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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.
‘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
Available to buy on iTunes
Review: From the mood board experimentalism of last year’s Northtown EP to the streetwise techno-house of his debut album Ratchet, the sheer consistency of Shamir Bailey’s output has launched the metaphorical ball squarely into the court of the public. Throw the twenty year old North Las Vegas native’s utopian persona and vibrant aesthetic into the equation and it becomes clear that the level of success Shamir achieves this era will be less dependent on the quality of his work than the willingness of the world at large to embrace a post-gender popstar.
Just as Shamir eschews the partitions that define gender and sexuality, Ratchet regularly blurs the line between consistency and repetitiveness. Over the course of ten tracks, Shamir and sensei Nick Sylvester, founder of New York-based label GODMODE, draw a fizzy bath of punchy but putty-like synth, recurring splashes of rattling cow bell and the singer’s own raw and androgynous timbre.
Cartoonish first single “On the Regular” marches steadfastly to the beat of its kick drum, even as an acidic storm of klaxons descends to offset the cuddly nuances of Shamir’s enjoyably cocky verse-spitting. The sauntering bassline of album highlight “In For the Kill” is accompanied by a whistling saxophone to hit a heady sweet spot, while “Make a Scene” spruces up the blasts of abrasive bleeps and nonchalant speak-singing of Northtown cut “If It Wasn’t True” to craft a laudable mission statement: “We’ve given up on all our dreams / So why not go out and make a scene?”
Only a fool would have bet against the presence of such playlist-friendly delicacies on Shamir’s debut LP, but Ratchet also flows disarmingly well as a cohesive aural narrative. Both the slow-cook opener “Vegas” and compassionate electro-ballad “Demon” peel layers off a character prone to confused and occasionally detrimental infatuations, be it with a hometown (“If you’re living in the city, are you already in hell?”), or a caustically codependent romance (“If I’m a demon, baby you’re the beast that made me / Falling from grace / but falling oh-so-gracefully”).
A video for second single “Call It Off” produced for the YouTube Music Awards introduced Shamir to a wider audience as a puppet avatar, a visual artifice typically favoured by pop’s less charismatic ciphers. It comes as a relief, then, that Ratchet’s apparent raison d’être is to communicate the opposite principle. Shamir is not merely the Tumblr-ordained poster boy for pansexuality, but the fully-formed protagonist of his own rainbow-hued movie. Whether or not the general public will join him on in his adventures should be of no concern for now. Shamir represents the future of pop music, and perhaps our responsibility as a society is simply to catch up with him.