Mark Ronson’s ‘Late Night Feelings’ is a mascara-smeared masterpiece

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 9.0/10

Add to library: ‘Late Night Feelings’, ‘Find U Again’, ‘Truth’, ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’

Mark Ronson’s fifth album is an emotional knockout, buoyed by a stellar all-female line-up including Lykke Li, Camila Cabello, Alicia Keys, and YEBBA.

In this post-meme culture we live in, the threat of ‘catching feelings’ will provoke a near-ironic response from the nearest millennial and Gen Z listener. It is a response wrought with gory fears of rejection and heartbreak. If Drake’s ‘In My Feelings’ is to be believed, feels are a free pass to be uncompromisingly needy; if you ever receive a ‘Kiki, do you love me?kinda late-night voicemail, anyone with a fuckboi allergy would be wise to delete it.

Late Night Feelings basks in these connotations of messy melodrama, perhaps because Ronson acknowledges the resplendent beauty in watching yourself cry in the mirror. Don’t act like you don’t do it. 

As its cover art plainly reveals, this is a concept album about heartbreak. There are moments of camp – the 70s disco-infused title track basically stomps around swigging a glass of wine with mascara running down its face – but for the most part, Ronson’s MO is giving his contributors room to air their dirty emotional laundry, and the producer’s faith is rewarded with 13 nuanced takes on an age-old subject.

Camila Cabello dazzles on the minor-key tech house number ‘Find U Again’. The lovelorn damsel role she’s given to play is nothing new, but the popstar’s razory gargle and a helpful nod to mental health (‘I do therapy at least twice a week’) add shades of spunk to her unlucky-in-love character. 

The themes are consistent throughout, but Ronson’s productions span a pleasing array of genres – from country-dance hybrids (Miley Cyrus vehicle ‘Nothing Breaks Like A Heart’), to prog-folk (‘True Blue’, featuring Angel Olsen), to unremarkable tropipop (‘Don’t Leave Me Lonely’, the best of a triptych of tracks from rising star YEBBA.)

Only ‘Truth’ looks at heartbreak from an outwardly perspective. Alicia Keys and Portland rapper The Last Artful, Dodgr use their time in the studio to express their political discontent in Trump’s America, and share their top tips for staying sane in a society that’s becoming increasingly numb to injustice: ‘Keep on educatin’, meditatin’, anything to keep me up’. 

The track’s phat industrial hip-hop stomp and lyrical grit sounds more like something from Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly than anything else here. The contrast is an absolute tonic in the context of the record. The crumbling democracy of a global superpower, the ramifications of which might just eviscerate civilisation as we know it, highlights the relative frivolity of our own personal, low-stake melodramas.

If Ronson likes to watch himself cry in the mirror, then he knows it’s always better when a fragment of your conscience, however tiny, knows the reason won’t really matter in the long run. Hearts heal. Eyes dry. Confront your reflection, top up your mascara, hit the town, and catch some late night feelings. 

Dido: Still On My Mind – ‘Dinner party music with interesting new flavours’

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Stream on Spotify

Score: 7.5/10

Add to library: ‘You Don’t Need A God’, ‘Take You Home’, ‘Friends’

Believe me when I say I did not expect the first 2019 release I would write about to be from bloody Dido.

Still On My Mind isn’t a bad record by any means. It’s actually rather gorgeous. But despite the considerable artistic growth it signals, the singer is forever destined to be an early-noughties punchline.

‘Dido’ is shorthand for the era of British dinner party music. The glossy, post-trip-hop splendour of megahits like ‘Here With Me’ and ‘White Flag’ set the scene for a glut of MOR starlets – from Jem’s wafer-thin folktronica, to Katie Melua pondering over Beijing’s bicycle population, backed by acoustic guitar and (trigger warning) a Chinese bamboo flute.

As a Dido fan, I can admit she excels at precisely two types of songs. There are the vanilla ballads that sent 1999’s No Angel and 2003’s Life for Rent flying off the shelves at Tesco. Then there’s the vanilla house tunes, both solo and with brother Rollo’s dance act Faithless, which in this example are supposed to represent Dido’s adventurous side.

The good news is, for much of her fifth record, Dido commits to a headier, more electronic sound. Don’t get me wrong – what counts as an uptempo on a Dido album is still highly relative. You probably won’t end up pre-seshing to synthy delights like ‘Take You Home’ (with its seductive ‘la la la’ hook) or ‘Mad Love’. We’re still in red-wine-on-the-patio territory here.

