Charli XCX’s outstanding new album is business as unusual

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 9.0/10

Add to library: Pretty much everything hun

Featuring collaborations with Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, Lizzo, HAIM, and Sky Ferreira.

Booking festival stages and Taylor Swift support slots might be a breeze with a couple of transatlantic smashes in your back pocket. But Charli XCX is a popstar who evolves so quickly, and challenges her creative limits so regularly, that her most accessible work – think the punchy, shout-along hooks of ‘I Love It’ or ‘Boom Clap’ – is simply trite compared to her post-2014 pivot to PC Music’s hyper-futuristic robo-pop.

The conflict between these two opposing creative avenues has defined the last four years of Charli’s career: an agonising yet fruitful chapter of label interference, one scrapped third album, two critically-acclaimed mixtapes and an EP, plus an endless stream of singles.

After seven attempts at landing a hit, one of those singles, the Troye Sivan duet ‘1999’, miraculously climbed to #13 in the UK charts last year. Songs like that fluffy bit of Y2K-nostalgia porn aren’t what make long-gestating third album Charli a triumph. If you look at the popstar’s recent body of work as a hedonistic, orgy-fuelled beach resort – housed within an alien dimension where it rains champagne and snows cocaine – ‘1999’ conveys as much of that fun as an official website. But it’s probably the reason Charli has been released at all.

Because here’s the genius of Charli XCX. So deeply ingrained is her pop know-how that, alongside years of reckless experimentation, she has continued to write enough chart hits – for herself and others, see: song of the summer ‘Señorita’ by Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello – and rack up enough industry goodwill to sneak the abstruse synth gimmickry of hipster darlings A.G. Cook, SOPHIE and Danny L Harle into the mainstream.

Take ‘Click’, for example. As soon as the aforementioned single’s gentrified house-pop makes its tidy exit, a protracted blast of feverish synth confirms we’re in business-as-unusual mode. Co-starring Kim Petras and eccentric Estonian rapper Tommy Cash, it’s a godless hymn honouring the whips, the gold, and the instant gratification that comes with being a rockstar: ‘Get what I want like “click” / They want a pic like “click”’. The cocky rhymes are propped up by simple, evocative percussion – until Cash starts rapping about Sudoku and hashtags, and the production becomes openly hostile around him. The final 30 seconds is a collection of twisted, nightmarish sounds typically associated with demonic possession, seemingly added for no other reason than for the amusement of scaring the shit out of any Taylor Swift fans picked up from the Reputation Tour. Bewildering moments like these are what make Charli a triumph.

Thankfully, there are plenty of them. The belligerent ‘Cross You Out’ slow-dances to 80s-prom drums and extraterrestrial rumblings. On ‘2099’, Charli backs up her self-anointed avant-garde status with high-tech, and highly-textured, production. Best of the lot is the Missy Elliot-recalling ‘Shake It’ – a four-way battle royale between Big Freedia, CupcakKe, Brooke Candy, and Pabllo Vittar. Charli plays the part of referee, regularly stepping into the ring to remind you to shake it. Each of these iterations comes flavoured in a new vocal effect, with the singer mutating into everything from a malfunctioning android to sentient liquid.

Whatever creative lane Charli XCX has navigated over the years, she has never stopped writing inherently catchy hooks. Charli is a world where aggressive futurism coexists with comparatively meek but charming single options like ‘White Mercedes’ and ‘Official’. That alone makes it one of the most important pop records of the 2010s, and – if I may be so bold – the next decade to come.

 

Katy Perry’s ‘Small Talk’ is an awkward single befitting an awkward career

kt-flawless2019 has been a solid showing for Katy Perry so far. Although we’re a while away from her own A Star Is Born moment, the pop icon has been steadily reestablishing her musical relevance.

First came the charmingly subtle Zedd collaboration ‘365’ on Valentine’s Day, followed by the breaktaking Top 20 hit ‘Never Really Over‘ in May, again produced by Zedd. No album has been confirmed, but there’s clearly some interest in the ‘Firework’ singer. 

Katy being Katy, however, there’s always a backlash lurking around the corner. Whatever blood magick she performed to clinch those nine #1s has lain dormant since 2014, making only a brief appearance last year to destroy the 81-year-old Catholic nun who died in court challenging the sale of a lush Los Angeles convent to Ms. Perry. RIP Sister Holzman!

The gaffe-prone star has spent the last few years harvesting karmic retributions for her expedient ascent to pop’s echelons in the late noughties, beginning with the floppage of 2017’s Witness.

This week, Josh Kloss – who turned heads as Katy’s rippled love interest in the video for ‘Teenage Dream’ nine years ago – accused her of multiple transgressions that took place during production, the most damning of which is an incident at a party where the star allegedly pulled down the model’s sweatpants to expose his penis to a crowd of people. 

The act Josh describes is an irrefutable violation, and his account of events demands an immediate and thought-out response from Katy, either publicly or in private. Yet even if this crisis is handled with the utmost sensitivity and care, there’s still the small matter of her new single being a bit shit.

Small Talk

Sexual harassment scandal pending, new single ‘Small Talk’ has a bit of momentum and goodwill to play with. The logical next step in cementing Katy’s radio renaissance would be unleashing another high-impact bop before summer fizzles out. 

Someone should probably check there isn’t a gas leak over at Capitol Records HQ, as only that could explain why they believe decidedly low-impact plinky-plonk scandipop is the horse to bet on. Admittedly, this is a new sound for Katy, but only because she was busy paddleboarding with a naked Orlando Bloom while every other popstar was driving it into the ground. 

Her attempt is interesting enough. The track wryly mocks the stilted dynamics between ex-lovers, using compact verses brimming with goofy observations to underline the singer’s nonchalance: ‘Isn’t it wild that I know your weakness? / And everybody at the party thinks that you’re the best since sliced bread’.

Assuming the bread in question is plain ol’ white, this analogy sums up the track’s flavour nicely. Co-writer and producer Charlie Puth adds pleasant touches to the sparse production (and beat boxes throughout the entire track, bless), but after 20+ plays, I can confirm that’s all ‘Small Talk’ is: pleasant.

At best, it’s a befittingly awkward single for an awkward chapter in Katy Perry’s career.

[Music] MNEK – Small Talk EP (review)

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

Florence-The-Machine-What-Kind-of-Man-iTunes

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

[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