[Music] Janet Jackson – Unbreakable (review)

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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 is 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.

9.0/10

[Music] Veruca Salt – Ghost Notes (review)

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Source: ladygunn.com
Available to buy on iTunes

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.

The Gospel According to Saint Me” is a bubbly toast to the band’s reformation, but from the sprightly spark of Gordon’s voice, you wouldn’t guess that it’s been nearly two decades since the full-fat arena rock of 1997’s Eight Arms to Hold You.

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 to the virtue of forgiveness. Not only can it reignite a once glowing friendship; it can pave the way for the best record of your career.

9.0/10

[Music] Charli XCX – Sucker (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

Review: Giving frothy, guitar-driven power pop a semi-ironic squeeze without choking the fun out of it is 22 year-old Charlotte Aitchison, AKA Charli XCX. Sucker is her second studio album – unless you count 2008’s barely self-released debut 14, but then why would you? – and the glee with which it swaps the moody electro-fuzz of 2013’s True Romance for a raucous riot grrrl flavour is worth the price of admission alone.

Bursting out of the gate with a barrage of girly whoops, infectious new wave synths and a shriek of “Fuck you, Suckerrr!”, the title track seems to be swiped straight from the soundtrack of a late 90’s Columbia TriStar teen flick. Perhaps such connotations are unavoidable considering it was in the guise of Britney Murphy’s Clueless character that Charli was introduced to the majority of listeners alongside Iggy Azalea in the video for their ubiquitous 2014 hit “Fancy”, but if Sucker aims to convey anything other than giddy, juvenile thrills, it certainly does not show.

Even “London Queen” – which is easily the weakest track here, clocking in at under three minutes and yet still blighted by nauseating repetition – cannot help but raise a smile thanks to the unmitigated delight Charli displays at her newfound prosperity: “I never thought I’d be living in the USA / Doing things the American way […] Living the dream like a London Queen”. Fame and fortune are recurring themes, but this particular starlet isn’t one to sing at you from behind the velvet rope; “Gold Coins” and “Hanging Around” invite us to dream big, while “Famous”, with its shimmy-friendly guitar licks, treats fame as merely a state of mind: “One night, we’re gonna come and crash the party / Weren’t invited but we’re feeling so outrageous / Just like we’re famous”. It’s the way Charli tows the line between an awestruck sense of pride in her own achievements and the BFF-quality encouragement her lyrics offer that makes her the listener’s ever-reliable seatbelt on Sucker‘s musical rollercoaster.

The songwriting is extraordinarily hook-focused, but never cynical. “Boom Clap”, the dreamy party favour “Doing It” (featuring Rita Ora, who usually represents the kind of faceless chart fodder Charli rages against, but here gives the track some necessary zip) and the sweet 60’s girl group pastiche “Need Ur Love” offer reprieve from the catchy noise-pop, although these comparatively subtle moments probably won’t satiate those accusing Charli of selling out. She has been frank about her desire to appeal to young girls, and perhaps the thought of even a fraction of them growing up with a snarly ode to female agency like “Body Of My Own” on their iPods is all the credibility a project as unapologetically fun as Sucker could ever ask for.

9.0/10

[Music] Veruca Salt – IV (review)

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Review: The lack of imagination behind the titling of Veruca Salt’s fourth studio album is reflected in its overall sound. Upon its release in 2006 – twelve years on from the band’s debut – there remained only two constants in the VS camp: the relentless pursuit of the fuzzy 90’s alt-rock aesthetic that had long been their bread and butter, and the presence of singer/guitarist Louise Post. The implosion of the group’s original line-up – completed by singer/guitarist Nina Gordon, drummer Jim Shapiro and bassist Steve Lack – was followed by 2000’s Resolver, a deeply vitriolic collection of songs that wore its vengeance-seeking credentials on its sleeve with tracks such as “Officially Dead” and “Used To Know Her”. Sonically, IV may pack as hard a punch as its predecessors, but the overarching tone is surprisingly fun and hedonistic.

The chorus of thrash-happy lead single “So Weird” – “You don’t know me / you don’t own me / you’re just passing through my life” – may sound distressingly similar to something Ashley Simpson would have recorded at the height of her success, but there’s an irreverent bent to the verses that make it a worthy spiritual successor to previous singles “Volcano Girls” and “All Hail Me”. Listeners may be more intrigued to learn what exactly “texting vegan sex again” entails than they are by the stop-start riff, but it nonetheless makes for an arresting opener. The momentum’s maintained by “Centipede”, which may very well be the most adrenaline-fuelled track any member of the band has put their name to, and the misfiring “Innocent”. The latter’s blend of cruel lyrics (“We’ve got a cutter in the bathroom / She kinda busted out of high school”) and churning guitar evoke an effectively sleazy fleapit atmosphere, but the lazy chorus disappoints. The excellent “Damage Done” tackles related themes, but with fuller production, tough, frenetic riffs and a snarly, stuck-up vocal from Post.

