[Music] “Three”: The Peak of Suga Mountain

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Pop – or rather, the perception of it – has come a long way since 2003. As a forum-frequenting witness to the feverish hostility between fans of the UK’s most prolific noughties girl groups, I appreciate that crowbarring Girls Aloud into a reappraisal of a Sugababes album may scan as a mammoth failure of imagination. But while it’s safe to assume that at gunpoint any pinhead could muster a joke about the Sugababes’s infamous line-up changes and the philosophical implications they present, there appears to be significantly less interest in the Freaky Friday-style swap that took place between the perceived credibility of each band by the end of their Top 40 tenures.

Sugababes began life as young counterparts to All Saints, with their remarkably cohesive but underrated debut One Touch setting the precedent for the adolescent trio; they were moody, despondent and reluctantly cool. One change in personnel and one triple-platinum album (2002’s Angels with Dirty Faces) later, and the ‘Babes were bona fide popstars with a skilfully retained edge over the talent show-assembled Girls Aloud. The addition of glossy Liverpudlian Heidi Range may have resulted in some welcome lad mag coverage, but the Sugababes were still ostensibly seen as credible and streetwise when compared to their nubile pop puppet rivals. This is despite the fact that each group’s launch – or in the Babes’s case, relaunch – hinged on the work of the same production team.

“Round Round” and “Sound of the Underground” remain alien to cliché, and both came courtesy of Xenomania. Even though their full-time musical avatars Girls Aloud could knock out a flamboyantly aggressive masterpiece like “Graffiti My Soul” by their sophomore album, the band’s tacky image, along with the singer / songwriter marketing angle the Babes established with the release of One Touch, allowed the latter to emerge as identifiably credible. But as we learnt during the risible busker-rock revival of 2005-07, credibility means zilch if you have nothing else to offer. There’s no doubt Range, Mutya Buena, and Keisha Buchanan had something special between them, and it was the Three era that distilled this in its most potent form.

Try our own mix of “Three” via Spotify.

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[Music] Ariana Grande – My Everything (review)

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Review: There’s a sizeable chance that when Rihanna giggled during Ariana Grande’s iHeartRadio performance this May, she did so without agenda. As Vine-friendly as the moment may have been, perhaps the chart veteran was simply struck by the similarities she shared with the pony-tailed ingénue making a serious play for the pop market before her. As Grande knocked out a rendition of her breakout hit “The Way” while wearing a black, long-sleeved jumper-dress, it seemed there was a fork in the road. The ex-Nickelodeon actress had been playing up her Lolita-like appeal since previewing an aborted cover for her debut that all but served her on a platter. If Grande was truly after a crack at superstardom, then that jumper-dress was coming off.

And off it came. Even less convincing than the Grande-does-Adele get-up was the vision of her gyrating awkwardly in a glitzy mini-dress and knee-length boots as the still-baffling excuse for a chorus of her summer smash “Problem” groaned on. From the most objective stand-point, there’s no denying that Grande lacks showmanship. But in its place she carries a sheen of stubborn professionalism, a trait previously glimpsed in a young Rihanna Fenty in 2007. Buoyed by only a barrage of hits, the faith of music execs, and a distinctive – if not exactly mammoth – talent, Rihanna was less of a Good Girl Gone Bad than a good investment returned as she gave charisma-free performances of unbelievably strong pop songs.

It’s now 2014, and Rihanna’s name has slowly come to mean something more than a signifier of a great tune. Whether or not Grande’s future output shrewdly moulds itself around a similarly compelling personal life is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt that we are witnessing a watershed moment in the 21-year-old’s career. My Everything has dreams of cohesiveness, being bookended by an intro and the title track, both featuring featherweight piano and string arrangements that pretend the Hot 100 pandering that occurs in the interim never happened.

But even on “Problem”, Grande is most notable for setting a fluttering higher register against not only Max Martin’s razor-edged horn loops and dry thumps, but also the posturing of Iggy Azalea’s guest verse. This lack of engagement could be her downfall in the long run, but there are spikes of genuine angst on “My Everything” and “One Last Time”, which, with its tear-stained tropical synths, is a sweetly bombastic re-write of Drake’s “Take Care”.

The album’s bountiful list of collaborators should throw up red flags, but an on-form Big Sean fits the chiming R&B ballad “Best Mistake” like a glove, while The Weeknd has fun as the R. Kelly to Grande’s Lady Gaga on the “Do What U Want”-aping Italo-disco stutter of “Love Me Harder”. “Break Your Heart Right Back” mixes a sunny Diana Ross sample with trap elements to create a hit so efficient that Grande and Childish Gambino seem equally at home on it, and although Zedd churns out a disappointingly stale EDM beat on “Break Free”, he in turn does his muse a massive favour; with no bells and whistles to contend with, Grande has rarely sounded like more of a star.

My Everything is unlikely to set the kind of trends that Rihanna’s ripening may have, but that voice – the range of which is best showcased on the Ryan Tedder ballad “Why Try”; with cotton-wrapped coos framing cloud-piercing trills – is reason enough to pay attention. This should only be the beginning; if this really is Grande’s “everything”, then it’s time she broadened her horizons.

6.0/10

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[Music] Katy B – Little Red (review)

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Available to buy from iTunes.

