Ariana Grande’s new album is sweet and sour

ariStream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘God is a Woman’, ‘Breathin’

Sweetener is Ariana Grande’s fourth album, and it’s a bit soured by its over-reliance on Pharrell William’s dry, faux-funk beats. Considering the two hits pulled from the LP – ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ – are both Max Martin cuts, surely the writing was on that wall that something wasn’t quite working?

If Williams’ productions win critical acclaim, it will be from journalists on a tight schedule. His songs are interesting enough for a minute, but Pharrell soon depletes his sachet of tricks. Not that you’d notice if you’re prone to the skip button and have a glut of albums to review by midnight.

Fortunately, I have time on my hands.

The Nicki Minaj-assisted promo single ‘The Light is Coming’ is admirably mental island-tinged pop, full of white-hot percussion and digital grind – until you realise the irate male vocal sample has been looped without any plan or artistic intention. It’s as if Pharrell built a skeletal first draft in the studio, popped out for a coffee, and never came back.

Ariana keeps her end of the bargain on ‘Successful’, toasting to herself and womankind with slinky cool, but her effort is somewhat undone by cheesy groaning keyboards. ‘Borderline’ harkens back to The Neptunes’ early-00s album fillers, and I now understand Kelis’ decision to cease working with them exclusively in 2003.

To Pharrell’s credit, the Piña Colada-flavoured ‘Blazed’ and the dreamy goodness of ‘R.E.M’ are fully realised successes, and prove Ariana’s collaborative instincts weren’t too off-the-mark.

Electro slowies like ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight and Go’ offer pleasing restraint, but the first single ‘No Tears’ still towers over the album. Max Martin has crafted a daring piece of theatrical dance-pop here, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails.

This is Ariana’s first project since the terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May tragically claimed 23 victims. In choosing the first single, Ariana and her team had to strike a delicate balance – uplifting but not glib, respectful but not in mourning. And they’ve passed with flying colours. It’s just a shame the rest of Sweetener doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot.

 

All Saints’ ‘Testament’ is proof they’re here to stay

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 10/10

Add to library: The whole damn thing

Maybe it was the ten-year gap between albums. Maybe it was the emotional gravitas Nicole Appleton’s tabloid-devoured divorce lent the songs. For whatever reason, 2016’s Red Flag gave All Saints the reboot they deserved. Testament isn’t blessed with a dramatic backstory, making its categorical brilliance all the more impressive.

This is simply All Saints at their creative peak. Unofficial fifth member K-Gee is back as producer, and ‘Pure Shores’/ ‘Black Coffee’ maestro William Orbit brings two tracks. Swirling electronica, 80s soul-pop, and tripped-out garage are among the many genres tested out, but they’re bound by meticulous percussion, a heavy low-end, and impeccable harmonies.

It helps that Shaznay Lewis is one of Britain’s most underrated pop songwriters. Love is the sole theme, and she paints it in all its forms. ‘Love Lasts Forever’ comforts a child nearing adulthood; ‘Three Four’ is a smutty sex romp; and ‘Don’t Look Over Your Shoulder’ escorts a freshly-dumped ex out of the house. 

The women relive their Orbit-helmed glory years on the transcendent ‘After All’. But ‘Testament In Motion’ points to an exciting future for both band and producer, with blissful balladry dissolving seamlessly into hip-winding electroclash.

Isolated from Red Flag’s PR opportunities, Testament makes All Saints’ raw talent impossible to ignore. In 2018, their boundary-pushing Britpop is even more audacious than it was in the 90s. Who among their peers can claim the same?

 

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’

florenceandthemachine-highashope

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