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[Music] Veruca Salt – Resolver (review)

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Review: Fellow followers of current pop music-related events will have inevitably stumbled upon the term “shade” at least once throughout their travels in cyberspace – either through Rihanna’s Twitter page or an ill-advised visit to minimum security insane asylum ATRL – but for any neophytes out there, it essentially refers to sly insults delivered by useless people in the public eye, such as X-Factor judges or Perez Hilton. Fans of both pop music and heavily contrived drama can take pleasure in picking apart interviews with their ‘faves’, all the time believing that talk of an ex-bandmate’s handwriting and a diverted hand placement could the spell the end for a girl group (as was very much the case for this band).

Even when there is behind-the-scenes tension, it is rarely as explicit as we would like it to be, putting even more pressure on fans to read into every lyric, tweet, and hashtag until they can be certain that pretty much everyone in pop hates each other. Those tired of reading between the lines may find much to enjoy in Veruca Salt’s third record. With all but one of it’s thirteen tracks dedicated to either the fall-out between singer/guitarists Louise Post and Nina Gordon or the former’s split from Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, Resolver is positively brimming with rage and, yes, unadulterated, unexpurgated ‘shade’.

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[Movies] Before Midnight (review)

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Director: Richard Linklater // Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing // Release Date: June 21st // Starring: Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply.

It’s been nine years since we last checked in one of modern cinema’s most intoxicating love stories. This third installment initially paints a picture of domestic bliss for cerebral soul mates Jesse and Celine. Hank, the former’s teenage son from a previous marriage, has just spent what he calls the “best summer of my life” with his father’s family (including his twin girls, conceived in the wake of Before Sunset’s romantic trysts) on the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, and the film begins with a quietly panicked Jesse seeing him off at the airport. It’s a winning opening, with Hawke’s affectingly strained performance suggesting that priorities have changed since Jesse first boarded that train to Vienna almost twenty years ago.

Personalities run the risk of being diluted when children are thrown into the mix, but in a ballsy move, Before Midnight positions its characters as people, not parents. Lazy scriptwriting and mortifying perceptions of gender norms mean female characters are most likely to fall prey to the insipid trappings of domesticity. Thankfully, Celine is as unmovable as ever. Her inclination for tart honesty and playful emasculation has only strengthened over the years, and it’s the latter trait that allows tension to mount over otherwise jovial group dinners.

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[Music] Veruca Salt – Eight Arms to Hold You (review)

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Veruca Salt took the modest ambitions of their debut record American Thighs to new extremes with its follow-up, 1997’s Eight Arms to Hold You. Where the undemanding lyrics of its predecessor were met with understated melodies and a fun, artless spirit, this effort arrives suffocated by Metallica cohort Bob Rock’s one-trick production.

For anyone who picked up their stopgap release – the punctuation-defying, credibility-baiting Blow It Out Your Ass It’s Veruca Salt E.P. – the warning signs were clear and present. Even in the hands of the brilliant Steve Albini, the disc’s two uptempos were cluttered and moronic, the downtempos bloated and devoid of conviction. If Albini – the man behind a many a stellar Nirvana, Pixies and Joanna Newsom production, amongst others – couldn’t wring results from these young upstarts, what hope did Rock have?

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Veruca Salt crush it on debut American Thighs

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When you lead an album with a single as attention-grabbing as 90s alt-rock gem “Seether”, it’s only fair to have something to match it down the line. In reality, Veruca Salt’s debut American Thighs holds only three additional rock-outs.

Thanks to singer-guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post, the frenetic “Seether” is packed with garage-rock grit and lyrical titillation (it was supposedly about a woman’s monthly gift). If the band’s later efforts demonstrated an attraction to heavy metal, then “All Hail Me” stands as a warning. Sonically, it’s the weightiest track on the record, full of chilling wails and galloping guitars.

Number One Blind” sounds like a crossover hit, but for a different band. Nonetheless, the slightly cheesy melody blends surprisingly well with the rest of the record. “Victrola” boasts the same raucous charm as “Seether”, but at barely two minutes in length, it’s a bit throwaway.

So that leaves us with what Rolling Stone described as “flat balladry”. The triptych of “Spiderman ‘79“, “Forsythia” and “Wolf” is an awkward one. All three drag, but only the second fails to reach a bombastic conclusion. “Forsythia” has a cute sashaying riff, but it nosedives into a faceless instrumental when its chorus deserves a poppier structure.

Celebrate You” brings stubborn teenage melodrama and contains the album’s campest lyric: “I tip my glass and toast to you; / the blood spills on the carpet / at your celebration.” Fuzzy power ballad “Twinstar” is lyrically simple (“You wanna lift me up / but you don’t know / I’m stuck in my ways”), but when singer-guitarists Nina Gordon and Post belt that chorus out, it’s a lighter-in-the-air moment.

Ideally, the album should have ended here, but of course there’s an ‘epic’ to slog through. The amateurish “25” is disappointing, although the whispered kiss-off “Sleeping Where I Want To” goes some way towards making amends.

There was something admirable about Veruca Salt’s lack of ambition. What their debut lacks in meaning and experimentation it makes up for with killer hooks melded with a pleasingly hazy atmosphere. While their personal troubles ensured they would never again make quite such an innocent record, American Thighs remains an oddly bewitching relic from a simpler time.

8/10