Review: “I just can’t blend in…” Katy B laments as Little Red begins to wind down; a dangerous statement to make considering even her biggest fans would struggle to label the chirpy Brixtonian as an extrovert. One of the most refreshing things about her 2011 debut On a Mission was how she reclaimed partying for the people, breaking down the myriad emotions of a night out over racy house beats in a way that only a quasi-wallflower could. In an interview with The Quietus back in February, Katy explained the fate of “Hot Like Fire” – a sexy, raucous blast of attitude that positions the usually modest singer in a whole new light. But her account rather ironically paints her as disappointingly passive; apparently Geeneus, her producer and co-manager, was “unhappy with his bassline. Or something.” And so a potential game-changer festers on the deluxe edition.

Katy’s loyalty to the Rinse FM honcho is understandable; his continued guidance has yielded a cleaner, more well-oiled machine than her debut. Singles “5 AM” and “Crying for No Reason” showcase the album’s duality of dancefloor-ready bangers and gusty, synth-laden balladry. Katy once again thrives on tracks driven by intimate, often internalised scenarios. Jessie Ware joins her in confronting a DJ boyfriend’s temptress on “Aaliyah”, “5 AM” examines a post-party panic attack, while the clattering anxiety of “All My Lovin’” retraces those final steps towards an all-consuming desire.

The success of “Crying…” has most likely led to a mellower record than originally planned, but in a manner appropriate for a record once plagued by pushbacks and an aborted lead single, Little Red rewards perseverance. Both the greasy, hi-hat-heavy slog of “I Like You” and the aimless clipped beats of “Sapphire Blue” explode in their final stretches. In the latter, Katy takes a potentially banal breakdown (“No more walls / No more doors / No more windows / No more floors”) and sells it with a passion unheard of from her contemporaries. Whatever she may lack in showmanship, Katy more than makes for in her ability to transform what once bordered on filler material into an album highlight. Little Red deserves to be massive.

8.5/10

[Music] Kelis – FOOD (review)

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Available to buy from April 21st on Ninja Tune Records.

Of all the noughties R&B divas to pre-empt every misogynist’s favourite punchline and get back in the kitchen, Kelis Rogers seemed the most unlikely. Alas, fifteen years on from her debut single “Caught Out There” becoming a neo-feminist anthem, FOOD sees Kelis don the persona of a soulful hausfrau. On “Floyd”, a shoegazer in the spirit of The Dark Side of the Moon’s more downtempo moments, we find her at her most co-dependent: “Sure I’m self-sufficient / Blah blah, independent / Truthfully I got some space I want that man fillin’.” More than a renouncement of her autonomy, Kelis’s sixth record is instead a celebration of our most carnal instincts, which she kindly boils down to fucking and dining over the course of thirteen tracks.

The record kicks off with a triptych of sunny, well-meaning mashes of soul-driven funk – including last year’s “Jerk Ribs”, which still shimmers like a lost Jackson 5 classic – but these are almost a clearing of the throat. The album’s latter half treks far more interesting terrain: “Change” mixes “White Rabbit”-esque brooding with James Bond-theme theatrics, the tidy piano riff of “Biscuits’n’Gravy” is interrupted by a rousing horn section, while “Rumble”’s one-line chorus (“I’m so glad you gave back my keys”) and balmy atmosphere demonstrates a serious progression from the senseless post-break-up rage of “Caught Out There”.

Dave Sitek’s warm, honeyed (if occasionally identikit) production fits Kelis’s voice like an oven-mitt. She’s offered far more room to experiment than on her 2010 dance album Flesh Tone, particularly on “Cobbler”, where the usually demure singer breaks into an impassioned operatic falsetto. And while the encompassing food theme does seem a bit arbitrary, big-band showstoppers “Cobbler” and “Fish Fry” both pop like hot oil.

7/10

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[Music] Katy Perry – PRISM (review)

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You remember Teenage Dream, right? No, not the singular pitch-perfect exercise in sleek, radio-friendly pop-rock that topped charts worldwide. Nor am I even referring to the album of the same name. Katy Perry’s sophomore effort can only be discussed in terms of its campaign, a seemingly interminable but ultimately enjoyable stretch of twenty-six months, encompassing five Billboard number ones, a sell-out tour and the not entirely vomit-inducing documentary “Katy Perry: Part of Me”. The album itself may have been textbook example of cynical hit-chasing, but one thing the era couldn’t be accused of was a lack of conviction from Perry herself. Whether shooting cream from her breasts, attempting laughably high notes or trying to out-Gaga Gaga when even the Lady herself knew her ‘wacky’ style was becoming passé, she did it all with a knowing wink and a cheesy grin.

That this steely façade should show signs of degeneration on Perry’s third effort is one of the record’s most pleasant surprises. Make no mistake – PRISM is a purpose-built set, designed to keep Perry on top of the charts while simultaneously laying down the infrastructure to bring her back to her roots as a quasi-credible singer/songwriter. The album houses a plethora of hits, most of which breeze by with unexpectedly nuanced production from pop mob bosses Dr. Luke and Max Martin. There are inevitably a few ‘emergency button’ singles should things turn sour – “This Is How We Do” bumbles along like a Ke$ha track on valium, while “International Smile”, with its skittish guitar riff and fizzy synths, could’ve been ripped straight from Teenage Dream – but Perry’s strained, passionless delivery gives you hope that she’s over this brand of cookie-cutter  pop.

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