[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

[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

[Music] Top Tracks of 2014, Part Two (#15 – #1)

Part One:

#20 – #11 // #10 – #1

Part Two:

#30 – #16

***

15. Beyoncé – ***Flawless [Remix feat. Nicki Minaj], Beyoncé (Platinum Edition)

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 Available to buy on iTunes

After two solid minutes of unfettered bravado, Beyoncé says she wants “everyone to feel like this”, which is a fairly petrifying request depending on how receptive you are to the brand of masturbatory ego-tripping she co-opts from a guesting Nicki Minaj for the remix of one of the sprightlier joints from her self-titled fifth album. Granted, the shameless arrogance they display is probably healthier than the self-effacing greeting card sentiments we as music listeners have grown accustomed to, but as we’ve come to expect from Minaj, for every moderately witty remark (“This watch here done phase blizzards”) there’s always a landslide of misogyny (“These bitches washed up, and ain’t no fuckin’ soap involved”) and birdbrained materialism just around the corner.

The power of the original “***Flawless” – in which cocky verses (“Bow down, bitches!”) and the song’s more universal “Flawless” hook bookended an excerpt from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech “We should all be feminists” – wasn’t  lost in the rendering of this redux, hence its place on our list, but neither was it capitalised upon. A remix featuring the world’s leading female rapper should have provided a chance to streamline the track’s messy structure into something easier to canonise as a dance-floor staple; Bey’s failure to do so is either emblematic of a lack of confidence in the original song’s commercial appeal, or an over-confidence in her imperial stature in the music industry.

See also: Drunk In Love” [feat. Jay Z], “7/11

14. Rixton – Me and My Broken Heart, Let the RoadRixton-Main

Available to buy on iTunes

The combined talents of British soap star and housewife heartthrob Shane Richie and singer Colleen Nolan can be seen manifested within their cherub-faced son, Rixton frontman (or should that be frontboy?) Jake Roche. The electropop-rock charm of breakout single “Me and My Broken Heart” is indebted to Rob Thomas’ 2005 hit “Lonely No More”, with producers Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Katy Perry) and Steve Mac (One Direction) adding just a pinch of lilting Fisher Price ska to the verses for flavour, and Roche emoting like a young Adam Levine whose been miraculously shorn of all shrillness.

And despite primarily being a plea for a one night stand,“Me and My Broken Heart” is still a whole lot more subtle than songs of a similar ilk purveyed by their peers; there’s no “Tonight lets get some / and live while were young!”-sized clunkers to be found here.

See also:Wait On Me

13. Hozier – Jackie And Wilson, Hozier

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Available to buy on iTunes

It’s impossible to deny the funereal force of the Grammy-nominated “Take Me to Church”, and if there were an award for Song Most Suited to a Crucifixion (Cinematic or Otherwise) then we’re sure Hozier’s breakthrough would sweep it. But to define the reach of his talents by a single whose release and subsequent notoriety was well-timed with the continued religious emancipation of Hozier’s (née Andrew Hozier-Byrne) native Ireland – with a little help from a highly provocative music video depicting small-town homophobia – would be disrespectful to his talent, especially with a self-titled debut packed full of tuneful exercises in fervent indie rock to explore.

“Jackie and Wilson” works with a noticeably more colourful palette than the majority of its parent album, sauntering into existence with tight garage-rock swipes that graduate into a sky-high, love-struck chorus.

See also:Take Me to Church”, “Someone New

12. La Roux – Kiss and Not Tell, Trouble In Paradise

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Available to buy on iTunes

For Elly Jackson and Ben Langmaid, the five-year gestation of their sophomore album yielded an almost filler-free collection of tracks drenched in new wave’s delicate, pleasure-seeking suavity, but apparently at the expense of their professional relationship. Langmaid abandoned the production in 2011, taking to Twitter this summer to denounce Jackson’s credibility by reducing their collaborations to an artist-muse scenario:

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This implicit bitterness looms large over Trouble In Paradise, with even the curling synth lines of second single “Kiss and Not Tell” buckling under the pressure. But with Jackson’s once chrome-plated falsetto now tamed into a smooth purr, the conscious-battling discourse on infidelity is given a cheeky lift that her altogether colder work on 2009’s hit-filled La Roux could only dream of. Spread the word.

See also: Uptight Downtown”, “Let Me Down Gently”, “Silent Partner

11. Iggy Azalea / Charli XCX – Fancy, The New Classic 

2014 mtvU Woodie Awards And Festival - Performance

Available to buy on iTunes

From its first few bars of gummed synth, “Fancy” is instantly recognisable as the song that ruled the summer of 2014. As far as we’re concerned, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s adopted Southern American accent is more of a tribute to a culture she grew up admiring than an offensive parody, but the upheaval that continues in the wake of her success makes us all the more grateful for the distraction that Charli XCX’s earworm of a topline provides to this very day.

See also:Iggy Szn”, “Beg For It” [feat. MØ], “Work

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