[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

[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] 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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