Ariana Grande’s new album is sweet and sour

ariStream on Spotify

Score: 7/10

Add to library: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘God is a Woman’, ‘Breathin’

Sweetener is Ariana Grande’s fourth album, and it’s a bit soured by its over-reliance on Pharrell William’s dry, faux-funk beats. Considering the two hits pulled from the LP – ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ – are both Max Martin cuts, surely the writing was on that wall that something wasn’t quite working?

If Williams’ productions win critical acclaim, it will be from journalists on a tight schedule. His songs are interesting enough for a minute, but Pharrell soon depletes his sachet of tricks. Not that you’d notice if you’re prone to the skip button and have a glut of albums to review by midnight.

Fortunately, I have time on my hands.

The Nicki Minaj-assisted promo single ‘The Light is Coming’ is admirably mental island-tinged pop, full of white-hot percussion and digital grind – until you realise the irate male vocal sample has been looped without any plan or artistic intention. It’s as if Pharrell built a skeletal first draft in the studio, popped out for a coffee, and never came back.

Ariana keeps her end of the bargain on ‘Successful’, toasting to herself and womankind with slinky cool, but her effort is somewhat undone by cheesy groaning keyboards. ‘Borderline’ harkens back to The Neptunes’ early-00s album fillers, and I now understand Kelis’ decision to cease working with them exclusively in 2003.

To Pharrell’s credit, the Piña Colada-flavoured ‘Blazed’ and the dreamy goodness of ‘R.E.M’ are fully realised successes, and prove Ariana’s collaborative instincts weren’t too off-the-mark.

Electro slowies like ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight and Go’ offer pleasing restraint, but the first single ‘No Tears’ still towers over the album. Max Martin has crafted a daring piece of theatrical dance-pop here, as laden with UK garage as it is with heavenly wails.

This is Ariana’s first project since the terrorist attack at her concert at Manchester Arena last May tragically claimed 23 victims. In choosing the first single, Ariana and her team had to strike a delicate balance – uplifting but not glib, respectful but not in mourning. And they’ve passed with flying colours. It’s just a shame the rest of Sweetener doesn’t always hit the same sweet spot.

 

On new album “Witness”, Katy Perry works hard to earn attention

Katy Perry – Witness

It doesn’t matter where you were from,” Katy Perry told fans as she wound down her four-day Witness World Wide live-stream, “It matters what you grow into”. Considering she was born to Pentecostal pastors, Perry’s metamorphosis into the pin-up poster girl for the centre-left is one of pop’s most fascinating.

Perry won’t get the props she deserves for “Chained to the Rhythm” – whipping up woke-politics and rainbow reggae-disco to create a hit with a solid message. Lyrically, it’s a frown at individualism and a wink at social consciousness. Musically, it’s a fresh update of her sound.

Many will decry her album campaign’s narrative as divisive, but this being Katy Perry, Witness isn’t that complex. On “Chained…”, she spends half her time asking questions (“Are we tone-deaf?” – Katy, you in danger girl) and rhyming “bubble” with “trouble”.

Perry’s always been style-over-substance, and when you’ve got industry heavyweights (Max Martin, Mike Will Made It) and budding virtuosos (Jack Garrett, Purity Ring) on speed dial, that’s not a bad thing.

“Hey Hey Hey” is a feminist sandstorm with ropy lyrics delivered in a drunk-cheerleader drawl. It’s elevated by a grinding dubstep bassline and an up-yours appeal. Synthpop whizz-kids Purity Ring carve trance ballad “Bigger Than Me” – written after Hillary Clinton’s election defeat – like an ice sculpture.

From a distance, “Bigger Than Me”, “Swish Swish” featuring Nicki Minaj, and the unironically repetitive “Déjà Vu” echo the UK’s 2013 house revival. Of all the trends to draw from, it’s a durable one, but it does narrow the album’s commercial prospects.

Naturally, it’s when Perry does away with the flashy production that Witness really stumbles. The three ballads suffer from clunky phrasing (“I struggle / I juggle”), even when the choruses soar. That said, “Mind Maze” is a pristine take on The Knife circa Silent Shout, yet an utter bore melodically.

Witness occasionally excels in rethinking Perry’s creamy-tits brand of pop for 2017’s more subdued airwaves. “Tsunami” is a spongy bump-and-grind, making for a great one-two punch with the cherry-sweet banger “Bon Appétit”. “Roulette” spins the Tinder/Grindr experience (“I drop a pin to my location”) into an 80s-pop headrush.

Perry owes a debt to her guest stars, but the solo title track is a revelation. It’s the ideal intersection between her pop and ‘conscious’ selves – topping bubbling electronica and graceful piano with a hook of “Can I get a witness?” that begs for a response. As messy as Witness can be, songs like this show how Perry could conceivably earn one’s attention.

