d know it from ‘Bodak Yellow’’s not-so humblebrags, which revelled in the Bronx native’s pop domination before it even seemed possible.

There’s nothing original about what Cardi’s celebrating – she’s made a fortune, had some cosmetic surgery, and primed for a good lickout. But her infectious flow and giant personality is that of a global superstar, and it helps that the hook was made to be sung at the back of a school bus. In many ways, 2017 belonged to Cardi B.

4. Kendrick Lamar – Humble

An impeccably timed comeback single, ‘Humble’ dropped two months into Trump’s presidency. As the chaotic administration dominated the news cycle, America putting a request to an ignorant oaf to take a seat at #1 was the palette-cleanser we all needed.

3. Vince Staples – BagBak  

‘BagBak’ snarls at fraudsters across society – from fame-hungry sycophants, to profiling police, to pitiful governments. Surfing a foamy electro bassline and leather-gloved handclaps, Staples is a galvanising presence – and that’s before he tells the president to suck a dick.

2. Tove Lo – Disco Tits

Sexual liberation has been Tove Lo’s M.O since 2016’s Lady Wood – her sophomore album and an expression for the female boner. On this nü-disco banger, she wears her stiff nipples as two badges of honour. The bass pulsates, and synths trickle like tetris blocks, but Tove’s body confidence has its own gravitational pull.

1. Dua Lipa – New Rules

Only in late August did UK music listeners send a lead female artist to #1, and what track could be more qualified to smash the patriarchy than ‘New Rules’?

A five-step guide to leaving fuck boys in your dust, Dua Lipa’s international hit is dripping with girl power. Hear how the backing harmonies in her verses recall late 90s girl groups, and dilute an implicit heartbreak that would otherwise consume our protagonist.

Despite channeling the tropical house trend, the song’s obvious money shot is its unclassifiable post-chorus drop – a befuddling swirl of slippery honks and fried vocals. Although Lipa’s smoky tone is chopped and contorted beyond recognition here, she’s no mere cipher.

Chalk it down to her it-girl aura, or a distinctively chill singing technique, but on ‘New Rules’, Lipa seized her chance to be confessional and fierce all at once – becoming #bestfriendgoals for millions of fans, seemingly overnight.