What you should appreciate is the confidence Dido and Rollo – together writing and producing the lion’s share of the record – have in this material. ‘Hurricanes’ opens with guitar plucks and a cold wisp of a vocal. So far, so familiar. But it builds in a way that no other Dido track has before, erupting unexpectedly into an intoxicating chillwave climax.

The next track ‘Give You Up’ works well because it does nothing of the sort. It’s the kind of sparse piano ballad Dido diehards will love, complemented by a stunning choir. This time, there’s no payoff, but the fact that I found myself waiting for one at all makes this a good lesson in how to raise (and toy with) a listener’s expectations in the space of two songs.

Musically, there are some nice surprises – from the horn-laden (and just plain horny) experiment ‘Hell After This’, to the Balearic tones bubbling beneath ‘Friends’. Yet the biggest shock of all comes from hearing the gentle, unassuming Dido finally acknowledge her commercial accomplishments: ‘I’ve done a hundred things / You’ve only dreamed’.

No matter how vanilla the songs may objectively be, the staggering success of Dido’s first two albums means her place in the pop history books is guaranteed. For the first time in a long time, Still On My Mind suggests she’s ready to use her platform in an interesting way.

 

Tove Lo is still out of control on “Lady Wood” – and she’s getting better at it

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Stream on Spotify | Buy on iTunes

Lady Wood, the latest release from Swedish pop export Tove Lo, is a two-part concept album detailing the stock millennial relationship’s salacious lifespan – how they transpire, dissolve, and (possibly) reanimate.

“Fairy Dust” is the hazy soundtrack to fresh lust gussied up as a genuine connection; “Fire Fade” tries to sweep the embers of said passion into something resembling order. Yet for all of Tove’s sexual liberation, these ten new tracks are musically conservative.

Lady Wood is proficient house-pop: the beats are icy and clipped, low-end synths seep like an ominous fog, and the hooks are almost entirely vocal-driven.

For much of “Influence”, the chorus production is so stark, you can practically feel Tove’s breath on your face as she purrs, “You know I’m under the influence / so don’t trust every word I say.” She’s less a less illusive character for the title track’s beautifully sincere come-on: “I know what people say about you / they say the same about me.”

A slick instrumental drop is never too far away,  but “True Disaster” scores points for building to a heavenly fastigium, with Tove groaning “Keep playing ’em, like…” into an electrical storm, apparently on the verge of orgasm. It’s a well-arranged climax, even if you see it coming the moment the track’s rather standard digital stutter whooshes in.

“Vibes”, a trippy duet with itchy-throated singer Joe Janiak, spices things up with some acoustic guitar, but you’re more likely to remember Janiak’s processed bleating.

Inspired by Gillian Flynn’s biting Gone Girl paradigm of female perfection, “Cool Girl” is the narrative’s most ‘balanced’ segment in terms of power. “I wanna be free like you” is Tove’s invitation to no-strings fun, highlighting her own independence and throwing down the gauntlet for any potential double standards.

The “I’m a cool girl / I’m-a / I’m-a / cool girl” hook loops around a oscillating bassline in hypnotic fashion, but Lady Wood‘s tempo rarely veers from moderate. That said, “Don’t Talk About It” is an R&B curveball, offering a tantalising idea of what Destiny’s Child might sound like in 2016.

“Keep It Simple” begins as a ballad with some hip sexting references, before launching into a moving rejection of intimacy with squidgy synths and a classic house diva refrain. It’s not quite the dance floor hymn it could have been, but Tove’s desperate cries of “I ain’t ready for ya!” jabs at a culpability in her own loneliness. 

Closing track “WTF Is Love” concludes with a bark of “Awh, FUCK! I need another.” Followed by the sound of a drink pouring, this final statement neatly trickles back into the “Fairy Dust” intro, ultimately positioning Lady Wood as a ceaseless bender. Two additional chapters are due next year, but don’t expect them to sound like a guilt-ridden hangover.

Tove’s ‘drug and sex-mad everywoman’ persona isn’t revolutionary, but it is notable for its lack of naivety. Within the space of a verse, her songwriting often acknowledges the apex and nadir of a single encounter. This approach doesn’t allow for breakthroughs or shameful epiphanies. Tove Lo is out of control by choice, and she’s getting better and better at it.

8.5/10

[Music] Grace Jones – Living My Life (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

Where Grace Jones breathed her brand of noirish pomposity into taut reggae reinterpretations and a handful of originals on her seminal 1981 album Nightclubbing, its follow-up and the final installment of her Compass Point trilogy Living My Life is a lighter and less self-conscious record.