6.5/10

Blossoming girl group M.O serve up an R&B throwback on ‘Not In Love’

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Long before last year’s “Who Do You Think Of?” gave them a Top 20 hit, UK girl group M.O have been adamant about two things: that existing alongside Danish singer isn’t confusing for casual listeners, and that throwbacks to late 90’s/early 00’s R&B are in vogue.

Follow-up “Not In Love” has a dancehall flavour, and could’ve been an awkward single choice for the winter season. Wisely, clanking keys, skittering drum machines, and an ear-splitting chorus offset the warmth – so while the song is still danceable, it’s more of a vocal showcase than a toe-tapper.

Admittedly, this isn’t an excellent example of M.O’s angelic harmonies, and Nadine’s Melodyned hook occasionally clashes with the carefree arrangement. Although “Not In Love” and its lamé-hued video don’t do anything new, these girls still sing with a vigour that’s worthy of their influences.

‘Living My Life’ by Grace Jones is a satisfying end to an iconic trilogy

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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”, a drowsy, largely spoken-word ode to New York City.

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] 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] Florence + the Machine – What Kind Of Man (review)

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Available to buy on iTunes

“So you think that people who suffer together would be more connected than people who are content?”

Review: Challenging the cogency of a relationship based on penance, “What Kind Of Man” does little to advance the gothic chamber-pop sound of Florence + the Machine’s majestic – if at times exhaustingly cohesive – 2011 album Ceremonials, and is all the better for it.

The band’s decision to lead their third studio album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful with a more straightforward gospel-inspired pop-rock number may appear to be a bold move, but the dramatic bombast of their music has always had less to do with the production hallmarks slung by longtime collaborators such as Paul Epworth and Eg White – bewitching multi-tracked harmonies, cacophonous drums, probable abuse of the mixing desk’s “reverb” button – than it does with Florence Welch’s peerless voice. “What Kind Of Man” finds this voice as bellowing and as gutsy as ever, instantly giving the track an air of celestial hysteria that its jagged guitar and Will Gregory’s warm brass arrangements seem eager to avoid.

Like Rihanna’s “We Found Love”, the emotional impact of “What Kind Of Man” is similarly indebted to its video’s prologue, a touching snapshot of a couple ricocheting between carnal adoration and chilly indifference. The reluctance of Welch’s boyfriend to “intervene” with her night terrors reflects the principle of celebrated suffering that the song rages against in its ghostly extended intro: “So I’d reasoned I was drunk enough to deal with it / You were on the other side / Like always, you could never make up your mind”. This preamble soundtracks flashes of all they stand to lose (steamy sex, balcony-set kisses, romantic estrangement) amongst some cultish shenanigans that emphasise the sense of guilt, obligation and self-flagellation that stand as the main pillars of their relationship, culminating in the one-two punch of a car collision and grouchy guitar licks that may have you wishing that such a high-quality visual were for a better song.

“What Kind Of Man” is not a bad single by any means, but in ditching the dense production that embellished some of the band’s very best songs, it seems the intricate melodies of tracks like “No Light, No Light” and “Only If For A Night” (a Ceremonials cut so good that even Rihanna thinks it’s ripe for sampling) were also sacrificed, and as a result there is little to unpack upon subsequent listens. It is almost entirely down to Welch’s visceral delivery to elevate the track, and it is only her thickest rallying cries (such as her out-for-blood shriek of “What kind of man loves like this?”) that manage to leave much of an impression.

7.5/10

[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] All About She – Go Slow EP (review)

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Available as a free download from All About She’s Official Bandcamp

Review: We’re sure there’s a debate to be had over the validity of criticisms levelled at work an artist has chosen to give away for free. Those who believe music to be still worth paying for do so because they’ve come to equate a certain price tag with a certain standard of quality – take the fiscal aspect away, and who are we to expect a knockout product?

It’s a minefield we’re not compelled to enter here, as a quick listen to this buzz release from All About She sees the London neo-garage-house trio emerge practically unscathed. The title proves to be indicative of the six-track collection; Go Slow comes to life at a leisurely pace, as if waking up hung-over in a dew-drenched field. Neither “Remedy” or “I Can’t Wait” aim to replicate the high-octane thrill of their late 2013 hit “Higher (Free)”, driven instead by padded basslines and singer Vanya Taylor’s soft, inviting tone.

The latter breezes by with an appearance from Jacob Banks and lashings of a music box-styled xylophone, but it’s only on the thumping “All Night” that the party truly starts. It’s followed by “Happiness”, a dark, bare-bones bop in which in which Taylor emotes for the Gods, complete with a “No, no, no!” refrain that’s almost impossible not to waggle your index finger to.

