Zara Larsson’s So Good: “Promising newcomer falls at the final hurdle”

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Zara Larsson and Rihanna share more than a cadence that’s catnip for radio.

Just like the Barbadian superstar circa 2006, Larsson holds immense promise, yet her international debut is at best a benign vessel for a half-dozen plastic-wrapped hits.

Last summer’s “Lush Life” is still a sticky party-starter with more choruses than sense. It’s also the best thing on So Good by far, and prefacing it with the feeble “What They Say”, a #motivational Instagram post set to music, is a telling cop-out.

A flexible singer, Larsson slings hooks like a sailor aboard everything from moody electro (MNEK duet “Never Forget You”), to schoolyard hip hop (“Ain’t My Fault”), to vogueing dance-pop (“I Would Like”). Aside from some killer singles, only “TG4M”’s dreamy tropical lilt really adds to her CV.

There’s never been a bigger gulf between title and song than on “Make That Money Girl”. That sassy name, along with the teenager’s unabashed feminism, suggests a banger for the ages, but its funereal beat is more befitting a documentary about sweatshop slavery.

Larsson has everything it takes to go A-list, but too often, So Good overlooks the spunky musicality that put her on the map. Drippy ballads like “Only You” and “One Mississippi” actively drain her charisma, and could be fronted by any Rihanna-lite ingenue.

Thank goodness then for Clean Bandit’s “Symphony” – a feel-good smash and vocal showcase that’s bought Team Larsson time to plan a crucial next move.

5.5/10

Grab some tissues and watch Clean Bandit’s self-directed “Symphony” clip below.

 

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

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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