Here, the sole cover is Melvin Van Peebles’ “The Apple Stretching”, which is sadly not a nod to New York’s contemporary population of unconvincing transvestite men, but instead a drowsy, largely spoken-word ode to the city itself.

You may feel shortchanged by the omission of the punk–tinged and thrillingly relevant title track, featuring a head-turning lyric more befitting the name of a memoir: “As much as I can / as black as I am!”. Written by Jones herself, its new wave thrash would’ve nonetheless have sounded incongruous among the album’s balmier productions.

There’s a reason the set’s first two tracks “My Jamaican Guy” and “Nipple to the Bottle” are the only ones to make it into Jones’ current live repertoire with any regularity. On first listen, the tracks that follow serve almost as B-sides to their precise yet transcendent structures.

It helps that both songs capture two very important sides of an albeit multifaceted personality – with its oft-sampled opening splashes of liquid-gold synth, “My Jamaican Guy” is pure stoned romanticism, while “Nipple to the Bottle” sports a vicious bite.

Were it not crammed with scintillating insights into Jones’ relationship with artist Jean Paul Goude, “Nipple” could be embraced by any oppressed minority. Over smacking drums and a scorched, wriggling beat reminiscent of “Pull Up to the Bumper”, her voice may only fleetingly scratch beneath the surface of her pain, but every steadfast protest of “I won’t give in, / and I won’t feel guilty!” is repeated by a mob seemingly on the front line of a coup.

Later, Jones lays down the gauntlet in spectacular fashion: “If I don’t give it, / how you gonna get it?”. By challenging a lover to get their kicks either by force or an outside party, Jones automatically puts herself in the right, and once again symbolises complete autonomy.

The hit single “My Jamaican Guy” is a different beast. That famous preamble is led by the hand, “Club Tropicana”-style, into the smokiest, most soulful fleapit Kingston has to offer, but Jones’ earworm songwriting holds its own against such an authentic sound. Her witty patois chorus features variations on the lyric “‘cause he’s laid back / not laying back”, and Grace lovingly describing her amour as never standing by the door / just stretching out pan de floor / that way him don’t fall over” is something only she would do.

Little else on the second half can match the modern appeal of these two tracks, nor is there anything as avant garde as “Private Life” or “I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango)” from 1980’s Warm Leatherette and Nightclubbing to be found.

“Everybody Hold Still” sails by on corny storytelling and a distracted vocal. Once again, an excitable choir is employed on the chorus, but the melody is ineffectual. More successful is “Cry Now – Laugh Later”, which spins such potentially bitter subjects as deportation and car hijackings into a celebratory groove, aided by funky organ-like keyboards and slo-mo guitar plucks.

R&B ballad “Inspiration” showcases Jones’ impeccable restraint as a vocalist, particularly on a soaring bridge that’s straight out of the Bowie CliffsNotes. Considering this would be Jones’ last release with creative soulmates Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare until 2008’s Hurricane, it’s the musical equivalent of posting an advert for a new svengali on CraigsList. Tucking lyrics like “I’m hoping to find a new source of information / I’ll step off the line / I’ve been searching for some inspiration” towards the album’s end is a poignant touch.

Despite its lack of truly shocking highs, Living My Life is a satisfying end to an iconic and game-changing trilogy. In a pop landscape where strict quality control can be something of a novelty, one might even wish that title track was on hand to add some grit. It would have stuck out like a sequined thumb, but then isn’t ostentatiousness what Grace Jones does best?

8.5/10

 

[Music] Jess Glynne – I Cry When I Laugh (review)

15-JessGlynne_ICryWhenILaugh_NoText_0Available to buy on iTunes

Review: While Adele drifts in hypersleep around the outskirts of our pop galaxy, the British public’s enthusiasm for Jess Glynne’s similarly husky tones suggests that a disco-driven return for the platinum-selling singer could be particularly lucrative.

At least that’s what Glynne seems to be banking on throughout her debut album I Cry When I Laugh. The quinoa-flavoured dance-pop of “Hold My Hand”, “Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself” and the Clean Bandit collaboration “Real Love” whizz by with a cheeriness that can be almost nauseating, but it’s difficult to fault their structures. Whether it’s a double-barreled chorus, rumbling choir or pirouetting piano stabs, each artifice is deployed with the utmost precision.

In an age when controversy seems to be the primary way of ushering fresh talent into the public consciousness, Glynne’s ascent has been a relatively quiet one. Yet the absence of a titanic personality is actually the album’s trump card. It’s refreshing to approach a record with no external drama to spoil or undermine a sense of relentless optimism that’s perceptible from the song titles alone.