The only conceivable obstacle facing All About She (which is also includes producers James Tadgell and John Clare) could be the repetition of flourishes – chiming instrumentals, lush if overused harmonies – that run not only throughout Go Slow but also Sasha Keable’s charming Black Book EP, which the group produced last year.

But for now All About She seem more than content with their identity. When a grizzled voice states “this is me” at the end of ambient come-down joint “C’est Moi”, concerns over this free EP’s worth seem redundant. You simply can’t buy this kind of self-assurance.

8.5/10

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[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#5 – #1)

5. Mutya Keisha Siobhan – Flatline, TBA

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Before being swallowed into an never-ending maelstrom of pushbacks and false starts, it seemed like the S.S. MKS was in pretty competent hands. The girls’ story – that of three girl group members who were each alienated from a once-credible British institution over a period of nine years – was as hipster-friendly a narrative as anybody who performed on CD:UK could ever hope for. A sly A&R team hooked the trio up with a clutch of hot-property producers including Sia, Naughty Boy, and Dev Hynes, who gained notoriety helming acclaimed tracks for Solange and Sky Ferreira. “Flatline” chases the sleek, disenchanted 80’s sound of 2012 favourites “Losing You” and “Everything Is Embarrassing”, but rather ironically lacks the sugary energy of either.

The opening lyric of “Don’t say it, no / Please wait till were sober” is delivered with a depressed choke by Siobhan Donaghy, whose own 2008 solo album “Ghosts” would be the most obvious reference point were it not also so obviously inspired by the work of Kate Bush. Hard, thundering drums and riotous male-led battle cries evoke memories of “Hounds of Love”, although it appears someone onboard was smart enough to corroborate “Flatline” against a checklist of the original line-up’s own idiosyncrasies. Mutya Buena’s gravelly tone and Donaghy’s verbose lyricism both make appearances, while Keisha Buchanan’s trademark adlibs draw a devastating break-up anthem to a strangely euphoric close.

4. St. Lucia – Elevate, When The Night

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This is St. Lucia’s second appearance on our list, and it’s a tribute to the South African-born musician’s range as a performer that he can just as easily put his name to a relentless  EDM banger such as  “Modern Hearts” as he does to more organic fare like this. That’s not to say “Elevate” is lacking in thrills; conversely, it’s something of an aural carnival. Gilded synths swirl like an ice cream van’s siren, while swathes of electronic fuzz aim to leave your head swimming. The ecstasy of the song’s production offers a distraction from the dark subject matter; “Elevate” is ostensibly a love letter to a rather tragic character. “No one / elevates you / elevates you, now”, St. Lucia (née John –Philip Grobler) belts throughout the song’s chorus, presumably to a loyal if despondent friend. It’s tempting to see the irony of such a lyric being used as such a soaring, undeniable hook, but perhaps that’s the point; sometimes a song isn’t enough.

Not that you’ll be focusing on subtext by the halfway mark. The real magic of “Elevate” comes with the arrival of a morbidly obese bassline, squalling trumpets and a barely intelligible chant that dominates the track’s denouement. If it sounds like a mess, let it be known that this flourish is achieved with a stupefying sense of elegance, resulting in a song as colourful, bittersweet and regrettably brief as life itself.

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[Music] Top 35 Tracks of 2013 (#35 – #21)

35. Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines [feat. Pharrell and T.I.], Blurred Lines

Available from iTunes

YouTube-Bans-RB-Singers-Video-+18-2As divisive as the track may be, it would be churlish to ignore Robin Thicke’s monstrously successful ode to dodgy dance floor-based ethics when summing up the last year in music. The presence of the currently infallible Pharrell Williams and a warm, Marvin Gaye-aping instrumental – not to mention a notoriously ‘stripped-back’ promo video – combined to create a heady cocktail that had punters checking their social consciousnesses at the door. For better or for worse, “Blurred Lines” is the sound of pure carnal lust left unspoiled by the pressures of political correctness.

34. Britney Spears – Work Bitch, Britney Jean

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It would seem the record-buying public didn’t appreciate the irony of being told to work harder by one of the laziest ladies in pop, which may explain their apathy towards the first offering from Spears’ eighth studio album, Britney Jean. Following the ubiquity of last year’s “Scream & Shout”, launching with a Will.i.am-penned banger was a no-brainer, but no one could anticipate that their reunion could yield a song as devoid of grey matter as “Work Bitch”. What the track lacks in brains, however, it makes up for with the strength of its steely balls. Eschewing any form of tangible structure, relying on only a hard, repetitive beat and Spears’ trademark British accent, the song feels as alien to the wants of radio as the woman singing it feels removed from the wants of the industry, and in that sense it makes for a fascinating listen.

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