The roller rink disco of “You Can Find Me” makes for a delightful standout. One could never describe Glynne’s delivery as fierce or even particularly charismatic, but she’s rarely less than engaging, and inside the track’s bubble of subtle synth, funky bass lines and soulful backing vocals, she casts a warm and enchanting presence. The clanking percussion and austere violin strokes of deluxe track “Home”, meanwhile, adds a much-needed variation in sound.

Glynne avoids an excess of guest stars; a wise move for an artist that’s credited as a feature artist on three out five of her number one singles. Still, the addition of a slushy Emeli Sandé duet entitled “Saddest Vanilla” shows she may be comically unaware of her own inoffensive persona.

More successful is “Take Me Home”, which excels within the narrow parameters set by the modern piano ballad.  It also seems destined to become a staple sing-a-long for those hoping to land a shag at the end of a night out – another mammoth achievement for Glynne in a career that’s been startlingly full of them.

6.5/10

[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] Nicki Minaj – The Pinkprint (review)

Niki Minaj

Available to buy on iTunes

Review: There was a delightfully abrasive moment during Nicki Minaj’s guest turn on Ciara’s 2014 single “I’m Out” where talk of “big fat titties when they’re hangin’ out my tank-top” unexpectedly scanned as an ideological move that only the Trinidadian rapper could make. There was nothing smart about the image the lyric created, while the slippery zaniness with which it was delivered rendered it deliberately unsexy. But with Minaj’s name now synonymous with the current hip-hop landscape, it seemed she had shrewdly adopted the cartoonish arrogance of buddies Lil Wayne, Kanye et al in a manner that was apathetic to their male gaze, with indecorous terms such as “fat” and “hanging” instead holding up a positive reflection of the wordsmith’s perceptible body image.

This crass and brazen expression of sexuality was somewhat built upon on “Anaconda”, the inescapable, Sir Mix-A-Lot-sampling summer hit that served as the The Pinkprint‘s second single. The difference this time was that everything about “Anaconda” – from its meme-magnet artwork to its risibly gratuitous video demanded both our attention and our approval. The track’s reliance on creeping guitar plucks and culturally-embedded lyrics derived from “Baby Got Back” was disappointing given the manic energy Minaj poured into verses that stand toe-to-toe with similarly globe-trotting accounts of sexual conquests in Afroman’s “Crazy Rap” and Lil Kim’s “How Many Licks”. The Pinkprint’s clever sequencing follows it up with the EDM headache “The Night Is Still Young”, allowing for an immediate comparison that narrowly spares “Anaconda” from being labeled the collection’s most reductive effort.

This conspicuous pair of chart-friendly contingency plans are undoubtedly the album’s nadir, as even despite additional smatterings of on-trend radio fodder – such as the “Dark Horse”-aping Dr. Luke production “Get On Your Knees”, boosted by a sensual vocal from hook girl Ariana Grande – The Pinkprint primarily divides its attention between introspective mid-tempo R&B and tough, focused exercises in trap-inflected hip-hop. It’s an occasionally jarring dichotomy, but the overarching quality of the music allows such sins to be forgiven. Giving credence to her alleged Enya inspiration, “All Things Go” and “I Lied” get things off to a slow, ethereal start, but the lack of posturing within Minaj’s sensitive verses is refreshing. The similarly styled “The Crying Game” has prickly rock undertones that help further animate Jessie Ware’s bizarrely uncredited turn on the song’s chorus.

On the ballsier half of the album, “Trini Dem Girls” proposes exoticism (“Jamaica dem girls gonna park the pum pum”) over a laudably colourless, handclap-heavy beat, “Four Door Aventador” casts a spell with its mumbled chorus and smoky atmosphere, while the pondering trap beat of third single “Only”, featuring Drake, Lil Wayne and Chris Brown, oscillates between mild interest and tedium depending on who’s on the mic. (Note: Both Drake and Lil Wayne are better utilised on the twerk-ready iTunes bonus track “Truffle Butter”.)

On The Pinkprint, Minaj has refined almost every branch of her musical output, with the notable exception of her adventures in EDM, which really should have been left to fester on 2010’s Roman Reloaded. Its quieter moments surpass the aural mush she peddled on her debut, while the lion’s share of the more overtly hip-hop tracks show a sense of conviction unseen since “Roman’s Revenge”. Our only gripe is with a title that stands as nothing more than a tip of the hat to Jay-Z‘s The Blueprint. Sure, every fingerprint may be unique, but shouldn’t a woman as talented as Minaj be looking to leave a bigger mark on the world?

8.5/10